A Few Thoughts on Acting

by Jake McPherson

In an interview published in 1961, Jose Ferrer said, “I like to tell the author’s story. That’s the satisfaction of acting to me.” He stressed relaying the playwright’s narrative. He did not address the issue of absurdest theater in what I read, but I came away with the clear sense that the play’s the thing.

What is the actor’s responsibility to the script? Can it be as simple as to breathe life into it? An actor takes written words and transforms them into an oral medium. He gives them voice. If he’s any good, he may even give them life. But a lot happens between the first reading and the performance. Words spark imagination. Words inspire the actor to feel. A whole range of physical reactions stir the actor to create. And it all starts with words. Words. Words.

In another part of the interview, Mr. Ferrer described memorization as the most unpleasant part of the acting process, and I agree. There’s a tyranny of the script, and it makes me ask about the choices the author has made. Hamlet gives us a brilliant speech about his inept handling of his dead father’s wishes in “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” The words fight to get off the page and fly about the theater firing the passions of the hearers. Hamlet is chastened by the Player’s tears for an unknown Hecuba, while he himself toils with the knowledge of a dear murdered father.

Yet, when we see him next, Hamlet is lost in “To be, or not to be…” A good actor has to be responsible for the transition from one to the other. There must be a world he occupies where objects and events lead him from shouting to hesitation. What can the actor accomplish between those two disparate speeches to arrive from the passion of one to the pathos of the other?

The author only sets down what is absolutely necessary to advance the plot. Any extraneous speech, line, phrase, or word has to be struck from the page. While we can write reams about the difference between these two speeches and how inappropriate their timing may be, we have to assume that Shakespeare set them down on the page in sequence for a reason. In Olivier’s movie of Hamlet, he interposes the scene with Ophelia between the two. I think he does a disservice to the writer.

As Mr. Ferrer said, the actor is telling a story, one written by someone else (except on very rare occasions). The actor is not an editor. He is a vessel. He is the important transporter of the playwright’s words, delivering them to a receptive audience, hopefully, in a dynamic and correct manner. He exists to animate what is on the page.