How to Be…Small.
by Lindsay Timmington
Not long after I moved to New York, I found myself making millions of excuses why I couldn’t go on auditions. I wasn’t ready. I was rusty. I was nervous. I wanted to be settled first. I didn’t have a stable job. I didn’t know the city. There weren’t any good auditions out there. Excuse, excuse, excuse. People would ask me, “how’s the auditioning going?” and I’d quickly switch the subject or offer up an excuse and away the conversation would go.
But then I got scared. Not of auditioning, or the New York theatre scene, or of whether I’d completely and utterly fail. I got scared of not pursuing my dream. Of watching it fade into the distance behind me, accompanied by all the excuses I’d armed myself with.
So two months after moving to the city, I headed out to my first audition. I stood in the doorway of the G train and faced my reflection, lips moving as I mouthed my monologue over and over and I thought to myself, “no expectations-I’m just getting back out there, no expectations.”
But it’s never that simple. I walked away from that audition feeling good and more than anything (I said to myself) I was grateful to act again even if for just 45 seconds, even if it didn’t get a part. At least, that’s what I told myself. But I got called back. As I said to my friend, (to remind myself) “I’m just grateful for a callback.” No expectations.
Though I’d expressed interest in a small, age-appropriate character, I was called back for a bigger role. But at the callbacks, when I looked around the room of auditioners, I realized I didn’t really fit in. I saw a demographic of very young women, a smattering of older women and there I was, feeling stuck in between, though realizing I was definitely out of ingenue range. With that sinking in, I sat waiting to be called and continued the argument with myself that it didn’t matter if I got the role all the while knowing that suddenly it really mattered if I got the role.
But I didn’t.
Two weeks passed and I checked my phone like crazy until I realized that if I was going to be cast, I would have known by now. But I hadn’t even gotten a rejection email, which seemed weird. So 90% of me tried to move on and 10% of me wished and prayed and picked up pennies off the dirty New York streets in hopes that I’d get a call.
And I did.
One ridiculously hot day, walking around Queens, I listened to a voicemail offering me the part of the Nurse in Equus. Tears flooded my eyes and I screamed on the street realizing that I HAD BEEN CAST.
I’ve never been, and hope I never will be, the type of actor who gets used to seeing their name on the cast list. I never expect to get a role, and when I do you’d think I’d been offered a starring role on Broadway. I don’t care if it’s academic or community or off-off-off Broadway–getting cast in a play is as big a deal to me today as it was eleven years ago when I first started acting.
So when I called my mom I told her that my sweet director had acknowledged I might be disappointed that my part wasn’t bigger, but frankly I would have been happy to be cast as the horse’s ass. I was just thrilled to be part of the show.
The week rehearsals began, I got sick. Like blowing green snot out of your nose, hacking up small creatures kind of sick. At the first read through (to which I arrived twenty minutes late because of a severe underestimation of Brooklyn traffic) I was sick and nervous and really wanted to make a good impression to prove that I deserved to be part of this cast. Instead I lost my ability to do a British accent, read a script and act like a normal human being.
I walked away from the first read-through ever so grateful that I wasn’t called for rehearsal for a few days because I figured it’d give me time to kick the bubonic plague and remove my head from my ass. But when I went back to rehearsal and said my lines I sucked even harder and promptly began freaking out that the director would think I was that strange-actor-type- who looks good in an audition and then bombs their way through rehearsal and production.
I got so far in my head worrying and fretting and focusing on what everyone else thought about me and my performance that it seriously fucked up my ability to create, to let go, to trust that it would come. I toiled day and night about how to make my few lines significant, to make my part stand out, my character be real and relatable and not just a “sword carrier”. I rambled on incessantly to friends about how much I was struggling and how frustrated I was and every ounce of my energy was poured into my insecurities and away from my art.
Before I knew it, I was an actor so caught up in my own importance, or my perceived lack of it that I lost sight of everything else. I went from being the ecstatic-to-be-cast actor to the insecure-mess-actor coming home from rehearsal in tears because I was madly unsure about the work I was contributing to the show.
I’d stomp my way to the subway not knowing what the fuck my character was even doing in the play-something that wasn’t helped by a review of the play I’d read where my character was called “throwaway”- and wondering whether the director regretted casting me or if the rest of the cast thought I was terrible.
These insecurities that appeared were things I thought I’d moved past and outgrown. But here they were again, little uninvited guests in my head, taunting me and making me question what the hell I was doing. Why was I uber focused on creating a character that would pull attention? Why did I so desperately want her to have a limp, to speak with a lisp, to have no conscious, or to be in love with Dysart? And why, dear God why, was I hoisting these things on this woman who’s purpose is so clearly attached to and defined by the lines she speaks and the role she serves?
Because I wanted to be important.
I wanted to prove that I deserved to be part of this play, deserved to be cast in the first show I auditioned for and prove that I could make it in this city. The stakes that I had set for myself after getting this part were so impossibly high that once I started climbing I got really fucking stuck up there in the air, far far away from reality.
People kept telling me, “There are no small parts, only small actors” and “small roles can steal the show.” And the more I heard it the more I convinced myself I was doing something wrong.
Eventually I came to realize that while the old adage is true, “There are no small parts, only small actors” it doesn’t mean steal the show, or ham it up or find idiosyncrasies to draw attention to your character, it means be the bigger actor. It means recognize that the show as a whole is more important than your individual ego, and that the part you’re playing, however small it may be, was big enough for the playwright and director to include. Instead of bastardizing the part, pay homage to it, honor it, by finding the truth and relish in the ability to be a small part of something big rather than a big part of something small.
I won’t lie. It wasn’t until dress rehearsals that I started to get the hell over myself. Despite saying it in many ways, to many people, despite recounting aloud how fucking tired I was of feeling this way, of being caught up in my head, I was still tangled in this weird web of self-awareness paired with a debilitating inability to do anything about it. I knew what I needed to do, and yet, I couldn’t do it.
And while it never really went away, that feeling that my character didn’t matter or belong in the life of the play, that the choices I made and the character I finally found were quite vanilla comparatively, I settled down and into the run of a really good play.
But that was the switch. It wasn’t myself I was proud of but the play that lived in front of me. Of Dysart and Hesther, of Jill and the Horses and Nugget. Of Alan and his parents. Of these actors telling a compelling story and the fact that I was a part of the whole. Of the set design and original music, and the director’s vision and the beautiful cohesion of the cast. I found myself proud of the entire production, and not just my role in it.
I think that anyone who is serious about pursuing an acting career should play a small role. I’m talking sword carrier, fifteen lines, the character a critic calls unimportant–in order to really understand that you can’t always be the biggest part, or the starring role and sometimes being small reaps the biggest rewards.
Because what I ultimately had to come to terms with, was that the Nurse was a conduit, primarily for Alan and the Doctor, and the purpose she served had to be met with integrity and care, not the attitude of an actor who wants more lines, or a quirky affect to pull the audience’s attention in order to get a bunch of compliments at the stage door.
And so while I can say I feel as though I lived in the world of the play and found a character who served the purpose she was meant to serve, I don’t know that it went any further than that. And the challenge for me became whether or not I could reconcile myself to the fact that THIS PLAY WAS NOT ABOUT ME.
Because the fact is, that sometimes to tell a story you have to be the tree or the sword carrier or the nurse, and as long as your heart is in it and you can banish the insecurities that will plague your brain, you can be successful in that role. But it doesn’t need to be anything more, anything bigger than that.
I don’t know if I ever came to terms with my role or my performance. I don’t really know that I need to. What I do know is I walked away from this show eternally grateful for the friends I’d made, the people I am now connected to and the show I had the opportunity to be in. I recognized the importance of learning to be the cog in the machine, and not just the machine. Now I know I was meant to play this role not just as an exercise in humility but to realize that maybe how to be small is the most important lesson an actor can learn.