16 August 2013

David Mamet On Acting & Directing

For a while I was on the mailing list for a magazine called LA Stage.  (I don’t know how I got on the list, but I certainly never paid for a subscription—it just came.  Subtitled “Southern California’s Performance Arts Magazine,” it was the house organ of the LA Stage Alliance; it’s now published on line as LA Stage Times at www.lastagetimes.com.)  In the January/February 2006 issue, there was an article by playwright David Mamet called “On Directing for the Stage.”  The writer, in California to direct the Los Angeles première of his 1999 play Boston Marriage, dismisses all theorists including Konstantin Stanislavsky (“useless gack”), Bertolt Brecht (“gibberish”), and Jerzy Grotowski.  (He acknowledges that at least Brecht and Stanislavsky were “great” directors because of their practical work, not their theoretical output).  And it’s not just all “them Reds” he disdains—Mamet also concludes that “a host of Americans” didn’t know what they were talking about regarding “the correct implementation of” Stanislavsky, Artaud, Grotowski, “and blah blah blah.”  In fact, he states that “most plays are better understood when they have not had a director.”  The thrust of his essay (shades of Susan Sontag) is that plays should not be directorially interpreted, but merely staged.  “I think directing is much the same as playwriting,” he writes; “that is, it’s telling a story.”  He ends his essay by quoting Stanislavsky: “Any director who does something ‘interesting’ with the text, doesn’t understand the text.”  (His practical advice, devoted to blocking, actually isn’t bad—as long as you’re working on a two-character scene from a realistic play on a proscenium stage.) 

Aside from sounding very much like the advice of a playwright who wants to assure that his text is the salient aspect of the production (I remember that this was the sense I got from Edward Albee’s direction of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway back in 1976), Mamet also seems as if he’s fed up with directors like Anne Bogart who just can’t ever leave a script alone, no matter what.  They just have to put their stamp on it, like her 1984 production of South Pacific set in an institution for emotionally disturbed war vets.  But if we follow Mamet’s advice exclusively—and he doesn’t make any provision for exceptions—we lose Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Charles Marowitz’s Hamlet, Orson Welles’s Julius Caesar, Andrei Serban’s Cherry Orchard, Richard Schechner’s Dionysius in 69 and Makbeth, the Wooster Group’s LSD (which would have pleased Arthur Miller if we had), and any number of other radical reinterpretations.  Bogart may be self-indulgent (I think she is), and so may many—even most—other “interpretive” directors.  But some, at least occasionally, show us something worthwhile and, at the very least, interesting.

Dramatist Mamet mimics derisively, “But, oh my goodness, has it not been said that the playwright is perhaps not the best interpreter of his own works?”  (Director Mamet then denies that he’s “interpreting” his plays when he directs them, he’s “merely staging” them.  I contend it’s the same thing, though as the writer of the script, he just doesn’t realize—or won’t admit—that’s what he’s doing.)  In True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, the playwright’s 1997 advice to actors, Mamet avers, “Most plays are better read than performed.  Why?  Because the feelings the play awakens as we read it are called forth by the truth of the uninflected interactions of the characters.”  (Never mind that we’re “directing” the play in our heads when we do that!)  When those interactions are staged (by actors, specifies Mamet; by directors, I contend he’d add), they become false because they’re no longer organic.  Leaving aside the false assumption that anything conceived by directors or actors (that is, anyone who isn’t the playwright) is inevitably untrue, not every writer’s characters’ actions are immediately clear to most of us simply upon reading the script.  Some, like Chekhov’s and Ibsen’s, are too complex to lend themselves to instant comprehension and others, like Brecht’s, are just obscure or ambiguous; both instances require someone to draw out the actions and feelings and translate them into stage behavior or the audience will be irretrievably confused.  I can’t conceive of a cast of even the most talented and perspicacious actors, each following her or his own instincts, managing a coherent production of Brecht or Ibsen without the coordinating hand of a director with a pretty solid understanding of those two writers’ proprietary styles.  (I hesitate to add—but I will anyway—that a coordinated staging of almost any playwright’s script would be impossible if the cast were permitted to follow their individual lights.  Can you picture it?)

My friend Kirk Woodward, a playwright and director himself (as well as an occasional actor and play reviewer), responded to Mamet’s staging ideas: “Mamet’s theory of acting and of directing are similar: ‘Just do it.’  That doesn’t really go very far, I don’t think.  ‘Merely staged’—who hasn’t tried it?  There are always choices to be made, and somebody makes them.”  (Kirk is the author of the ROT report on the Broadway production of Mamet’s play Race, 3 May 2010.)  Leaving aside the question of what “merely staged” even means, Kirk raises the issue of who gets to make those decisions.  In other words, Who’s in charge of the production, the playwright or the director?  The answer, of course, depends on where you stand—and the nature of each production as it unfolds in rehearsal.  The great Russian experimental director Vsevolod Meyerhold insisted that his first principle of theater was that the director is the author of the stage production.  (Meyerhold also declared, however, that “the art of the director is the art not of an executant, but of an author—so long as one has earned the right” [italics are mine].)

What the playwright believes is that “the good director . . . has the ability to recognize and improve spatial relationships between the actors so as to maximize, beat-by-beat, the play’s potential for the audience.”  (He explains that there’s “an actual, shimmering aura or some flipping thing that exists between two actors on stage” and that the “aware, or gifted, or practiced” director can “feel” it.  “Oh, bushwah,” he predicts we’ll moan—he dismisses the “suggestion”—but my response is more like ‘whaaa?’)  The rest of Mamet’s advice is based on the premise that all directors should do is refine the natural movements of the actors and leave everything else to the playwrights. (The writer limits this practice to blocking.  I’ve already cited his assessment of actors’ abilities to evoke emotion while developing their parts: “Why are these interactions so less moving when staged by actors?  Because they are no longer true.”)  Actors for Mamet, then, are a kind of higher-order Über-marionette: the director and the playwright don’t move them about the stage like programmed automatons—they are free to move around on their own—but woe betide any actors who fill out their roles with emotional content they’ve developed.  That’s the province of the writer alone, apparently.

I agree with Kirk’s take on Mamet’s acting and directing advice.  I see him mostly as a playwright who insists that his script be the center of every production.  I know he’s directed, especially film, though I don’t know if he’s ever acted (like, say, Sam Shepard—though Mamet does refer to himself as an actor in True and False), but I don’t see him as a director so much as a playwright who directs.  (ROT readers may know that I have problems with playwrights who direct their own work; generally I think it’s a terrible idea.)  Emily Mann is a director who writes plays; Albee, like Mamet, is a playwright who directs.  When they work on someone else’s scripts, they may be more than competent—I’ve never seen anything Albee has directed that wasn’t his own script—but when they do their own, they put all the emphasis on the text.  (I’m generalizing here and I realize that.  Brecht directed his own work, arguably more successfully than any other director who’s ventured his scripts, but Brecht was a theatrical genius and was inventing a wholly idiosyncratic style for which he wrote specifically.  Mann has also directed her own plays, but she was a trained and experienced director before she turned to playwriting.)  Acting and directing take second place, and are intended to serve the text.  I suppose that’s a legitimate take on the art of theater, but I don’t agree with it. 

A script is not a play, and a production is more than the script.  It’s a collaboration.  Avant-garde stage director Leonardo Shapiro would say it’s a “conversation.”  That may be an excuse for directors to run away with the script, “monopolizing the conversation,” as Kirk put it, but it’s not a valid excuse.  It’s also not a rationale that makes the script the dictator of the production.  (Antonin Artaud would wholeheartedly agree.  In fact, he did.  But, of course, Artaud was nuts.)  Mamet doesn’t appear to want to allow creative input from the director, actors, or designers.  I think that’s wrong philosophically, but I also think it’s self-destructive.  You can argue that Elia Kazan had too much influence on Tennessee Williams in production—as Williams eventually contended—but you can also see that directors like Kazan can bring scripts to life more vibrantly than a simple story-teller could, and more perhaps than the playwright even envisioned.  For all his complaints later in life, Anton Chekhov owed a great debt to Stanislavsky for reviving and reinvigorating The Seagull in Moscow in 1898 after it failed in St. Petersburg two years earlier.  What might the world have lost had Stanislavsky not brought his own sensitivities to Seagull and left the failure in St. Petersburg as the final word?  Or José Quintero’s resuscitation of Williams’s Summer and Smoke in 1952 after it had failed on Broadway four years before (taking Williams’s reputation with it). 

Maybe Kazan went too far by the time he got a hold of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and made Williams change the ending—hubris is a progressive disease—but he unquestionably nailed A Streetcar Named Desire and we know from the contemporaneous record that that was a collaboration.  (If nothing else, we owe him for the casting of Brando in the production—a gamble at the time by all accounts.  I think that counts, too.)  Eddie Dowling may have overstepped by making Williams remove all the Brechtian/Epic Theater elements from his script for The Glass Menagerie, though it’s also possible he was right to sense in 1944 that Broadway audiences weren’t quite ready for that yet, but by all accounts, he got a performance out of Laurette Taylor she shouldn’t have been able to give at that time.  Not only was she past her prime at almost 61—semi-retired for the previous seven years—but she died just over a year after the play opened.

There’s a constant argument regarding whether acting and directing are creative or interpretive arts.  To some, it’s a useless distinction, but Jack Bettenbender, the first director of the theater program at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, always came down on the side of interpretive—actors and directors were there only to serve the text.  Meyerhold proclaimed that, along with the author and the spectator, the director and the actor are the four “creators” of theater.  I’ve always maintained that actors and directors are creative artists because even when they are “merely” translating words-on-a-page into speech-and-actions-on-a-stage, they are creating—creating a character, a life, a world for (and Shapiro would add “with”) the audience.  You may have seen Hamlet dozens of times and know the play backward and forward, but a good actor, and especially a great one, will create a Hamlet that will make you say, “Man, this guy is Hamlet.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”  (My friend Kirk asserts that the “notion of ’creation’ Bettenbender was working with is ‘making something out of nothing.’  That doesn’t ever happen, except scripturally, with God, who in any case we’re not.  Everyone down here works with materials; everyone does things with them, some pedestrian, some terrific.”  Kirk asks, “Did Shakespeare ’interpret’ Hollinshed?”  Of course he did, in his turn—after Hollinshed “interpreted” history itself.)

I’m not fond of the creative-interpretive dichotomy either—but that’s the terminology used in the debate.  It’s like the question of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays: it’s entirely academic.  In the real world of theater, directors and actors just do what they do.  You can label it anything you want and it won’t make any difference.  You can call it oobleck if you like, but it doesn’t change anything.  In any case, I deny there really is a conflict; but people like Bettenbender create one by asserting that actors and directors must be secondary to the script and, thus, merely “interpret” the playwright’s intentions. 

There’s also another point that Mamet doesn’t raise (but I have from time to time).  Even the wildest (mis)interpretation of a script doesn’t destroy the script.  It’s still there to remount in a less radical production.  It’s not, as someone pointed out, drawing a mustache on the “Mona Lisa.”  Further, even a failed experiment is often worth having made because we learn stuff from it even if the production doesn’t work.  As Kirk observes, “Sometimes a radical production may make the original more vivid, just by how much it departs from it.”  (That’s just the experience I had when I first saw Marowitz’s Hamlet collage in London in 1969.  Kirk saw Brook’s radical Midsummer in 1970 and I suspect he had similar feelings.)  Finally, it’s also important to note that the worst production in the world is still no crime against humanity.  My advice to Mamet?  Get over yourself! 

Mamet asserts that the best productions have been plays without directors.  He provides no examples to back up this pronouncement, though I suspect he’s referring to company-created performances.  Even so, I don’t accept his classification (“the best”), and I would add, perhaps ominously, that some have also been productions without playwrights.  (You hear that, David?  Be afraid . . . be very afraid!)  Kirk observes:

I know what actors do if they’re not trained to do otherwise: they form half-circles.  I suppose an argument might be made that actors would do fine by themselves if they were trained to do so—if they were trained in pictures, purposeful moves, etc.  Stanislavski-based training isn’t about that.  But I still don’t see why that kind of work would necessarily be better than director-based work—or, to put it better, why the best of actor-created staging would be better than the best of director-created staging.

In addition, if the actors are specifically trained to behave a certain way on stage, then they aren’t really “undirected,” are they?  They’ve essentially been “directed” by their teachers.  They also aren’t really behaving instinctively—they’re behaving according to training (or programming, if you wish).  “Habitual” isn’t the same as “instinctive” or “natural” (in the sense of “organic”).  If you’ve ever noticed the way dancers walk, even when they’re just walking down the sidewalk, you can see the results of training that has become habitual: they walk erect, with their necks held straight.  Their feet are turned out, just like when they’re on stage.  (I’m referring to ballet dancers; modern dancers and Fosse dancers have different postures.)  This is not natural, but the result of training and drill.  Actors trained to take stage in certain ways would be in the same dynamic, so that wouldn’t really support Mamet’s assertion. 

The playwright further contends that actors, left to their own devices, will naturally block themselves in appropriate and logical ways.  Kirk’s already remarked on what his experience shows about that claim; in my experience, actors who are undirected or unblocked will tend to do one of two things, depending on their personalities.  They will either find the most comfortable and safe spot to hang out in—mine was always the down-left corner of the stage, facing either up or right—or find a spot light and stand in it.  (If I didn’t have a hand prop, I’d also cup my left hand in my right and use my right thumb to rub the palm of my left hand.)  If a scene or speech is long, the undirected actor will either stand stock still or wander aimlessly.  Once, when I was doing some play or other at an Off-Off-Broadway theater, we had a director who for some reason refused to set any blocking.  After a couple of weeks of wandering around the stage in different, unplanned patterns at each rehearsal, the cast got together and blocked ourselves.  I can tell you, we felt a lot more secure and able to work on other matters after that.  We were “undirected” but, of course, we weren’t “unblocked” anymore—we had just done the task ourselves.

(I have already recounted the story of my first directing gig in New York, when I replaced a director fired by the cast.  They’d become so frustrated because the original director hadn’t given them any practical direction—character notes, text cuts—that they rebelled.  When I started with some very specific directorial decisions, the actors were so openly grateful that I was afraid to admit that I’d never staged a professional production before.)

Mamet specifically says, by the way, that crowd scenes would be more natural if actors just followed their instincts.  (He was, I admit, referring overtly to film extras.)  According to theater history, though, the very first true director, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, was most recognized for creating natural and realistic crowd scenes in contrast with those that had been staged before his advent, when actors simply clumped together according to their own proclivities.  Doesn’t that suggest that actors don’t have the instinct to create natural crowds, but that a director is necessary, or at least helpful?  It does to me. 

Now, of course, Mamet disparages “Stanislavsky-based training” in the same breath in which he dismisses all theorists and theories.  (He especially singles out Brecht’s Alienation Effect as “unimplementable” and holds up “a lot of Joe Papp’s oeuvre in the ’70s” as proof.)  He asserts that Konstantin Stanislavsky and Bertolt Brecht and others like them (such as Vsevelod Meyerhold or Yevgeny Vakhtangov) were “great” directors because they were successful with audiences (that is, the audiences kept coming back to their shows, so they must have liked what they saw), but Mamet says that was because they instinctively understood what worked on stage, not because they had theories which were especially valid.  Mamet doesn’t say so in “On Directing” (though he does say so in True and False, in which he declares unequivocally that Stanislavsky training, “and all the schools derived from it, is nonsense”), but the only “training” of which he approves is apprenticeship and school-of-hard-knocks experience.  That’s how he says he learned—by observing what he saw that worked.  Nothing he read in any book on acting or directing—and he was referring to all the standards by all the people I’ve named—is of any value at all.  

Now, I’d agree that apprenticeships and practice are great teachers, though I’d advise having someone as a mentor or master who’s demonstrably good at his or her job (and it would help if those masters are able to talk about what they’re doing).  In fact, I’ve posited that that’s really the only way actually to teach directing—studio classes like those comparable to acting classes aren’t very effective for directing, I don’t think.  Doing scene after two-character scene in class quickly becomes ineffective and useless.  However, that would mean keeping directing programs down to a handful of students, no more than, say, two to three per master-director and probably no more than half a dozen all together since there’s a limit to the number of shows any school could manage to mount on which apprentice directors could work.  But that’s pretty impractical and not very cost-effective.  Further, I think there’s a lot that can be gained from reading theory—especially Brecht, Meyerhold, Artaud (nuts or not), Grotowski, among others.  You don’t want to follow a book slavishly, of course, but those theorists open up vistas.  Mamet says that Brecht’s alienation effect is disastrous; but either he doesn’t understand it—which I suspect—or he’s being somehow ideologically dismissive.  Theory, after all, comes from practice—Grotowski wrote: “A philosophy always comes after a technique”—it’s seldom invented out of whole cloth.  Brecht didn’t invent the A-effect, he just gave it a name.  It had been around since the Greeks (and Brecht learned it from a Russian first anyway); he just saw it as a principle on which he could found a (didactic) theater.  (If it’s so disastrous, how come the Berliner Ensemble is still going half a century after Brecht’s death?  If Mamet were right, it should have died when Brecht did—or not even gotten off the ground because all his theories, which the BE was built to apply, are bullshit.)

As for actor-created staging: from what I’ve seen—admittedly a limited sample—when a cast “directs” itself, there’s usually one member of the company who assumes the role of director.  (It reverts back to the actor-manager system.)  When that doesn’t happen, it’s almost always a mess—a real cluster fuck (as we used to say in the army).  On the flip-side, even when there is a designated director, even someone with strong and idiosyncratic ideas, the actors get a lot of input and often create their own staging in rehearsal that the director accepts or plays off of.  (Not always, of course; some directors are dictators.)  Mamet specifically dismisses the tactic of using little models to develop blocking which is then transferred to rehearsal and maybe that’s a terrible way to work.  But, first of all, it strikes me as the extreme of “director-created staging” methods and can’t legitimately be used as an argument against all director-generated work.  I can’t speak for other directors whom Mamet might have observed, of course, but I suspect most conscientious ones don’t follow this practice.  Any director, however, who slavishly follows a cardboard model (or any preconceived staging plan) deserves Mamet’s opprobrium.  But I can’t imagine that there are many who do that.  (Shapiro, who had strong and idiosyncratic ideas, got a lot of input from his actors who often contributed their own staging in rehearsal which Shapiro played off of.  It was a give-and-take collaboration with the actors developing staging ideas which the director would develop or adapt to suit the production as a whole.)

It’s also important, I think, to remember that the very rationale for inventing the director was to have someone with an “outside eye” who could observe the production from the spectators’ perspective and coordinate everything so that it all seems one piece.  The actors on stage can’t do that.  (Which is why I have said that directors who direct themselves on stage—film is different—are asking for trouble.  They either pay too much attention to the directing end of the job—watching from outside the scene—which means they aren’t on stage to be observed—or too much to the acting end, neglecting the need to see what’s going on from out front—which disadvantages not only the director, but the other actors as well.  I was in a production of Macbeth that was like that—the director also played the title role.  Things got so bad that the two actors playing Malcolm and Macduff, and I, playing Ross, got together on our own to rehearse the England scene.  Some spectators said it was the best scene in the play as a result.)  Furthermore, what feels natural and even real when you’re doing it on stage may not look natural or real—or good, or even just visible—from the house.  Maybe the analogy is weak, but I can’t count how often an actor’s come off stage after a scene and said, “Man, I was awful tonight,” only to hear from spectators later that they thought he was wonderful?  Or vice versa?  Actors, in my experience, are the worst judges of their own performance—and that has to be true of blocking and staging as much as emotion and line delivery. 

As for the art of the actor, Mamet isn’t quite so dismissive.  He is reductive, however, instructing: “Throw some actors into summer stock, and tell them to learn their lines as the play’s to go up in two nights, and their natural self-direction will be superior to . . . the services of a director.”  Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company which he launched in 1985 with Mamet and actor William H. Macy, says that the playwright has declared, “There’s no such thing as talent; you just have to work hard enough.”  (Pepe, who’s directed many Mamet scripts, admits he “argues” with the statement.)  That may be hearsay, but in True and False, Mamet’s on record asserting, “The actor does not need to ‘become’ the character. . . .  There is no character.  There are only lines upon a page.”  Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which premièred Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood in 1997, explains, “David doesn’t believe in characterization or interpretation.  His approach is basically, ‘Read my lines.’”  And Scott Zigler, who directed Neighborhood at ART and later that year on Broadway, interprets the Mamet style of acting, known as Practical Esthetics, thus: “The idea is to not feel the lines, you have to just say them.”  “The actor is onstage to communicate the play to the audience,” pronounces Mamet.  “That is the beginning and end of his and her job.” 

Practical Esthetics (which is still taught in the Atlantic Theater Company School) is generally an assault on the Stanislavsky System and, more directly, on Lee Strasberg’s Method.  In  a 1998 New York Times profile of the writer, Rachel Shteir observes, “In the same way that Mr. Mamet boils down American naturalistic dramaturgy to spare, tough-guy talk, so Practical Esthetics condenses naturalistic acting into a blunter, street-wise style in which emotion itself seems excessive.”  In Ben Brantley’s estimation (as expressed in his Times review of the 1999 ATC Water Engine revival), the on-stage result of the Mametian style of acting, which the reviewer characterized as “basically of the ‘just-say-the-words’ sort,” was “a feeling that the talented actors (many of them Mamet veterans) are reciting their lines as though they were reading sheet music.” 

Finally, I have to remonstrate with Mamet about his overall suggestion: directors bad; actors good.  He seems to think that all directors force actors into strange and not necessarily wondrous configurations and behavior.  Obviously, that’s not true since most shows are directed and most are perfectly acceptable; many even are better than that.  Most directors, even the pedestrian ones, are very aware of what they’re doing with respect to their audiences.  (Peter Sellars may be an exception.  He seems not to give a shit about his audience.  Or anyone else apparently.)  One particular illustration comes to mind.  As readers of ROT will already know, I consider Beckett’s Waiting for Godot one of theater’s most brilliant works.  (For my full explication of this opinion, read especially “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” 17 April 2009.)  It was, of course, innovative and new when it was staged here in 1956, and no one really knew what to make of it.  Bert Lahr, who played Estragon, has said that he had no idea what he was doing throughout the production.  He just went with what the director, Alan Schneider in the Miami début and Herbert Berghof on Broadway, told him.  Now, imagine what he would have done left to his own devices?  Well, actually, I can’t imagine.  But it would almost certainly have been a mess.  Of course, Mamet’s theater world doesn’t make room for Becketts, Ionescos, or Kopits and such.  It’s all Realism and Naturalism or their relatives.  And then there are those rare directors who, even if only a few times in their careers, do have strange and wondrous ideas: Brook, Serban, Welles, Marowitz, and the others.  Wouldn’t we be all the poorer were it not for them and their peculiar and unnatural notions?  Mamet must live in a very cramped and pinched world.

[As a sort of companion article to this discussion, I’m posting an old report I wrote in 2006 on the ATC première of Mamet’s Romance.  It will be published on 21 August.]


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