How to make the most of a supporting character
Constantin Stanislavski once said: "There are no small parts, only small actors”. I always used to read this as the consolation price catch-phrase for wannabe actors, until I realized that reading it this way was making me a wannabe actor. Luckily for me, I was recently cast in a supporting role – which I initially hated! That made me grow both as an actress and as a human (here you go, big empathic phrases!).
A few months back, I auditioned for Othello: A Woman’s Story, a contemporary, all-female prison adaptation of Othello (when Shakespeare meets Orange is the New Black). Although I initially auditioned for the role of Emilia, whose complexity as well as her fabulous last-minute instinct to set herself free from a life of lies I absolutely adored. So…when I was called back for the role of Bianca, the less than important courtesan, I was disappointed to say the least. That being said, I gave it my best and was eventually cast. Woop woop, it was my first time back on stage in 20 years and my first acting payed job ever, so that was actually a pretty cool achievement!
That being said, I hated Bianca, who felt like a small part with no dimension, the one whose only big moment was always cut from the movie adaptations. I love meaty characters with a strong back story and a large arc and I’ve never been one to enjoy the “sexy” part (except if it’s meaty too, of course). I wanted to make it work though, and I felt stuck.
I decided to go through her lines and interactions in the original play, to count how few they were and to learn as much information about the character as possible. Boring…boring…boring…until one line struck me and it all suddenly makes sense: at the end of the play, Bianca is looked down on by absolutely everyone, but that doesn’t stop her for standing her ground and defending herself: “I am no strumpet, but of life as honest / As you that thus abuse me.” On top of that, while the other characters are being played by Iago, she’s the only one who sees through him, or at the very least is not impressed by his manipulations.
There, I had it, my Bianca was a strong, independent woman, and the only character of the play who isn’t being played on (what a pun!), even when it comes to her lover Cassio, who may be struggling to admit his love for Bianca but does actions which prove the reality of it. All I needed now was to develop the character…and that became an incredible adventure! Coupled with the fact that our director offered us a lot of freedom, I realized how lucky I was to have so few lines (and I’m not talking about memorizing): when I played a lead role, there was only so much flexibility I had on the role, as I had a lot of information on its story, backstory, challenges, etc. When it came to Bianca, all I had was a white page with a few things written on it, and it was up to me to add as many layers as I wanted to!
This ended up being one of the most joyful, fulfilling acting experiences I’ve had so far. I decided (with the blessing of the director) to make Bianca a full-on feminist anarchist with no attachment to private property and very few sexual boundaries. Instead of the shallow usual courtesan role (again, thank you Hollywood for the WASP-washed interpretations, and less sarcastically thank you Bollywood for creating an incredible Bianca in Omkara), I was unleashing an empowered woman who, I believe, was true to the original Shakespeare character.
Becoming Bianca has been a fantastic journey, and all I needed was to trust two simple things: my imagination as an actor, and the writing genius of Shakespeare. Thank you Stanislavski.