If you're anything like me, you get really excited to see stage actors working in film and television. Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz can relate. "I feel the same way about New York stage actors [working]," says Butz, which is funny since he is one of multiple theatre vets to hit the small screen in PBS' latest series, "Mercy Street," premiering Jan. 17.
This Civil War-set drama follows two young volunteer nurses, Mary Phinney of Union allegiance and Emma Green of Confederate roots. Their journeys collide when the Union Army overtakes Mansion House, a grand Alexandria hotel owned by the Green family, and converts it to a Union Hospital. In the way that other PBS series fascinates audiences with its upstairs/downstairs look at English life during the dawn of a new era, "Mercy Street" captures the conflict of North versus South during the most divisive, yet defining, time in our country's history.
Butz plays Dr. Bryon Hale, a Union army surgeon. Yet, Butz isn't the only theatrical name in the cast; Donna Murphy (as Jane Green, matriarch of the well-to-do Green family) and Shalita Grant (as Aurelia Johnson, a laundress at the hospital) are series regulars, and the legendary Cherry Jones guest stars.
So what happens when so much stage talent gathers on a set? "You [feel] like an ensemble in the way that you might feel like an ensemble in a rep company" — a comparison the "Mercy Street" cast would fully understand since, according to Murphy, every actor she worked with on the show (from Gary Cole, who plays her husband, to Hannah James, who plays her daughter Emma) has done stage work.
The feeling of working as an ensemble was also a bi-product of the creative process, in which table reads were held for all of the episodes. "Sitting around, all of us reading these stories together was an amazing experience to witness the whole picture," says Murphy. "Sometimes you don't have that luxury in film, where you come in and do your scene, and it's a piece of the puzzle."
"There's that connection that you feel with other actors who are creating something," adds Murphy. This connection no doubt stems from this beginning to end approach. But often, that process can be exhausting if you're not used to it.
"I do find that, almost to a fault, people who work primarily in theatre or started in theatre are extremely focused," says Butz. "They know how to concentrate because doing live performance takes a lot of concentration." This focus not only helped in these readings and rehearsals, but in the deep development of these true-life characters. "There's certainly an understanding [among these actors] of what it means to fully investigate a character," says Murphy.
Aside from the excitement of seeing stage favorites work together on screen, Butz hopes viewers tune in to learn from their deep exploration in the lives of these characters. "Seeing real characters, what we believe to be real human beings, surviving these transitions in time… They lived. They breathed," he says. "I do hope people — and I expect they will — brush up on their very recent history and understand that war and its impact and legacy on our country." If past performances are any record, changes are good.