OK, that’s not the way the saying goes, so for those who won’t know to Google it, the line’s, “There are no small parts only small actors.” In college the line as coined by one of the student directors was, “There are no small parts only…” It might be unkind to mention that actor’s name. He was very good but also very short. No, the saying is supposed to tell us that it’s what we do with our time on stage not how much time we get or how important the character is perceived. Anyone appearing in a crowd scene, in the ensemble, what we once called chorus in a simpler time, could throw off the focus by drawing too much attention. Romeo and Juliet is no more a story about an Apothecary than Yeoman of the Guard, about a Headsman and neither Boheme nor Rent about a Landlord. When we actors essay such roles we may find some fun back-story to keep us in our moments and I guess a Method No, No Nanette might be a rewarding experience, for the cast anyway, but for me I’ll take the paycheck.
Some time back at a national cattle call—I do miss the NDTA—a gentleman came over and introduced himself. The owner/producer of a dinner theatre, he’d seen me at other calls and thanked me for always sending a “thanks for your time” postcard after each audition. He’d always asked for PR but not a callback. He thanked me for sending postcards when I got a gig to let him know I was working. FYI, yours truly was the picture on the postcard. “I haven’t had anything for you and I don’t this season, but I know I will so please keep reminding me you’re out there.” It paid off.
Jump up a few years and I was driving to his Midwest theatre from base camp in New England for a gig. It was a fun road trip and the cast more than welcoming to me. We shared a house in a family neighborhood just a few blocks from the theatre and everything was within an easy walk. I played two roles, the heroine’s father who got shot in the first act finale then a drunken judge in the second act. The pay? Good dinner theatre money and when we had extra performances added to our unusually short show schedule we got good money on top of it. With a few weeks left to go the producer wanted to talk to me about the next show, The Sound of Music: Yes!
Since I was a child I’ve wanted to play Max. I was so excited to get my chance at the role, especially when his duet and trio would be pared but not cut. I was swift up the stairs to his office behind the balcony…well it was a few years ago. I was eager to talk. The offer? Franz… OK, lift sunken heart from the bottom of gut and act cool. “And I’ll give you the same money you’re getting now to stay on. I’d like to have an actor there not just a body,” he said. “Same money?” I thought. “I’d love to,” I said. I did and don’t regret it for a moment. What else is a professional actor anyway? One who gets paid to do a job, to act on a stage and do it as well as he can.
It was fun, truth, be told. I shared a dressing room with the double cast von Trapp sons and the boss who, along with directing, played an Austrian nobleman and a Nazi admiral. The lads were good guys. About working with children another time, but glad to say I’m still in touch with one of them. He’s due to enter college next fall term. I also found that seeing things done for me in other venues and on the road, I had an eye for how to preset the wings for what needed to go on for the next scene and how to put away what came off for future use in that performance or get out of the way for the next. Hey, it was non-Eq and we all pitched in. I even got to work the fly system. It passed the time and sure, I could have passed it in the dressing room working through a book of NY Times crossword puzzles if I’d been under ideal conditions doing the same role but by two weeks into the run I could do both.
Another place with the part-to-paycheck ratio being a good example is a dinner theatre in a different state than the previous paragraphs. I’ve worked there several times and may or may not again. They only have to ask. For out of town actors cast in NYC the money is the same no matter the role. You can be the leading man, the leading lady, an ensemble actor playing lots of roles and moving lots of sets or the character man jobber who has but a few scenes and whose tech is confined to making sure certain cables aren’t run over by said sets and it’s the same money. With the exception of what that pay figure is, it sure works for me.
One show I wanted to wear a costume piece from the moment it was revealed in a sight gag through as many scenes as I could get away with. The director went for it but the producer did not. I had a question about losing the piece for my director. I asked how, not why. We’d had a rehearsal paycheck by then so that was all the motivation this actor required.
I’m thinking of a young colleague, a friend who’s become like a son to me and he’s a real veteran of the place. He was doing an ensemble/featured role when we first worked together. He’s been back there for a few leads since and he’s auditioned for a lot more leads and ended up taking ensemble roles anyway. Why? It’s the same money! Remember that work is work is work. He’s a bright lad. He’s also become even better as one hell of an actor, singer and dancer. His dancing improved thanks to taking the ensemble roles. Leads can get away with not being the best dancers. I’ve had many a number staged around me and my two left feet. But he’s going to shine, soaring all the more when he gets leads down the line because he took the work, learned and keeps working and learning. Work to keep working and work to keep at what you need to keep tuned. Experience is a great classroom, grad school and tuner of talent. So you’re not at the end of the curtain call, big deal. Doing it for that paycheck can be a living and that sure beats honest work.