Over the course of my playwriting career, I have marveled at the power of “nothing.” I relish with abandon all that is unspoken and unsaid—the glorious tension in a pinpoint of silence. So perhaps it makes sense then that I’d be drawn to non-speaking roles. I admit, dear reader, somehow, they have found their way into many of my manuscripts—an offstage landlady in Fin & Euba, an onstage stage manager in The Last Wide Open, a fellow boater/angler in The Gulf, a dying goat in Alabaster, and now a “raven” in my newest play, Trouble. I did not do this on purpose! I mean, I sort of did—of course I did—but not really! These characters, not through some intentionality or forethought on my part, somehow made themselves at home along the way, arriving there to solve a problem. In fact, I distinctly remember telling both of the goats in my play Alabaster that they were intended to be played by puppets and to sit down and be quiet, but they wouldn’t have it! And on that day a 2-hander became a 2-hander/2-hoofer.
I said it.
But what makes a great non-speaking role, anyway? Must they add to the narrative? Must they push the story forward? How do we know when it makes sense to invent one? What are the rules? Here’s what works for me, in practical terms:
1. THE INTRUDER
If I’m stuck with a set number of characters and I need to create some tension, I will invent a nuisance or an intrusion in the form of an offstage “character.” This is a great and economical way to create conflict. It can be something as simple as a dude with a leaf blower who lives next door. Or a car that honks every time it passes by. But not every intrusion builds conflict; sometimes it serves to create atmosphere and a sense of place. Think of a distant factory whistle. Or cars speeding by in the dead of night on a lonely highway. In these last two examples, one can imagine how the factory and the highway each become a character just by virtue of their close proximity coupled with the pathos their noises invoke. What does the whistle signify to the characters? What does the lonely highway represent? Don’t wait around for a sound designer to create texture for you. This is your domain, your realm. Make shit up.
2. THE WITNESS
If I need someone to bear witness to a character’s plight, I will create another character—often in the form of an instrumentalist or an animal—that they might confide in, confess to, or partner with. The character may also be an extension of or a representation of the internal world of the character. Through this affiliation, the character may see herself or her life with a greater clarity, grace, or humility, as if looking into a mirror. Consider the metaphor and symbolism of the Fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof. Consider, too, the symbolism that non-human forms impart. What does a tree represent? A scarecrow? A goat? The wind? The moon? It isn’t necessary to know all of this when starting out, just start playing with it and let the relationship carry you. Eventually, you will begin to learn what it is the witness character is trying to “say.”
3. THE HELPER
Sometimes a non-speaking role is simply born of the need to solve a practical concern (in the panoply of everyday theatrical conundrums), like say for instance, how to deliver a drink to an onstage character or how to move a colossal set piece with the grace of a gazelle. Think of the silent valet who is always around, always ready to meet whatever the moment requires, but otherwise blends in with the wallpaper. On stage, it’s not hard to imagine how a character like this can solve any number of problems, while providing great comic value in the process. Characters like this can—and often do—steal the show.
4. THE MESSENGER
This character, for me, is distinct from what some call the mentor or the teacher, though their impact is somewhat adjacent. I create this type of character when I need someone to just be there—in their own quiet way—to really truly put a fine point on things, by virtue of their existence and/or their demise. It is their life status, not necessarily their life choices, that raises the stakes for the protagonist (and in the best of cases, for all of the other characters too). Think of a newborn baby. Think of a dying mother. Almost every hero’s journey involves the loss or birth of a character. Why? Because ultimately, when a character is truly entrenched, only the most exquisite and poignant passages of life can shake them loose: In death, we learn that life is precious; in birth, we learn that life is a miracle. In both cases, we learn that we are all connected and that we are only here for a “moment.”
What non-speaking roles have you created and what value have you noticed they’ve added to your work?
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Audrey Cefaly's plays (Alabaster, Maytag Virgin, The Gulf, The Last Wide Open, Trouble) have garnered the Lammy Award, the Calicchio Prize, the Edgerton, and a Pulitzer nomination. Her works have been produced at Signature Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse, Barter Theatre, Merrimack Rep, Florida Studio, Florida Rep, Gulfshore Playhouse, and countless others. Cefaly is a Dramatist Guild Foundation "Traveling Master," an Arena Stage playwright cohort, and a recipient of the Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers Conference. She is published by Concord Theatricals.
I like the way you’ve characterized and think about non-speaking roles. I, too, use them in my plays. In Holy and Unruly, I have a dead lover and an imagined, never-conceived child who personify Queen Elizabeth’s internal conflicts. In Tiny Empty Nest, I have a couple of stage hands who carry set pieces around to keep the action moving. In Every Creeping Thing, I have a panicked rat whose manic activity emphasizes the existential threat of an approaching asteroid for my dinosaur main characters. It’s a blast to create these characters and a real challenge to figure how to use them in ways that genuinely add to and advance the story. Thanks for this post!