"Big", "Small"

One of the most frequently given notes by TV casting directors to emerging actors is that "you are too big for television". Actors everywhere rush off to workshops believing the defining quality of their performance has most importantly something to do with size.

Around the world echo the words, "I need to be smaller," or "I'm alright on stage but on television I'm too big."

There must be a history attached to big and small. No doubt these terms are rooted in theatrical history but once the television era arrived I suspect their use became commonplace and all embracing. Television was a medium in its early days which was dominated by technical parameters. Audio was measured by meters and not by ears. Programmes had Technical Directors to maintain technical standards. Directors were appointed who understood the intricacies of this technical background for it was important to understand how to not 'cross the line'. Directors who were good at nurturing performance didn't make it in television if their shots wouldn't cut together. In this environment the actors' needs were not paramount and actors were often left to solve acting problems on their own.
So if the performance was not truthful, that is the director could see the 'acting' and therefore didn't believe the character, it must have been because it was

  • OTT ("over the top")
  • OTFT ("over the fucking top").

The instruction would therefore be given to "make it smaller." This was also an era when the need to have pretty faces and curvaceous figures sometimes surpassed the need for a good actor. And so inexperienced fearful performers produced very contained and flat performances. Directors didn't believe the performances because they sensed the actor's lack of commitment. But instead of generating reasons to assist the actor to commit to the character's circumstances the instructions would frequently go out to the actor to "make it bigger, you've really got to go for it this time."

Sometimes these basic simple directions worked. It is not that "make it bigger" or "make it smaller" are entirely useless notes to give an actor. However it is probable that there is a much clearer way of guiding the actor. Fifty percent of the time these sorts of instructions are quite confusing and misleading if not meaningless.

What does "bigger" actually mean,

  • be more intense
  • be more active
  • move about and wave your arms
  • expand your chest
  • stand taller
  • be more emotional.

And of course these are all 'end product' related terms which invite the performer to instantly create the appropriate emotional state rather than leading the actor to think through the process which will deliver the outcome. However despite their inadequacies constant use has meant that these words have become part of the director's lexicon.

Unfortunately, not only are "big" and "small" of limited descriptive power for the actor but these terms also confine the concept of what acting is about. There have been many memorable performances in film and television which have on anyone's scale been 'huge' but which have been applauded for their revealing truthfulness. No doubt there are also many theatre performances that have been small in the sense that they were still, confined and focussed but were still applauded for their truthfulness and even for their power.

So what use are these general terms of "big" and "small"? Evidently, very little. They could effectively be struck from the actor's vocabulary and not be missed. For if the goal for a performer is to truthfully and purposefully create an image of life which serves the telling of the story, what relevance can "big" and "small" really have?

Surely whether it's truthful and whether it's effective should be the only yardstick by which these achievements are measured. Focusing our attention on being truthful and effective can never be ignored.

June 2001

Copyright © The Rehearsal Room 2001. All rights Reserved.



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