WhatsOnStage Logo

Becoming an Actor: Not Everyone Can Play Hamlet

WhatsOnStage logo
"The math dictates that not everyone can play Hamlet," were the words of preparation and, perhaps, warning that spilled out the Head of the Drama school just last week as he readied us for imminent casting of our third year shows – accompanied, of course, by a time honoured amount of gesticulatory flounce.

He is obviously quite right in his assertion (what a horrid experience that would be, like watching a GCSE performance of a Sarah Kane play), yet somehow accuracy doesn’t entirely temper the seriousness of the statement.

The difficulty is that whilst at drama school everyone wants to be (or not to be – sorry, try to forgive me) Hamlet; a substantial part that will adequately showcase his or her abilities. The problem is that not all parts are like this; most plays have a protagonist or two, then a few supporting roles, then a few small parts.

They say there are no small parts, only small actors. Whoever they might be (I should probably know, it was me that referred to them), they are quite wrong in this instance. You could be the most sensational and groundbreaking actor of your generation, but if you are only on stage for a few minutes in a production that runs for two hours you’re unlikely (though it has been known) to be spotted, singled out, and jetted off for a career of longevity ©\\ which is what everyone wants, or should want (that’s another issue), after all.

I’m not pooh©\\poohing small roles by any means; I know that it is a difficult time for actors in and out of training. What with grants being cut, regional theatres struggling and the tremendous pressure to make a name for yourself quickly, it’s not the time to turn your nose up at small parts, but to make something of them.

My personal belief is that all roles make up the greater ensemble of a play and therefore there is little difference in significance between the protagonist and the spear©\\carrier... or maybe that’s just what I’ve been conditioned to think. If it’s true for the professional world surely the same should be said about drama school. To some extent, yes, but the process we’re embarking on is significantly different. We’re not quite in the business of creating theatre yet, we’re in a sort of limbo where the business is to create you – and it’s difficult not to be selfish.

Unlike in the real world, where it’s often said that casting tries to pigeon hole actors, drama school is a sort of fantasy realm where you’ll play parts you wouldn’t get to in the real world, which is, or should be, or could be, a joy. All the same, it doesn’t always feel like that, which makes for a moment of apprehension as you decide to open the e©\\mail that’s been sat in your inbox for a few days marked ‘RE: Casting’. You’re filled with conflicting wants. Obviously you want to know what you’re going to be doing, yet there will always be a little part of you that is nervous enough to want to remain in ignorance, just in case the decision that’s been made doesn’t quite match up to your expectations.

It’s not a decision that’s taken lightly. Or at least, we hope not. The head of the drama school has spent the last two years watching us in every project we’ve been a part of. He’s spent the last few months reading and considering plays, and the last few weeks eagerly trying to match up people to characters. All this thought can only lead to positive results, surely... well, no. 

My experience is that although on the majority of occasions he gets it very right, there are bound to be odd anomalies, exceptions to the rule, where he get’s it very wrong. It has been known for the part an actor has been given to be so alien to them, so much of a challenge, that it becomes cruel – not just for the actor, but also for the director who has to work them, and the audience that has to watch them.

With this double worry of your part size and the chance of being cast off©\\centre, it’s not unfair to assume, then, that disappointment, fear, and envy are rife when the cast list is emailed out and posted on the notice board. It probably always has been, but I’ve been surprised at the graciousness of my year. I’m lying; I’ve not been surprised at all. Although there might be personal gripes and grudges they’ve remained almost entirely unseen. It is a testimony to common sense that any covetousness or dispiritedness has been hidden (at least for the moment), for there is nothing to gain and so much to be lost by showing it.

Our casting is the start of what we hope will be a wonderful year of work. Until that wonderful year starts, there is a slightly less wonderful and definitely more arduous summer of reading, re-reading, and working on the scripts for the first rep in September. Maybe I should buy into the Cary Grant school of acting “Just learn your lines and don’t bump into the other actors!”

Oh, and if you’re interested, I’m very happy with the roles I’ve been given!


Tagged in this Story