My book club just read An Enemy of the People, an 1882 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It’s about a doctor who knows his town is about to open a spa using water polluted by a tannery upriver. The night before this discussion about a whistleblower, I watched Rachel Weisz in The Whistleblower. The combination gave some depth to the topic for me.
The book club discussion ran at length about various whistleblowers in history and whether any of them had been successful at it. Most sacrificed almost everything.
But that isn’t what I want to talk about today. Have you ever read a play? A script? Here are a few you can read.
Reading a script is very different from reading a book. Reading a story written in 1882 really made me aware of the fact that all you have is dialog. Reading a modern script might have done the same, but I would have been more familiar with settings, clothing, vernacular.
In a script, you have no idea what the actors are doing. No idea how they say something. No idea what emotion or inflection they apply to the words. You are given a sketchy idea of sets.
Until you see that script performed on a stage (or in a movie or on TV) you just have words on a page.
You bring in 50 actors, you give them the same page of dialog, you get 50 different interpretations. I know I’m an idiot for just now getting this, for just now realizing what showrunners search for in auditions, for just now understanding why people write with certain actors in mind. Oh, Lord, what a slow learner.
I don’t think I realized until I read An Enemy of the People exactly what directors and showrunners mean when they talk about an actor and say something like, “She brought so much to the part.”
I finally get what they mean when actors say, “As soon as I read the script, I knew what I would do with the part.”
Of course Sally Wainwright wrote Happy Valley with Sarah Lancashire in mind. She knew what Sarah could bring to the part. Duh. It’s all the things that go in between the words that great actors bring to a part.
Great acting is what happens when you hand a page of dialog to someone and what comes back at you is truth, emotion, fear, love, danger, excitement, completion. It’s the way Kevin Spacey leans into the fourth wall and uses a particular tone of voice to speak to the audience. It’s the way Emma Thompson releases a long-held breath. It’s the sound Donald Sutherland makes when he picks up his drowned child from a stream. It’s the way Sarah Lancashire radiates compassion around a nearly comatose woman seated in a mud puddle.
I’ve been watching movies since Roy Rogers first rode Trigger in front of a camera, watching TV since Arthur Godfrey first played his ukulele for an audience – a very long time. But all that time, I’ve been a consumer: loving the stories, loving the entertainment. More recently I’ve been aware of the message behind the entertainment. And, now, finally, I think I understand what it means when I hear talk about finding the right actor for a part.
I knew great acting when I saw it, but I never quite connected the words on the page to what the actor sees in them before. I’ll never underestimate the power of bringing it again.
Image: Boyd Gaines as Dr. Thomas Stockmann in An Enemy of the People ©Broadway.com