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From the Green Room: Small Parts, Small Actors

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As the old canard has it, there are no small parts, only small actors. Recent experience suggests that it would be more truthful to say there are indeed small parts and small actors aplenty to fill them, complaining all the while.

Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which I find myself one such small actor playing one such small part, offers a case in point. While the play has some of the great acting roles in the contemporary American theater, it also has some real stinkers. Included in the cast are a cadre of servants who are little more than walk-ons, a gaggle of no-necked children, Dr. Baugh, and the esteemed Reverend Tooker, the small part for this small actor. Williams, if nothing else, provides a lot of work for actors.Tennessee Williams

Now, for a professional actor even a small part, is a payday. It may do little for the ego, but it does put food on the table. I would imagine that Maxwell Glanville who played the servant Lacey and Fred Stewart who was the original Rev. Tooker were just as thrilled to get their paychecks as Burl Ives, Ben Gazzara, and Barbara Bel Geddes. Of course Burl, Ben, and Barbara got the plums as well, but half a loaf is worth something.

With the economics of the theater today, however, there are few, if any, new plays—straight plays especially—likely to be produced professionally that require these kinds of small parts. Equity actors don’t come cheap. It is not the typical theater that can afford to cast even classic dramas like Our Town, neglected relics like Camino Real, let alone produce a new work with a cast of thousands. Non-profits may be, but don’t look for them on the Great White Way. On Broadway, you’re more likely to see a show with a cast of two than you are with a cast even the size of Death of a Salesman‘s.

If a paycheck is at least incentive for the professional actor, what is the incentive for the amateur? Take Rev. Tooker. He first appears in Act I. He is playing croquet with Doc Baugh. They have a few lines about the game as a kind of background for Maggies’ plaints about life with Brick on that hot tin roof. He is, unfortunately for the actor, offstage.

He appears again at the beginning of Act ll, provoking Big Daddy with his prattle with Gooper about memorial gifts. He has his big moment in the play when Big Mama pulls him on her lap and leaves the stage in embarrassment when Big Daddy begins to make sexual remarks. He is back before the end of the act sheepishly looking for the gentleman’s lavatory. In the third act he stands around for awhile as the truth about Big Daddy’s cancer is detailed, and quickly gets out of the way.

It is not that he has no function in the play. Like Maggie, Gooper, and Mae, he is, on a lesser level, another leech—or in his case a gnat—looking to suck a little blood out of the dying man. He has a moment of comic relief.

The role may be better than a walk-on, but it really offers little for the actor and adds little to the drama that couldn’t have been done in some other way. Indeed, you have to wonder what difference it would make if he were eliminated entirely. Were Williams writing today, I have no doubt he would have found a way to get rid of the good reverend, and he would be right to do so. Certainly there are small parts that offer the actor a moment on stage that has creative possibilities. I think of the Professor in Our Town, Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, even the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie. These are the roles where the actors may be small, but the roles aren’t. Rev. Tooker is a small role, just right for a smallest of actors.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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About Jack Goodstein

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