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Jon Dryden Taylor: Is it easier to play the lead than a small part?

Jon Dryden Taylor (top) in A Tale Of Two Cities at the Royal and Derngate
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A couple of years ago, I went on as a last-minute cover in a principal role at the National Theatre. Sitting in the wings between scenes, the nerves abating, I found myself relishing the chance to take a breather rather than tearing from wing to wing changing costumes, or watching long scenes from upstage, as I did on my usual track. It was at that point that a surprising thought crept into my head. ‘Is this… is this easier?’

Like a lot of actors, I’ve tended to play bigger parts in smaller theatres and smaller parts in bigger ones. Having had the opportunity to compare the experiences, I’ve come to think that playing small parts is, if not actually more difficult, as challenging in its own way, as playing a big juicy lead.

First of all, you have no wiggle room. I’ve given performances of principal roles where, for whatever reason, I’ve not quite been on it at the start. That’s fine if you’ve got another two hours of stage time to find your performance: but if your whole part is over and done in a couple of minutes, you’d better be ready.

We often meet smaller characters at moments of total crisis. The man at the back desk of the office who gets suddenly sacked, the desperate war widow trying to get answers, or – a part I’ve played – the peasant father in A Tale of Two Cities who witnesses, processes, grieves for and avenges his child’s death within about three pages. You have to jump straight off the top board in a part like that. There’s no easing yourself in with a bit of dialogue about putting the kettle on.

Then there’s the other kind of small part – the ‘acting is reacting’ part. How often, in normal life, do we stand around for 40 minutes listening to other people without saying a word, but clearly showing how we feel?

It’s easy for an audience to get a handle on who you are when you’ve got a speech to tell them, but for the guy upstage right trying to do something more than Listening Face Number One (slightly furrowed brow, narrowed eyes, maybe the mouth slightly open to indicate thought process) it’s a tougher prospect.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that playing a big lead is a walk in the park. I’m perfectly well aware that when I played, say, Cornwall’s Servant I was infinitely less drained than Simon Russell Beale, our Lear, was by the end of the show.

But next time you see a big group scene, spare a thought for the people at the back. They’ve usually had to come up with their own journey because it’s not really their place to ask too many questions. Their decisions can be summarily chopped or altered by the director because, in the final analysis, they’re not hugely important, and they only have one or two shots at showing you what they can do.

“There are no small parts, only small actors,” Stanislavski said. Maybe we should update it to: “Small part? Big challenge.”

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