What Dr. King Can Teach Us About Acting

What Dr. King Can Teach Us About Acting

By Steve Braun

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Around 4am the morning of his “I Have A Dream” speech, Dr. King handed his final draft of the speech to his aides. According to Drew Hansen, author of “The Dream: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Speech That Inspired A Nation”, there were precisely zero references to “The Dream” on the paper he handed to them. The word dream couldn’t be found in the text at all. Hard to believe, but the most iconic part of one of the most iconic speeches ever spoken wasn’t on that page. So, how did it happen? It happened because during the March on Washington with 200,000 or so people in front of him, the rest of the Nation watching on TV including President Kennedy and with so much at stake for his cause, his people and indeed America, Dr. King gave up control and allowed himself to be affected by the moment.

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For the first few minutes of the legendary speech, a rather subdued Dr. King glances often at his prepared remarks. He’s not off book. He’s reading. Perhaps reacting to the White Fear which stirred up images of hundreds of thousands of angry, militant African Americans descending upon Washington and taking over, his tone begins far gentler than it would become. He opens the speech talking slowly and steadily about Abraham Lincoln, laying a familiar foundation to the audience. But shortly thereafter his words begin to sharpen, describing that “America has given the Negro people a bad check. A check that has come back marked insufficient funds,” and that “those who hope the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” Still reading, he declares that “We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi can’t vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” And it is at that moment that something breathtakingly amazing happens. And you can see it in the video of the speech.

After he utters those brilliantly crafted words, he looks at the audience. The footage cuts to a man holding a little girl but then returns to King still looking at the audience. The next beautiful line he speaks reveals King in transition as he shifts the entire speech from the script to improv, from his preparation to the moment. He speaks the words “No, no we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until Justice rolls down like water and Righteousness like a mighty stream”, and as he does he looks at the audience more than he ever has up to that point. He takes three quick glances at the page during the long sentence and we never see him look down again till he walks away front he podium. And we know that he’s speaking off the cuff because he stumbles his words. Yes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Civil Rights hero, brilliant orator, the guy who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott from a church basement when he was 26 years old, fumbled his words in a speech held up as one of the greatest in the history of humanity. How about that?

Dr. King will say “I am not unmindful…”, but not before he first says, “I am not mi–” as if he’s going to say, “I am not mindful”. He’ll say, “…your quest for freedom…”, but not before he says, “your crest–“, and then corrects himself. Later he describes Mississippi as “a state sweltering with the heat of oppression”, but breaks his pace by pausing too long after the words, “sweltering with the…” and then again after, “heat of…” seemingly trying to figure out what to say next. He stumbles. Often. But no one remembers the stumbles. We don’t care because he didn’t care. His message was too important.

But that’s not the most amazing part of it all. Somewhere around the 11 minute mark of the speech after Dr. King has abandoned his script and has chosen to speak extemporaneously, discovering what he’ll say from moment to moment, the most glorious thing happens. Dr King is given what actors call “a gift”. Not only a gift to Dr. King, but to the entire human race. Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer who had sung earlier in the proceedings and was now sitting just off from the podium shouts, “Tell them about The Dream, Martin.” It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t rehearsed, but the connection between the spark Jackson lit and gasoline that King held in his soul still burns. King ran with it and the rest is history. The most memorable portion of one of the greatest speeches in the history of human kind was an improv. A reaction to a gift from the audience in the moment.

Make no mistake, Dr. King wasn’t winging it. He was practiced. He had used “The Dream” in other speeches earlier that year and he’d been preaching and speaking consistently for years. He’d put in the hours, done the work and he was good at it. So good and so practiced that he could throw his practice away, like Miles Davis knowing the rules of Jazz so well that he could break them. Dr King’s speech was an awesome marriage of his preparation and the moments. The I Have A Dream Speech is an acting clinic.

And then there you are sitting in the waiting room about to read for that guest star on that show and you’re nervous. You think there’s a lot at stake for you, and the emotional consequence of the potential rejection looms. So you try to control the outcome. You plan it all out, word for word, beat for beat, gripping tighter to your idea of what it must be. And you walk in the audition room and then out again having never moved anyone. Having never touched anyone’s heart or made them feel anything. You dropped a line, chastised yourself for it, and lamented that it forced you to deviate from your pre-conceived idea. But ideas themselves don’t move people to action. You need to connect with people by making them feel. And the only way you can do that is by talking to them, right there, in that moment on the foundation of your preparation. And that requires giving up control, being vulnerable and risking disconnection and shame in order to have a human experience that moves people. In the face of higher stakes than you or I can ever imagine, pressure beyond belief, in front of hundreds of thousands and with the soul of America on the line, Dr. King remained so present that he was able to leave his script and allow himself to be affected by the people around him. The result was that he moved an entire nation.

Check out Dr. King’s iconic speech: Dr King’s I Have A Dream Speech

 

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