Constantin Stanislavski once famously said, "There are no small parts, only small actors"—which, of course, is nonsense. There is a difference between playing Julius Caesar and playing Spear Carrier Number Two, but you wouldn't know that from most theater training programs, where aspiring actors study the art and craft of playing leads. Actors call bit parts "country-club" roles—the gigs pay as much as (or close to) what everybody else gets, but involve a lot more idling away the time backstage.

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"There's this thing that people don't realize," says Ian Bell, one of Seattle's finest character actors. "The people who are in the play the whole time—easy! You get up there, take five minutes of getting used to the water at the same time as the audience is getting used to it, and you're in. The small-role actor has to jump into the show midstream, give the proper dimension to the scene, and then go hang out for an hour and go back and do it again."

That requires a different kind of technique from what actors are typically taught.

"I hear people all the time," Bell says, "coming out of the theater, criticizing a show by saying, 'Not all the actors seemed like they were in the same play.' And there's the thing: They're not." So small-role actors have to adjust their internal speed and temperature to what's happening onstage. "If everyone's in third gear," Bell says, "you can't come in in first. It's like stepping onto a moving conveyor belt—but it's also a great rush that way."

Laurence Ballard, a sometime Seattle actor (who now teaches college kids in Savannah, Georgia) has been in over 200 productions over the past 30 years, and he knows from roles of all sizes. "Someday I'd like to write a book about how actors play small parts," he says. "It's surprisingly difficult to do well. I remember being in a production of Lear, playing a spear carrier in 1976. There was this line onstage of very bored young men and this one guy—me—just racked with sobs. My director took me aside afterward and said, 'Don't act so hard.' That was one of my first lessons in perspective."

One of Ballard's most memorable moments in a small role was at a student matinee of Othello, where he played Lodovico, the messenger—who has one line that Ballard knew would send the students into fits of infantile laughter. "I begged the director to please cut my line for that show," Ballard says. "But she said, 'No, no, we're doing the whole thing.'" So Ballard got onstage for his big moment in act five, steeled himself, and said his line: "Oh bloody period!"

"It went insane," Ballard says. "The play literally stopped for 10 or 15 minutes while the whole place went bazanko."

Then there is the fine art of whiling away your time backstage and in the greenroom—a balance of having the maximum amount of fun without screwing up the other actors or missing your cue. Ballard says that when he's not onstage, he's typically reading in the greenroom or "sneaking up behind someone and farting at them just loud enough for the people onstage to hear but not loud enough for the audience to hear."

Between quick appearances in A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., Paul Mullin would nap in the box below the one where Lincoln was shot. Charles Leggett says he likes to pass the time offstage with a cigar, or with a drink and "much verbal ribaldry" in the dressing room.

Actor and singer Sarah Rudinoff calls small parts her People magazine roles, "Because presumably I am going to spend some of my time sitting on my ass in my dressing room and reading trashy magazines—usually provided by the crew, who have to sit around for more time and have good trashy mags on hand. The [Seattle] Children's Theatre, to my mind, has the best backstage trash-mag collection."

Elise Hunt, who had a midsize part in ACT Theatre's recent production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, says that in the greenroom, "no magazine can be from this particular year. There must always be old issues of Entertainment Weekly or Runners' World or, in the case of ACT this fall, Mushroom Forager. And there must be a bookshelf crowded with terrible science fiction and mystery novels and an incomplete jigsaw puzzle that no one ever touches."

Brandon Whitehead says it's better if the reading material isn't too captivating. During a production of The Imaginary Invalid at the Seattle Rep, Whitehead had to cover for an actor who missed his entrance because he was immersed in reading War and Peace. "That is a captivating book," Whitehead says. "So I proceeded to do a two-minute vamp, while the stagehands went looking for the missing actor. The best I could do was to repeat the name of the character as much as possible, knowing that intercom system was on throughout the backstage area: 'You'll be sorry when (blank) gets here!' '(Blank) is going to be furious with you.' 'Oh, I think I see (blank).' 'Yes, I believe that is (BLANK!!) off in the distance.' And so on..." The best part of Whitehead's story? The actor was reading War and Peace for the second time. "So in the interest of all actors everywhere, here is a list of reading material I would suggest while waiting for an entrance: cartoon books (maybe a nice Calvin and Hobbes selection), word-puzzle books and crosswords, nature books, and, of course, celebrity magazines."

And, of course, everybody has his or her sexy stories—making out in a closet with the assistant director, having sex in the prop room at Annex Theatre. (Everybody seems to have a story about backstage sex at Annex.)

"Ha! That's nothing," Bell says when I tell him someone's tale about a backstage blowjob. "I've gotten a 'sloppy Olivier' in every theater in this town—even some of the ones I haven't even worked at yet!"

And there's another favorite time-passer for actors backstage—thinking up one-liners. recommended