Words by Jon Baty Art by Aron Simkins
Background Actress Goes Unnoticed
PARMA, OHIO – Delaney Swenson had a dream since she was a little girl, and that was to be the greatest background non-speaking actor in the world.
“I got my first taste of the acting life, when I portrayed ‘2nd Tree from the Left’ in my elementary school play, ‘Mr. Beaver Makes a Friend,’” Swenson says sincerely. “I really wanted to get into that character’s head, figure out why it was on the left and create a setting for how it got there.”
Delaney continued living her dream, through junior high and high school. It was in the latter wherein she was cast as “Street Urchin #4” in My Fair Lady.
“That was a dream role,” Swenson remarks in remarkably a non-sarcastic way. “Sure, Eliza Doolittle was the main role, but I wanted to expand my repertoire, shake it up a bit, leave it all out on the stage. If anything, I wanted to make ‘Street Urchin #4’ a true sexual icon.”
Local reviewers were smitten with her performance: “As much as I loved the main cast, my eyes were consistently drawn to Street Urchin #4. The way she sat there in the background, leaning against the backdrop—and mostly out of the viewer’s eye as Eliza’s street cart was in front. She was electrifying. I had full-on tears, knowing that after three more lines, they would have to move on to the next scene.”
“The trick to being a background non-speaking actor is to make sure no one is paying attention to you,” Swenson says. “Acting takes risks. Being memorable means being forgettable.”
After high school, Swenson found herself drawn to the local semi-professional theater, Shale Center. It was at Shale where Swenson realized she was more than an actress. She was a star. Cast as one of the seaweed bushes in Disney’s "The Little Mermaid," Swenson had another revelation.
“I was getting paid $125 total for rehearsal AND an 8-week run of the show, where I played three times a week,” Swenson gushes. “That is big time stuff. I thought to myself, ‘Imagine if I could do this on the great white way!’”
Seven months later, I meet Ms. Swenson at a small coffee house in SoHo. The joy in her eyes tells me that everything is going to plan.
“It's been amazing,” Swenson states, sipping her tea. “I have been offered so many background non-speaking roles that I have to turn down at least 20 to 30 a week!”
Most recently Swenson was nominated for a Background Tony for her role as “Couch” in Edward Albee’s "Three Tall Women." But it was her role as “White Person in the Background Who Doesn’t Rap or Dance, But May Move a Set Piece” in Hamilton, that stands above the rest.
“I made non-speaking background role history by being the first woman cast as ‘White Person in the Background Who Doesn’t Rap or Dance, But May Move a Set Piece’,” Swenson says as her eyes well up with tears. “Most women in the background non-speaking roles have had to claw their way up to be put in the back, but thanks to my work, I’ve hopefully been able to break down walls and help women background actors garnish more attention by not being noticed.”