Thursday, February 21, 2013

Small Roles

Tomorrow night is the formal public opening of the university's new Center for the Performing Arts, a $38 million dollar building that now houses NMSU's art history and theatre departments, as well as a new proscenium theatre with an up-to-date fly system. 

It will also be the opening night performance of American Southwest Theatre Company's first production in its new space: Thornton Wilder's play Our Town.  The cast includes theatre majors at NMSU, a few professors at the university, and several actors from the Las Cruces area.  Although Las Cruces is a much bigger city than the fanciful Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, our ensemble has the feel of a locally-based community which suits the play well. 

In the show, I play Joe Stoddard, one of the play's many secondary characters.  Stoddard is the town's undertaker, who appears in Act III for a short expository scene that segues into the play's conclusion.  Although I have been at rehearsal for many hours, in this show I have less stage time, less to memorize, and consequently this show has not been as laborious as some other recent projects, although I have been called at rehearsals along with the rest of the cast.

A director with whom I have worked locally has on more than one occasion expressed consolation and a certain umbrage on my behalf, over the fact that I play a small role in this show.  It had not occurred to me that I would feel insulted about this. 

For one thing, my age range is 35-45, and most of the primary characters in Our Town are either younger or older.  The major role in this play is the Stage Manager, who could be any age but is often played by older actors.  (In our production, the role is played by a well-known local actor and retired professor, Richard Rundell; and he truly looks and sounds as if he were born for the role.)  For a male actor in my age range, this leaves the secondary characters: Simon Stimson, Constable Warren, et al.  Or, in my case, Joe Stoddard.  Why not?

The cliche statement that "there are no small roles, only small actors" (or something like that) doesn't really make sense to me.  There are small roles, and they are necessary.  Our Town is loaded with them.  I won't even begin to list the great plays that are populated with small, yet vital, roles.  Playing a small role in a good play is nothing to be ashamed of.  I am happy to do it.

Growing up watching plays at Trinity Rep in Providence, I saw some terrific actors from that resident company -- including some actors who became rather well known in film and television -- take turns playing lead roles and small ensemble roles.  Granted, one can argue that they were working under Equity contracts and getting paid well for those small roles.  True enough, but I honestly believe this was not the only reward for them.  I was well paid when I worked at Trinity (one of the proudest periods of my life), and yet I remember My Fair Lady (in which I did little more than sing and dance in the chorus) as fondly and proudly as a show like Saint Joan where I was much more prominent. 

The satisfaction of being in a really tight ensemble doing good work in a successful show is deeper and broader than the fleeting thrill of personal attention.  If this work is all about you, the work is never satisfying for long. 

I hope all my friends come and see this show.  You'll catch a glimpse of me but more importantly you'll see some high-quality theatre and a lot of hard-working local actors, both professional and amateur.  A splendid evening awaits you and I also believe this new take on a familiar play will give you much to talk about. 

[Image: Entrance to the new performing arts center at University and Espina.]

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