Those of you who know me or follow my other blogs or what-have-you are probably aware that I’m an avid consumer and producer of theatre. Those who weren’t aware – now you are.
A tradition started with the first show I was ever in, my mother gives me a book with a print-out-congratulations on the inside cover – “congrats on X part in Y show, these dates, this place, love Mom Dad and Val.” The books have ranged from children’s illustrated stories to novels to copies of scripts to rare books to new books and everything in between. Last weekend, I performed a solo piece by Ronan Noone called The Atheist – the first full-fledged production by my theatre company, Think Tank Theater. The book, this time, was David Mamet’s new prose piece: Theatre.
There had been a little buzz when the book first came out a few months ago but I hadn’t picked it up. I had heard that it was heretical (his own admission) and I thought “jesus, I don’t need to hear more theatrical people blathering about their theories.” But at the same time, opening the wrapping paper to find this book, I was excited. There was something, an energy, something special about this book that was different from that “I just finished a show!” glow.
Theatre is, essentially, a philosophical treatise on the art of creating theater. Much like the best philosophical texts, you can understand it on the first go-round, but you find yourself re-reading passages as you go to really let it sink in, to really let it take you over. Also, like the best philosophical texts, you won’t agree with it 100%. I certainly took issue with Mamet’s assertion that nearly all sets/costumes/adornments take away from a production. I’m a big believer in immersive theatrical experiences (the A.R.T.’s 2009-2010 season is an excellent example, for those looking to understand what I mean. see also: promenade theater) and the idea that a well-done immersion experience can only heighten the enjoyment of the play. I also disagree with him when he gets ornery about “setting” plays – if I want to see a traditional dress Shakespeare, I’ll go to the Globe (or the starry production at a theatre like the Donmar). If the director wants to make Elsinore a Wild West ranch town, then by all means – if it looks like a good performance, I’ll be there. If it doesn’t, I won’t.
However, I agree with Mamet on nearly everything else. This book is not only my new personal manifesto, it will be required reading for anyone seeking to join Think Tank Theater Company. The best director is one who gets out of the way of the text. The best actors are the ones who can convey intention – not the reasoning and meaning and thought behind the intentions. Am I guilty of coming up with backstories and all that to “help me get into character”? Yes. Is that, to an extent, exactly as much of a waste of time as Mamet argues? Yes. Does it matter? No – because I enjoy spending a little bit of time creating the character. I don’t care that the audience doesn’t see any of that prep – I’m aware of what I need to do for them. Doesn’t mean I can’t do a little for myself, too.
Mamet really takes aim at the theatrical establishment as it exists now, ten years into the 21st Century. He launches broadsides at Meisner, Stanislavsky, Stella Adler, Joseph Papp, Bertlolt Brecht, Eugene O’Neill, and other major “you can’t say that about them!” figures. But he’s right, in all of it. (and he’s snarky as hell, too – which is delightful and hilarious). Are O’Neill’s plays mostly overrated? Sure. Do I still love Long Day’s Journey Into Night because its a dysfunctional family and that’s my soft spot? Damn straight. Is Sandy Meisner – a man who Mamet studied with – the founder of a ridiculous and mostly unnecessary technique? I point you to Mamet’s spot-on dissection of the unbearable “repetition game” that is such a thing with Meisner teachings.
Look, I’ve said for ages that you can’t teach acting. Here’s David Mamet, one of the absolute gods of the theater world, saying “yep, that’s exactly right.” Mamet’s gist here is that through simplification of the entire theatrical process – and only through that – will we re-elevate the art to its proper level of glorification. He says stage a show in your garage – been there, done that. He points out that it all comes down to having the talent or not having the talent. Those who don’t have the talent, as he says, become directors or producers or critics. Those who do, though – the actors – are the ones we should trust with the reins.
Having just self-directed a one-man show, I understand this now. The actor knows what they’re doing. So let them do it. The results will, I guarantee you, be at the very least enthralling to watch.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. This is one of those treatises that comes along at just the right time in your life and BANG shores up your flagging self-confidence, your insecurities, your wobbly desires. It is the sort of piece that tells you “guess what, you’re right!” and even affords you a pat on the back before saying “now get the fuck out there and keep going.” And its hilarious. You won’t agree with the entire thing – but if you want to work with me in the theater, you’d better damn well understand what this book has to say.
This book joins Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and Machiavelli’s The Prince on my list of yearly re-reads – they are the most important philosophical texts I own.