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What to do if you really hate your part.

July 23, 2012

Hello M’colleagues,

Today is the beginning of the final week for the theatre festival I’ve been working for this summer.  We will do each show two more times (six shows in total for me, as I am in three of the four mainstages in alternating rep), close on Sunday, spend two days striking, and by next Wednesday I’ll be back home  and wondering what in God’s name I’m supposed to do now.  I’m not looking forward to the existential crisis that comes with a show ending without another job lined up, but I am looking forward to returning to familiar surroundings, friends, and getting back in the swing of things professionally.  I’m also looking forward to returning to a schedule that allots for movie musical viewing and reviewing.  But until then, I’m still writing about my experiences from this summer, and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.  Something I struggled with throughout rehearsals was a problem all actors have all experienced at some time (and if you haven’t yet, just you wait).  Namely, I was cast in a part I really did not like.

It’s important to say immediately and with great seriousness that if you are ever offered a role that you hate, you always have the option to turn it down.  If you accept and then later regret that choice to the max, you can always quit.  These options are always available to you.  Always.  Many actors think they have to accept something simply because they have nothing else going on for themselves at the time.  But the fact of the matter is, if you really don’t want to do something and it’s not required by law, you probably shouldn’t do it.  When an actor feels forced into a role, they are not grateful to be in the rehearsal room–they are pissed off.  I don’t recommend being that actor.  And why put yourself through so much turmoil?  As someone who can say without a doubt that they have worked on pieces of theatre they really wish they hadn’t, I will tell you it is not worth it.

Knowing that quitting is always an option should be empowering.  It means you are establishing a standard of work for yourself.  You don’t have to accept just anything, you don’t have to audition for just anything.  You can focus on what you want and pursue it.  But now, let’s say you find yourself in a situation where you feel like there is no way you can quit.  For instance, you have been cast in a season of shows (like I was), and you like all of your parts except one (like I did).  But you can’t quit that show, because then you’d have to forfeit your job completely, losing the rest of the season when going to pull out the thorn in your side (like I would have).  It’s not worth it to do this.  If you eliminate quitting as an option, then you need to find a way to love the part instead of despising it.  Start off by looking at why you hate the part to begin with.

I find that hatred of roles usually manifest in three awful little ideas:

  1. The part is too small.
  2. I don’t know this person.
  3. I don’t like this person.

We all get why people hate playing small roles.  We don’t get noticed by the audience as much, we don’t get the big aria speeches, we don’t have enough to do to feel engaged and challenged by the play.  The experience feels unrewarding.  We take for granted in these moments why the playwright would include our character to begin with.  A good playwright is usually wise enough to not clutter the stage up with unnecessary bodies.  If a character is on stage, it is there to help serve the story, to reinforce the theme or message that the writer is trying to put across.  For smaller roles (and they do exist, despite what the optimists say), it’s important to look at their functionality within the play: Do they hold key information?  Do they influence a lead character by how they address them?  Seeing what the character does in the context of the structure of the play will show the actor why that person is necessary to the story.  And if they weren’t necessary, they wouldn’t be on stage.  Take heart, and be assured that your part is there for a reason.  Know that reason, and showcase it.

The second lament of “not knowing a character,” is almost forgivable.  Perhaps you are cast in a role that you just don’t understand because you have never met anyone like this character before in your life.  The dialogue is beyond something you would never say–you don’t know anyone who would say it.  Again, trust the text.  This character was real to the playwright, otherwise they couldn’t have created this person.  Ask the director for assistance–they will be able to give you a sense of the character, and especially a sense of the character in this production.  If the playwright is available, see if they’ll be able to give you some insight on the role.  Look at the given circumstances of the play, and do outside research around those circumstances to help you understand the world the character has to function within–their surroundings may help explain why they do what they do.  And of course, look for any similarities you may share with the character.  There is always something there.  Don’t take these similarities for granted–take stock and accept them for what they are, warts and all.  The points of intersection between you and your character will ultimately help ground any performance in an area of relatability for any audience–no matter how far out there the role may seem at the initial reading.

Finding common ground with your character is also important when they perform actions you disagree with.  Say you play a mass murderer and have a real problem with violence.  You hate people who embrace this sort of action, and so you find the character morally reprehensible.  What do you do?  Well, first: stop judging the character.  They are a work of fiction–even if they are based on a real person, this expression of that person is fiction–and who they are is not who you are.  Take comfort in that knowledge and then get down to work.  Observe your character with sympathy, see what may be lacking in their life to cause them to act in such a seemingly disagreeable manner.  All actions ultimately come from a place of need.  If you can identify that need, then you can justify and play the action required.  That’s all you have to do.  Just that.

Playing a character who does things you could never see yourself doing doesn’t make you bad or unlikable.  Unfortunately, many actors get distraught by having to play disagreeable roles because of the fear of being associated with a morality they themselves do not subscribe to.  But if this is the case, then isn’t it an even more amazing challenge to play a character so far away from your own ideals to their own full integrity?  You’re a better actor to be able to accomplish that, than to simply disapprove of what your character does and let your work be lack luster because you don’t agree with those choices and therefore refuse to perform them whole heartedly.

Worrying about the size of a role is superficial, while not knowing or not liking a character simply means you need to investigate  more with an open mind.  However, to stop at any of these misgivings and immediately dismiss your role is an all-too-easy trap that many actors fall into.  You can never dismiss your character.  If you do, you will ultimately write off all of the work you have already done, and any of the work that you may have left to discover.

I was cast in a role this summer that at the on set I was intimidated by.  I had never encountered dialogue like hers before, and I was a little overwhelmed about how to maneuver within it.  Then I also didn’t like the part: she was essentially a glorified messenger.  Who would care about her?  I certainly didn’t.  She annoyed me.  I dreaded going to rehearsals because I was perpetually unprepared, since I would literally look for other things to do besides work on the part.  I wracked myself over the role, even cried every now and then over the damned futility of tackling something that I didn’t feel showcased me, and didn’t appear to be a real person.  One day while pondering my plight I realized the problem with my process wasn’t the part.  It was me.  I wanted the character to be somebody other than she was.  But she wasn’t going to change–the play was not going to change.  I also realized that by denigrating the role I was also denigrating myself, allowing for the feeling that my work wasn’t important enough to be taken seriously because of my role and vice-versa.  I was the only one looking like an ass by doing this–it wasn’t the character’s fault, but my judgmental state of mind.

I began to apply myself, began to do the work I should have been attempting in the first place.  Slowly I began to find parts of the character that I enjoyed, that made me laugh.  Many of the things that confused me about her speech patterns I came to realize I do quite naturally.  I just hadn’t bothered to really notice.  Once I made myself available to knowing the character, I found liking her came easily.  I had to get past myself enough to do this.  I also felt better about her because I knew I was putting the work in, coming to rehearsal with something to play with.  Perhaps roles we initially dislike appear even more daunting because of the necessary effort my must make to arrive at a place of peace with them.  But how much richer our art is when we do that kind of work.

Have you ever performed a role you HATED?  What were the factors that made it difficult?  How did you handle it?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2012 9:20 am

    I love this. You’re right, it’s *so* important to like your character, and I think it’s always possible to do that through finding similarities in your own personality/life experiences/etc. New York is looking forward to having you back!!

    • The Reflective Artist permalink
      July 30, 2012 1:55 pm

      It’s true! You have to love your character, even when it’s difficult. So looking forward to seeing you back in the city!

  2. July 23, 2012 11:58 am

    What a great post! I love that you were so honest, and it made me think a lot

    • The Reflective Artist permalink
      July 30, 2012 1:56 pm

      Thanks, lady!

  3. Darren permalink
    July 30, 2012 10:51 am

    I saw your performance of The Unliked Role last night and it is news to me that at one point you did not care for it. She is in essence a needle that weaves between the main and subplots, and you did a great job. The character maybe isn’t the sharpest needle per se, but she is that recognizable character, the peasant that is just enough smarter than the gentry to make out better than all of them by the end of the piece. I agree that the role was smaller and more peripheral than your roles in the other two shows we saw this summer, but you did a great job with all of them and as a consumer I can vouch for your qualification to write this piece. Thanks for your part in a great festival!

    • The Reflective Artist permalink
      July 30, 2012 1:59 pm

      Wow, Darren–what an unexpected development/response! I am not only shocked that you saw my work, but that you also were able to pinpoint the role to which I was referring. Thank you so much for coming to the festival, and for your thoughtful response to this post. And I’m so happy you liked my performances! Hooray!

  4. August 12, 2012 11:31 pm

    I once had a role I hated. H.A.T.E.D. It boiled down to feeling underutilized and bossed around by the props artisan, who regularly gave me notes. I grew to deal with it – not love it – because at least it was a job. And I loved the people I shared the stage with, they are still some of the loveliest peeps I know. But that overwhelming sense of WHY AM I HERE was so hard to overcome. I think it is so helpful that you broke it down in a list like you did. It’s true, you have to do some soul searching and make peace with it – or get out. I’ve done both, and learning when to practice the one or the other is essential to our sanity.

    • The Reflective Artist permalink
      August 13, 2012 7:29 am

      Yeah, I think we’ve all been there–and to be fair, my experience this summer was not at all The Worst. That title is reserved for the show where my newly established ex had to dump me on stage every night (SO AWESOME). This past show was just difficult, and I definitely made it harder on myself than it needed to be. It was good to break down this common problem with common reasons, at least the internal ones we are in direct control of. External circumstances (not making enough money, working with people you hate, working with people you’re still in love with but who don’t love you) I will leave for another post in the future. You had a lucky instance in that at least you enjoyed your colleagues. But that enjoyment only goes so far, it’s true. Ultimately, we sometimes just have to grin, bear it, and look ahead to what’s next for us in our career.

      PS: I can’t believe the *props artisan* was giving you notes. I’m not into a backstage hierarchy, but that is some bullshit.

  5. Katie permalink
    August 31, 2015 10:09 pm

    Thank you for this post. It’s helped me feel better about my part . But it still going to take a little longer for me to completely come to terms with it . I got cast as older Beth in Little Women. At first I was just upset because I had wanted to be Amy. But I actually really hate Beth. I think all of her lines are stupid . And I disliked her in the movie. I even thought she was ugly, and it makes me feel like I was cast because I’m ugly too.
    Normally it would make sense for me to accept my part, because we don’t always get what we want . But I never get what I want . I super hate that they never consider who I put down.

  6. April 27, 2016 11:32 am

    I just hate getting small parts! They suck, and it always seems like I’m the one who always gets them!!!

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  1. Sunday Summary — July 28, 2012 « The Green Room

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