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    SCREAM No .4: November  2000

    The half truth of David Mamet:
    the omnipotent writer provoking the actor

    David Mamet speaks a lot of sense in his book TRUE AND FALSE. It is possibly the least pretentious book on the subject for twenty years. However his call for simplicity and clarity can be deceptive for the actor.

    Half way through a sentence, the director calls "keep it clean" or "directly to him" or more difficult: "No". The actor regroups, collects his control and tries again. Only to hear "directly to him" called out in a more concentrated tone. The actor senses frustration from the director. The director IS frustrated. Then she picks up the script and calmly states: "The LINE is ... " and reads the line the actor isn't able to recite correctly.

    This might happen for a few minutes or a few hours. It can be painful for all concerned. Of course, the actor might simply have learnt his lines, taken note of what was required and gone through the routine. A professional actor would normally be expected to do this: learn the lines, take note of the director's directions after assessing the objectives of the writer. Rehearsals would then be playful, fun and games-like between the actors. Simple! Or is it?

    David Mamet in True and False suggests only two things should happen in rehearsals:

    "1. The play should be blocked.

     2. The actors should became acquainted with the actions they are going to perform."

    The obvious problem here is the suggestion that such processes are merely mechanical by necessity. You read a script. Then it's positions on a set are obvious and stated. Stage left simply means to the left of the stage etc. The action is also obvious. Character A obviously wants such and such within a scene and so full stop: end of enquiry. But anyone who has ever been involved in such a process knows the multifarious nature of the process. Can it ever really be as mechanical as Mamet suggests?

    Mamet also suggests the same with learning lines. Learn them by rote as if they were the contents of a "phone book". Don't embellish. This is qualified by the need for the actor to develop as a person open to the world, with real life experience and opinions. But it ignores the way the mind operates as "a self organizing patterning system".

    It also over-simplifies the reality of the writer's effort. There is not necessarily a direct one-to-one correlation between the writer's words and the writer's meaning or some universal and static meaning to the work. It is not uncommon for the same words and original intentions to change or at least become open to differing intention from the writer over time.

    Given this situation, and given the changing cultural situations in which work is adapted and presented, it is not possible to simply learn lines by rote and have them presented with anything even close to their potential meaning. The various exercises and activities used by the dreaded "drama schools" etc. are like carrots to a hare. They help the actor bridge the distance between his/her self and the material of the play conveyed by the text on the page. If nothing else, they become as "random points" circling the area of "focus". By attempting to forge a link, whether it be through active blocking or through lines work, the actor is encouraged to spiral in towards the play and its reality.

    I believe this to be more than excessive leisure time activity as suggested by Mamet. Learning lines is not like banking: filling up the account ... like depositing and withdrawing. This seems to be the model suggested by Mamet: paradoxically as he also argues against acting "by numbers". I would suggest a better analogy would be that offered by Edward de Bono (the "lateral thinking" guy) with his concept of "a self organizing patterning system".

    In this system, the mind incorporates the text into its own framework: comprising the actor's experience, understandings and newly acquired perceptions or insights as a result of provocations offered during the workshop or rehearsal process. In this way, the actors, director and writer become partners in a creative process. This differs from Mamet's suggestion of the actors being functionaries interpreting the clear specific intentions of the writer on a kind of one-to-one correlation.

    I don't wish to do Mamet an injustice by reducing his excellent book down to simplistic levels. The work is an important contribution to the craft and practice of acting and working in the theatre. It is possibly the least pretentious book published in the area for twenty years and is very well written. For these reasons alone, it is a MUST read for anyone interested in acting and general theatre practice.

    In de Bono's terms, the book itself is a brilliant provocation for theatrical creativity with the most provocative statement coming on page 8:

    "Stanislavsky was essentially an amateur."

    So let us take some of Mamet's principle ideas. The actors come to rehearsal with some small scenes learnt (by rote if necessary) or at least some easily managed lines prepared ... maybe some lines considered central to the action. Then, to take de Bono's central concept, we use games and exercises as the random point to spiral in on to the central FOCUS of the project. Exercises are set up in which the lines are taken out of context or parallel to the context. The actors are forced to respond to each other in an immediate and spontaneous way ... on the floor and not isolated by semantic or intellectual consideration.

    From this work, the actors and director determine the key actions of the scenes. Blocking considerations follow. In a kind of hindsight, the through line is pieced together: cementing or confirming what was previously only a hunch (in Peter Brook's terms) or feeling.

    Such activity removes the mechanistic problems associated with some of Mamet's proposal. The process of "acquainting" (not covered in Mamet's book) is followed by the blocking and not the reverse as suggested.

    The moment of text usage is all important: not the line through or "super-objective".

    Most directors, teachers and actors have a variety of exercise and games that will assist this process. But Mamet seems to argue that it is not necessary. The answers are contained in the text and all we need to do is read with a basic level of intelligence. This dogmatic tone is in keeping with de Bono's own thinking on art. He says:

    "Art is, and probably has to be, extremely intolerant."

    (Edward de Bono: "I'm Right - You're Wrong" 1990)

    Mamet, also being a screen writer, is no doubt influenced by the contempt writers receive in the film industry. A writer's script may be butchered beyond recognition by all the so-called processes that go into making it into a movie. On the stage, it is different. The writer has final say in what goes on the stage. Could it be that the dogma of the writer is coming through in Mamet's book?

    His suggestion that the text is final and the writer omnipotent doesn't account for the way people actually work: how the mind of the actor is itself a self organizing patterning system. While Mamet may well be right in claiming so much of what accounts for acting training and rehearsal process is inflated recreational nonsense, he doesn't address the question of how people actually become "acquainted" with a work or even how a work might be conceived according to different cultural, social, personality and creative constructs, contexts or interests. Taking such things into account is not necessarily a waste of time or doing a writer a disservice.

    This said, MAMET is very accurate in his portrayal of many very negative aspects of our industry. His depictions of the bureaucrats, agents, managers, casting people, critics etc. as impediments to be over-come is refreshing and encouraging. His love for the theatre and its creative processes and potential is inspiring.

    He has no time for the pedantic wankers with academic pretensions who constantly clutter the area with pious pontifications about our lack of depth or our failure on some isolated aspect or with arguments on some abstracted semantics that have nothing or little to do with bringing a work to an audience. Too many such people find themselves in positions of power over theatre practice: either as wishy-washy and confused directors grappling with their own insecurities without offering a clarity of direction and support to the actors; or as "committee" members cluttering the funding processes and arbiters of WHAT actually gets to be performed in front of audiences. Mamet is clear in his disdain for such people.

    If nothing else, TRUE AND FALSE is a well targeted provocation that should be considered by all involved in theatre.

    *******************

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              Trinculo's Shadow

    Receive our Trinculo's Shadow newsletter directly by subscribing to us. Read information about issues and events from local, national and international groups who:

    use theatre to explore the human condition

    venture into the very psyche of cultural and personal expression, and

    are interested in exploring the mysteries of life and social/cultural interaction.

    To receive your copy and read provocative theatre articles and receive information about scripts, workshops and performances from Shadow House PITS, please sign up here as a subscriber.
     

    To subscribe, click here and complete the simple form.