There Are No Small Actors

There are no small parts, only small actors. – Constantin Stanislawski

It’s a famous phrase in theatre, and we know its truth. In a stageplay, television show, or movie, roles that are small in terms of lines or screen time can be integral to the plot. Or they can provide an opportunity for an unknown rising star to steal the scene. Or allow an all-time great to remind us all why they are considered great.

LEGO Hamlet
Alas, poor Yorick!

Boba Fett speaks only a few lines in the original Star Wars trilogy, yet became one of best-loved characters of the films. In Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins needed only 16 minutes (out of a 2-hour-long movie) to win Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance. With the right actor, in the right role, a few minutes, a handful of words, are all that’s needed for magic to happen.

The saying is often spoken to actors disappointed with their role, and it’s meant to encourage them to invest in what they have been given. Having only a few lines doesn’t give you an excuse to slack off. When I was ten or eleven, I was cast in a church youth group’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I had a very small role, with only two lines in the entire show. During one of our performances, another kid sat in my seat by mistake during a scene. While I was arguing with him under my breath, trying to get him to move, my cue came and went. An older kid covered for me, supplying my line at the right moment, and I spent the rest of the show in red-faced silence. This wasn’t Olivier flubbing a Shakespearean soliloquey, but it was a pretty good indication why I wasn’t given a larger role.

Is it also true in our work and daily lives that there are no small roles, only small actors? Certainly, some people receive far more attention for what they do on the job than others. Athletes often take criticism for what they say during post-game interviews, but imagine you had to speak to a room of reporters at the end of every work day. You’ve just made a big presentation at work, or lost an important sale, or screwed up someone’s order, and – minutes later – twenty or thirty reporters are asking you, “What was going through your head when you gave Mrs. Jones the Diet Coke instead of the Coke Zero?” The star shortstop is grilled after every game, and his comments appear on every sports blog and Twitter stream within minutes. No one cares what the ball boy has to say, even if he turned in a brilliant day of work.

Some people also have more obvious influence than others. Influence can be hard to define, so I like to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” If I make a stupid decision at work, the worst case scenario is, usually, that I could get fired. No one’s going to write a history book called “Mike’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day at the Office.” If the President of the United States makes a dumb decision, however – well, the worst case scenario becomes much, much worse when nuclear weapons are involved.

Unlike the movies, though, we all have the same amount of “screen time.” We all have the same 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, in which to perform our roles. In a movie, a minor character who is off-screen essentially ceases to exist when his role is over. In Austin Powers, a brief scene features one of Dr. Evil’s nameless henchmen, run over by a steamroller in the middle of a fight. The movie cuts away to show his wife and stepson learning the news of Steve the henchman’s death. In a single moment, the nameless henchman is given a name, a life, a history, and we see a glimpse of the impact that his death will have on others.

The scene reveals the absurdity of the action movie trope of the disposable “nameless henchman.” In real life, there’s no such thing: everyone has a name, and no one is disposable. Even if we aren’t the best paid, most visible, or highest ranking person in our company, we matter a great deal to someone, and the everyday moments of our lives hold great importance, even if no one but God sees them.

Stanislawski, by declaring “there are no small roles,” was emphasizing the importance of every aspect of the theatre: no role is so small that it can be ignored. In this project, I want to advocate a different premise. There are no small actors. Each of us has an immense value as a person, far in excess of what we might imagine, and it has nothing to do with the role we play in life or the job we hold (or lose) at our company.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. – C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

This blog will focus on those of us who feel like we’re playing a small role in the drama of life, who wonder if Stanislawski was right when we said that there are small actors. How do we find meaning in our lives and in our work when they feel unimportant, unappreciated, even invisible to everyone but ourselves? How do we learn to see we are not ordinary, that neither we nor our roles are small?

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