There are no small parts, only small actors

With Hamlet over and a little time to look back and reflect, the famous Stanislavski saying “there are no small parts, only small actors” seems a fitting phrase to sum up my experience on this show.

Original concept artwork for Hamlet by Jackson Davies
Original concept artwork for Hamlet by Jackson Davies

Playing a female Rosencrantz, this was a smaller part than in my last two shows, which comes with its ups and downs. An up is that there’s naturally less lines to learn (show me one actor who actually likes learning lines!). A down is that you get less stage time, and thus less time to establish your character for the audience.

In Being an Actor, Simon Callow puts it perfectly:

“It’s as often as not the graph of the part which makes it difficult to play, not the emotions called for. Moreover, a small part is always harder to play than a large one. You have so much less time to make your points, and every moment has to count…”

With a leading part, the audience sees so much more of you, and you have all this time to show them who your character is. With Rosencrantz, I often only had moments in which to clearly communicate the wants, needs, hopes, fears and general personality of her.

Along similar lines, something I found a challenge when tackling the emotionally charged scene in which Guildenstern dies (we had his death happen on stage, but not mine), was coming almost dry on to the stage. I had a decent gap between the previous scene and this one, giving enough time for the energy developed on stage to wane and the flow of the part be disrupted, the voice to close up and the limbs to tighten.

Again, Mr Callow has the right words:

“Your instrument, too, has to be warmed up the moment you hit the stage, whereas any leading role contains its own warming up.”

Of course there is always the option of doing multiple cartwheels backstage while humming the ave maria, but this can be terribly distracting for both the audience and those actors already on stage.

The key is to make your character seem “to have a life before and a life after”, to borrow more of Callow’s words. (I really do recommend reading Being an Actor. I’ve not read anything else so far that illustrates the actor’s life and mindset so eloquently.) With a smaller part, this can mean using the tools of the method actor and spending the whole time backstage in character.

The evening I gave my best performance, I kept some elements of Rosencrantz flowing through me during my time backstage, and a little while before the big emotional scene I sat alone in a corner, closed my eyes, and began to slip into her state of mind at that point in the play. I come on stage holding a phone to my ear, listening to Claudius telling us to kill Hamlet, so I handled the phone, associating all that horror at killing an old friend with this piece of plastic and metal, until it felt like lead in my hands. By the time I walked on stage the fear was real, and within moments the tears were flowing.

So this production, while being a lot of fun and a great show to be a part of, has also given me a new-found respect for those actors in a cast playing the smaller, yet still essential, roles. To do it well, their job is a very hard one indeed.

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