A character is tricked into performing in a play as an inanimate object. It's often used to undermine a character, making them The Chew Toy of the moment. The need to have actors essentially playing props can be justified for school productions in which everyone in a class has to have something to do, and the adults in charge are forced to stretch the definitions of "actor" and "character".
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Akari Kouda from High School Girls always gets these kinds of roles in her drama club productions because, despite her thinking she's a great actress, she's a huge ham.
In Glass Mask, Maya gets cast as a doll in one play. Her mentor does this intentionally in an attempt to teach Maya how not to steal the spotlight, something she does without meaning to.
In K-On!!!, Yui is cast as Tree G in the class play of Romeo and Juliet.
Azusa: A, B, C, D, E, F... Do they really need that many trees?
Later on, one of the members of the play couldn't perform, so Yui replaced her... Getting the role of a bush.
In Ugly Duckling's Love Revolution, the drama club is putting on a play for the kindergartners, and after much ado over what fairy tale to do (and what role Hitomi will play), they go with Momotaro, and Hitomi plays a tree.
In Hime-chan no Ribon Hime-chan says that her only stage experience is playing a flatfish in elementary school.
MAD suggests that Keanu Reeves could not even convincingly play a Christmas Tree.
In one Little Arsehole story by Walter Moers, a girl named Annette plays a tree. He says she was very convincing. Some other students play boars.
In an issue of the Monster Allergy comic, Zick and Elena's class are supposed to perform "Little Bo Beep", which means that most of the students are stuck playing sheep or trees. Elenea secretly makes her class prepare to stage a superhero action romp instead.
Neil does this in Para Norman. He's quite happy about it ("I'm a tree!")
Also not an inanimate object, but Love Actually had a pretty entertaining exchange on the subject.
Kid: It's the Nativity play — and I'm the lobster. First lobster.
Mother: There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?
We get to see a brief section of this Nativity play later on in the film, and It Makes Just As Much Sense In Context. There are three lobsters, a starfish, an octopus, a vomiting whale, and Spider-man.
As the page quote shows, this was constantly happening to Slim (the "Walking Stick", a type of insect that looks like a stick) in A Bug's Life—he was always cast as inanimate objects such as a twig or a sword, because the ringmaster thought the idea of a Walking Stick playing a stick was punny.
In Driving Lessons, Rupert Grint plays the bookish teenage son of a zealously fundamentalist Christian mother. At some point in the film, his mother directs a play at their local church; she casts the 20-something guy she's got a crush on as Jesus; Rupert is stuck playing a eucalyptus tree.
In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, an actor who can never get work because he's too much of a perfectionist. His agent, George, mentions that Michael was once given the role of a tomato in a commercial:
George: I can't even set you up for a commercial. You played a tomato for 30 seconds - they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn't sit down.
Michael: Of course. It was illogical.
George: YOU WERE A TOMATO! A tomato doesn't have logic. A tomato can't move.
Michael: That's what I said! So if he can't move, how's he gonna sit down, George? I was a stand-up tomato: a juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber... I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.
White Faced Woman: It's a terrible life in the theater, you know. You never get your big moment. People think, "Oh, Imma be the star of the show," but then they make you the little tree in the background. Or maybe not even the tree. Maybe the dirt that the tree is planted in. I spent a whole day under a brown sheet, and then they forget about me and turn the lights out.
In Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman, Brittany ends up playing a tree in the school play. It didn't help that the play was Jekyll and Hyde.
In Nutcracker Noel by Kate and Jim McMullan, the protagonist is not just a tree in the school pageant, but the second-to-last tree.
One story, name forgotten, revolved around a girl in a school play who played a tree, and liked the role because she helped a lion to hide and was the tallest one in the play.
Horrible Harry in Room 2B: Song Lee's role in the school play: a fish caught by the others, having to lie there and allow herself to be dragged up.
In Harriet the Spy, the class votes to do a dance for the Christmas program in which they portray a Christmas dinner. Harriet is forced to be an onion, and other students play peas, squash, turkey legs, and gravy.
In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout is made to dress up as a leg of ham for a community pageant, but she fell asleep and failed to appear when she should. She was so ashamed, that she didn't take off the costume while going home, and this probably saved her life. In the film this serves the plot very well. It restricts Scout's visibility and movement, but also gives her just enough protection.
The first Diary of a Wimpy Kid novel plays with this. Greg is forced by his mom to audition for a School Play of The Wizard of Oz and he ultimately has to choose a part because everybody who auditioned gets one. When he sees the movie and learns that the living trees throw apples at Dorothy, he decides to sign on to be a tree because Dorothy is being played by a student he has a grudge against and he can now get back at her, plus he won't have to sing. Actually, most of the boys don't want to be in the show and thus want to be trees. He gets the part only to learn 1) there are no arm holes in the tree costumes and 2) the director feels everyone "deserves" a chance to sing, so the trees get a stupid song. Ultimately, he doesn't sing and does get to bean Dorothy — though it's at the expense of the rest of the show. The trope is played straight with a poor kid who has to play a shrub when he auditioned for the Tin Man, but at least he can sneak a video game into his costume during rehearsals. He gets stage fright.
In Henry Huggins, Henry was cast in the lead role in his school's Christmas play, which he found humiliating because the character was a young child, and Henry was chosen only because he was short. In a possible subversion, Henry was much happier once he was recast as a non-speaking elf.
The elementary school poetry book Don't Read This Book, Whatever You Do! features a poem called That Tragic Night in which a child is cast as a flower in their class play. He or she falls asleep while waiting onstage for their cue, and "I was supposed to bloom, when the lights shone on my side of the room!"
In the picture book Evie and Margie, Margie gets the role of Cinderella in the school play while Evie is her understudy and a tree.
Subverted in Ramona and Her Father when Ramona intentionally gets herself the role of a sheep in the Christmas pageant. (However, she isn't happy with the makeshift costume that her mom manages to make for her, and is reluctant to take the stage until an encounter with the Three Wise Persons (the Three Wise Men backed out) convinces her otherwise.)
In Stephen Manes' Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! the first step was to wear a piece of broccoli around your neck. The main character, when questioned about it by his parents, claimed that they were doing a school play about nutrition and he was one of the vegetables, prompting his older sister to remark that it was a good thing he wasn't playing the watermelon or he'd be falling over.
Used as a plot point in the children's book Chrysanthemum. The titular character, who is already being bullied by her classmates for her Embarrassing First Name, is cast as a daisy in the class musical, prompting Victoria, Jo and Rita to laugh at her even more ("Chrysanthemum's a daisy! Chrysanthemum's a daisy!"). However, their music teacher, Mrs. Twinkle (who the class deeply admires), gets them to stop teasing her by revealing that she is also named after a flower, and that she thinks Chrysanthemum's name is beautiful. Even the nature of the trope itself is subverted: the epilogue reveals that "Chrysanthemum was absolutely perfect as a daisy".
In an episode of The Muppet Show, Fozzie agreed to do the "telephone pole skit", not realizing that he would be playing the telephone-Pole: a guy by the name of "Mike Oznowicski" holding up a telephone. While he is rehearsing, he plays the telephone pole so convincingly that he is mistaken for one by a woodpecker and a telephone lineman.
There's an episode of Strangers with Candy where we're alerted to a teacher's racism by the fact that he cast all the black kids as trees in the school play. The fact that it's a production of A Raisin In The Sun doesn't help his case any.
Dwight from The Office once boasted about playing "Mutey the Mailman" in a play, which was a made-up character because there were too many kids in the class for all the normal roles. (Although it's more likely that his teacher just wanted a way to get him to stay quiet.)
A Sesame Street Christmas record (not sure if it was recorded from an actual episode, but if it was it must have aired a while ago) includes a skit in which Bert is very excited to hear that he has the lead role in the Christmas pageant, only to discover that he's playing a Christmas tree.
An example from the third season of Black Adder: Baldrick brags to Edmund that his father was once a famous Shakespearean actor. It turns out he played second codpiece, worn by Macbeth during the fight scenes (which, Blackadder remarks, made him a Stunt Codpiece).
In Everybody Loves Raymond, Frank is upset to learn that Ray's sons are playing fairies in the school play, so Ray speaks with the teacher to get them different roles. The only other roles available are rocks. When he tries to get them changed back to fairies, the teacher tells him that those roles have been filled by superior actors.
In I Love Lucy, when the Ricardos and the Mertz end up having parts in Little Ricky's school play, Ricky, who is arguably the most talented of the four adult characters, ends up being cast as a tree.
Inspector Fowler in The Thin Blue Line is a bit luckier: in the annual Peter Pan performance at Christmas, he always gets the part of the crocodile who swallowed a clock. Tick. Tock.
One episode of Punky Brewster has the gang attend dance class. When Punky loses her confidence and is unable to be a flower in the concert, they decide to give her the part of the bee who pollinates all the flowers.
Young Indiana Jones: Barcelona, 1917. While Indy is working as an allied spy, his friend Picasso gets him a job with the Ballet Russe. Director Sergei Diaghilev wants Indy to be a eunuch in the background for Scheherazade. It's good cover - one of the ballerinas is having an affair with the head German spy - and all he has to do is stand still. Subverted when Indy has to get a message to his comrades in the middle of opening night, and does so by going to the front of the stage and flashing his spangly codpiece in Morse code.
Diaghilev: This is the man I hired to stand still?
In Community when they fill in for the Glee club for the Christmas pageant Britta is cast as a mute tree. This harsh casting clues Abed in to the fact that the director is not as nice and happy-go-lucky as he seems.
On Friends, Joey gets a role on a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie as a dying murder victim. But after he blows various takes with his hammy death throes, the role is rewriten from "dying" to "dead".
In a classic Bloom County storyline, Opus played a cow in a Nativity play. He was the understudy for a Styrofoam cow that got crushed backstage.
"MOO! MOO! MOO! MOOMOOMOO! MOOOOMOOMOOOMOO! Dramatic embellishment cannot conceal the frightening insignificance of a cow in this story."
Adventures in Odyssey, "A Class Act" Charles is cast as a tree. Edwin just simply remarks "The less said about that the better."
There is a Play Within A Play in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and one of the actors has to play a wall. Then again, he still gets lines. In response to the wall's performance, Demetrius can't help quipping: "It is the wittiest partition that ever I heard discourse."
Another Shakespeare example: the uncannily realistic statue of the late lamented Hermione in The Winter's Tale turns out to be the alive-after-all Hermione playing a statue of herself. (Unless you accept the minority interpretation that she really had been turned into a statue and came back to life on cue. Given the play's other surreal events, it's not completely inconceivable.)
Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play, The Bald Soprano, features a character who plays the house door. It's then subverted when, after waiting just long enough to convince the audience that this man with a doorknob attached to his elbow isn't going to move, he is greeted enthusiastically by one of the other characters and they proceed as though he was a normal person. It's that kind of play.
Subversion: The Fantasticks requires an actor to play "the wall." It's not a speaking part, but it consists of a lot more than standing around doing nothing.
The Real Inspector Hound includes a body which is kept on-stage throughout the entire show. This role is traditionally cast.
In the Swiss play Der Besuch der alten Dame, the titular old lady and the father of her child (for lack of a better term) go to the forest where they went in their youth. But for some reason, the trees and so on are played by four citizens of the city. The two old people don't seem to notice. And it Makes Just as Much Sense in Context.
The Christian musical I Was a Teenage Christmas Tree: While not for a school play, exactly, the kids in a youth group stranded from home for Christmas thanks to a snowstorm force the Butt Monkey of their group to pose as a Christmas tree for them to decorate.
Inverted in the Evil Dead Musial, where the trees are monsters and attack the main characters.
In Mega Man Star Force, shut-in hero Geo is convinced to return from his three year home schooling to regular school thanks in part to being told he has a very important role in local Tsundere/Rich Bitch Luna's school play (ironically, based off the first mission of the game). It turns out (after a rather funny Shout Out to Megaman's "Blue Bomber" title) that his "important role" is as a tree.
Luigi's starring role that he complains about in Paper Mario The Thousand Year Door is later revealed to have been grass. Possibly a subversion, because he was performing for plant people who absolutely loved it.
Guybrush Threepwood would have you know he played a tree in a school play, still wasn't enough to land him the part in the production of Speare.
In World of Warcraft, there are twoquests where you have to gather materials to make a tree disguise and then use it to eavesdrop on a secret meeting.
The main character of Mission In Snowdriftland is a snowman who, up until recently, was only given these kinds of roles as a background prop in video games. He comes looking for work, hoping to find a developer who won't put him in a Shifting Sand Land, just when the video game world needs a hero who's immune to extreme cold...
In Deadly Premonition, during the town meeting, York mentions that last time he was onstage, he was playing a tree (a bright red one, at that) in his elementary school play.
Little Busters: When the Little Busters get roped into organising a puppet show for a group of kids, Masato insists on getting a role with lots of action sequences and manly dialogue. Kyousuke replies instantly that he will be a tree. A moment later when they decide to set the play in a big city, Masato points out that there wouldn't be any trees there, only for Kyousuke to reply that in that case Masato will play an empty can.
In an episode of Family Guy, Stewie's preschool puts on a play about Terri Schiavo, and Stewie plays the apparently coveted role of the plug that gets pulled.
In the first episode of Hey Arnold, "Downtown as Fruits", Arnold and Gerald are supposed to be in a play about the food groups. Arnold plays a banana (possibly a crude allusion towards School Play director Helga's own... "wants" of him) and Gerald a strawberry.
In The Simpsons, both Bart and Milhouse were apparently sheep in the school nativity play.
In the same series' 20th season anthology episode, Homer initially played a tree in a production of Macbeth. (Although Macbeth is one of the few plays with walking, fighting trees.) However, after a series of brutal murders, Homer is promoted to the lead role.
One episode had a school play where several students played the "lesser Presidents" like Millard Fillmore, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William Henry Harrison ("I died in 30 days!"). Though really, their musical number was probably the second-best part of the night.
In Dave The Barbarian, Dave ends up casting almost everyone as a tree in the Udrogoth pageant.
Chazz: I'm a good actor! Remember our fourth grade play? I got the title role in Wind in the Willows!
Drew: Chazz, you were a tree.
Chazz: I was the willow!
Happened with Binky in a really old episode of Arthur, except that he enjoyed being props because he was "real steady". In another, the class puts on a play about Thomas Edison, and Francine, who plays Edison, has the only major role that's not an inanimate object. Getting to play the first light bulb is sort of a big deal even if there are no lines, but Francine's perfectionism manages to make it an ordeal anyway.
In an episode of Camp Lazlo, Lumpus insists on being part of the play, and brags to Miss Doe about his "strong" part. "Strong", it turns out, was literal. He plays a rock.
Somewhat subverted in Futurama, when Bender is cast as Calculon's son in All My Circuits only to find that the part has been rewritten to suit his abilities—the character is in a coma. Needless to say, this does not last.
Bender: Now THAT'S coma acting!
In the Peanuts special It's Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty complained about being cast as a sheep in the school Christmas play.
Peppermint Patty:(singing as Marcie drags her off-stage) And a partridge in a pear tree!
In an episode of Chowder, Shnitzel plays a tree in Mung Daal's dinner theater. He's actually very good for the role: he's tall and he has a head shaped like truncated cylinder. Unfortunately, the costume is terrible. He looks more like himself with an afro and pom-poms than a tree (this is probably Played for Laughs).
Happened once to the title character of Madeline and a few of her friends. The director lifted their spirits by giving them a dance number.
In one episode of Mike, Lu & Og, the islanders put on a play about the founding of the island, and Lu ends up playing the ship that brought them there.
Also, Alfred plays a rock.
On Bob's Burgers Tina actually requests to be a tree in Linda's murder mystery dinner theater.
Adventures from the Book of Virtues: Not an inanimate object, but in the first part of the "Compassion" Christmas episode, during a school play based on A Christmas Carol, Annie apparently got cast as Ebenezer Scrooge by her teacher because she yells at her classmates for not making up their mind.
After Dave Barry wrote a column disparaging opera, he was invited by the Eugene Opera to play a corpse in their production of Gianni Schicchi. He found it nearly impossible to stay still and resist the suddenly unbearable urge to cough, scratch, or, especially, lick his lips, to the point where he wished Puccini put a scene where the other actors, for some reason, lick the corpse's lips. This is the sort of thing that gave rise to the theatrical term "corpsing", meaning to laugh or giggle at an inappropriate time during a play.
For many years on-stage nudity was banned in Britain - except if the performers didn't move a muscle, on the grounds that statues weren't obscene. In particular, the Windmill Theatre Girls were famous for their nude tableaux vivants. Covered (or uncovered, if you will) in the film Mrs. Henderson Presents.
This is a common occurrence in school nativities which follow the storyline of the birth of Christ. In the story of Christ, there'll usually be fewer characters than there are people in a class, and so some children will usually end up in roles such as "sheep" or "Shepherd who stays in the background and does nothing", just so each child has a role in the play but the play doesn't get overtaken by too many unnecessary characters.
Overlaps with research failure: a lot of nativity plays will add the Three Wise Men in, even though they're not supposed to have been there until quite a while after the birth of Jesus, so that there are more "important" roles and fewer sheep, etc.
Its also quite common for more angels than Gabriel to be added to talk to the Shepherds, so more roles with a few lines are created, which do not overtake the story. Also, occasionally the star will have lines.
The rules book for Nero, a fantasy LARP, suggests casting additional NPCs in roles like statues. In actuality, there are seldom enough NPCs to cover all of the roles needed, let alone extras to make into furniture.