May 22, 2013

The Mamet Q&A: The Customer Isn't Always Right

Remember when the most blazing controversy about David Mamet was his heterodox approach to acting training? The publication in 1999 of his terse, contrarian True and False, which posited, in essence, that 20th century acting training's emphasis on interiority and emotional truth had led actors astray, was the one occasion I had to interview him, for a piece in Back Stage West. I hadn't looked back on the entire Q&A until recently, and I think it's worth revisiting in full. I started by asking the obvious question about the acting school and theater Mamet co-founded, which, last I checked, is still charging students to learn to act.

Q: Has the Atlantic been a place where you’ve observed some of the problems you inveigh against in True and False--the students not wanting ever to graduate from school, or seeking something that training can’t really give them?

Mamet: Well, this is not a plague I’m talking about in the book. Rather, it’s the condition of students. First off, the ideas in the book aren’t just mine; they’re simply opinions. They happen to be opinions which I firmly believe in, and to which I trust for, among other things, my livelihood, but at the end of the day, they’re my opinions. Whatever articulateness or concision that is involved in the expression of those opinions comes from many, many years of thought about them. A student, by definition, is someone who hasn’t had the benefit of those years of thought and experience. Therefore, they’re going to be a little bit confused, and they’re going to be subject to a lot of countervailing influences. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have to study, they wouldn’t have to wonder, they wouldn’t have to work, they wouldn’t have to read this or any other book. In a long way, roundabout, responding to your question: It’s the condition of students to be confused, and to be searching for an answer.

Q: Did you write this book more to correct the bad acting you see onstage and in films, or more to address what you see actors put themselves through in rehearsal?

Mamet: Both. First off, I always wanted to write a book about acting. I grew up reading many, many books about acting, and that was always an ambition of mine, to add to that canon. Then, I think it’s in the nature of people as they age, if they have insufficient control over themselves, to become garrulous, and to say, “Oh, things were much better when I was a youth.” That may or may not be true. I think it may also be coincidentally true is that, as I mention in the book, is that something rather drastic has changed, which is that actors now do not as a rule come up through the fiery furnace of the theatre. Spending your time in trying to earn your living in the theatre will teach you a lot of lessons pretty quickly, because you’re working with an audience. The people working exclusively in movies and television, or in a studio, for that matter, don’t get the opportunity.

Q: I wonder, though, if saying that actors can learn only from the audience is a bit like saying, The customer is always right. I mean, it’s been pointed out that before the Stanislavski system, acting was very stagey, and there are still actors who seem to have learned from an audience only to be hams.

Mamet: That’s a very good point, but I disagree with you. It’s not saying the customer is always right. Learning from the audience does not mean learning necessarily to placate the audience. Many times, one has to make the decision that one is correct and the audience is wrong. But the point is, when you’re working with a paying audience, you’ve gotta be pretty goddamn sure you’re right, because your livelihood depends on it. In weak people, it may build subservience, but in people who are other than weak, who are building strength, it builds character.

Q: In your criticisms of the Method in the book, you seem to avoid naming names, other than Stanislavski. Essentially, you say that a lot of the techniques associated with Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Stella Adler are hogwash and don’t work--but without naming their names, it seems that you’re pulling the punch a bit.

Mamet: It’s not my place--it would be impolite of me to name people’s names. But I’ve spoken very, very specifically about the practices which I think are deleterious, which I think are beside the point, and anyone who is interested can recognize those practices and determine for him or herself whether they think I’m right or not.

Q: Whenever there’s controversy about these issues, actors always say, “Whatever works,” and always stress that it’s important to respect the process of the actors they’re working with.

Mamet: Of course.

Q: But you’re putting out a strong point of view about what works and what doesn’t.

Mamet: No book is going to teach people to act, and frankly, no class is going to teach people to act. What the book concerns itself with is a way of thinking about acting, and I wrote it to express my opinions, certainly, but also, I hope, to help student actors with whom I work quite a bit, and of which company I was at one time, to think about acting, to enable them to profit from the application of observations of mine, which I hope are simply common-sensical.

Q: Your point about a lot of preparation--sensory techniques, historical research--seems to be that they’re ways for actors to hide, to shield themselves from the spontaneous. But aren’t some actors into preparation simply because they love it, and it’s their life--I think of someone like Kevin Spacey, or of Uta Hagen’s exercises, which were developed mainly to fill her time between acting jobs.

Mamet: Well, I’ve yet to see it make any difference for good. I mention my observation that a lot of people use the exercises--sense memory, emotional memory, and so on--as kind of a talisman, as magic to ward off fear. I think it’s very possible that some people do, as you say, use them as if they were a word-search puzzle to fill an idle hour. I’ve yet to see them do anything good. I think that good actors may act well in spite of them--once in a while, and perhaps more than once in a while. But I’ve yet to see--again, from my final prejudice as a member of the audience, and a director and playwright--anyone profit from it, and I have definitely seen quite a bit of harm from it.

Listen, finally, it’s not my business how anybody prepares to do what they do. Finally, I think, either as an audience or as a teacher, I’ve got no axe to grind that they’ve got to prepare a certain way; as an audience member, I love to be delighted by the fresh, the unusual, the intuitive, the spontaneous. It’s been my experience when I saw what was going on, working with actors, it generally does not come from the methods of preparation that I enumerate in the book, which is why I don’t employ them. But on the other hand, I go to the theatre, just like you, to be delighted. I don’t care how anybody prepares.

Q: How would you respond to the criticism that yours is very much a playwright’s perspective--that all this about simplicity and getting out the way is just a playwright’s way of protesting, “Just say my damn lines.”

Mamet: Yeah, well, Blah, blah, blah, I respond to that. I’m writing the book for actors, and people who may find my words and my ideas inappropriate certainly aren’t going to use them. Why should they? On the other hand, someone who might have been confused and/or shamed by a technique which he or she did not understand may garner hope from my observation that of course they were confused because, as far as I can see, it’s a bunch of gibberish.

Q: I also wonder if you think there may now be an audience for what you might call Method performance?

Mamet: Hey, listen, there’s an audience for network television.

Q: Point well taken. One of the points my critic, Matthew Surrence, makes in his review of your book, which I’m printing along with this interview, is that it doesn’t seem all that heretical to bash the Method--that the notion that the Method is bankrupt or hogwash is not a new point.

Mamet: If that’s a not a new point, then I’m thrilled, and I would suggest that the critic who’s taking me to task take a big Magic Marker and cross out the part of the subtitle where it mentions "heresy." I couldn’t be happier it’s supererogatory.

I guess you might say that one of the people it was written for was me 30 years ago, who studied and went to all these goddamn classes, could never understand a word they were talking about, and felt like a complete fool and a failure because of it. It took me many years of constantly working with actors as a director and as a teacher, much more than as a writer, to come the conclusions, through trial and error and a great deal of observation, that are in the book.

Q: The quote on the back from Alec Baldwin--""I agree with almost nothing Mr. Mamet says in this book and encourage you to devour every word"--is classic. Have you spoken to him about his disagreements with you? Is there a story behind that?

Mamet: Well, we seem to work very well together. I love to have him do my stuff; he seems to like doing it a lot. I’m thrilled that he enjoyed the book, and I’m thrilled that he likes my work. Listen, I have a friend, Donald Sultan, who’s a painter, and we were in the Louvre, looking at some magnificent paintings, and I said, “Oh my God, how did they do that?” And he said, “They didn’t know either.” And the same is true of actors. Not to say that actors are anti-intellectual, but that with any art--the only art I know anything about is writing--you strive and you work, bat your head against the brick wall, and sometimes something happens that makes you say, “My God, did I do that? Where the hell did that come from?” And I think that the same is true of acting--that the art of actor, which is a great, great art, is finally a mystery. Again, what I’m suggesting in the book is that my experience is that it’s easier to approach this mystery from the standpoint of simplicity, coupled with a certain humility, an acceptance of fear--rather than saying, "If I work hard enough, everything’s in my control, there’s nothing which I can’t influence."

Q: You compare acting in the book to athletics, music, dance, and obviously, athletes and musicians and dancers have to go train a great deal, and go through a lot of coaching. They’re not always in the arena, learning in the arena.

Mamet: So your question is, Shouldn’t people get into studios? I’ve spent a lot of time in every aspect of this business; I started as a child actor in the 1950s. And I’ve never seen an idea more terrifying than a group of mutual criticism; it brings out the worst in people. In the theatre, we should be colleagues and supporters to each other, we shouldn’t be each other’s critics. And we shouldn’t be performing for each other. It brings out not only the worst in us as actors, it brings out the worst in us as an audience. So what I suggest, as was my very fortunate experience as a young man, is: Get out of those goddamn studios and start a theatre company, write your own plays, put on your own plays, and do something for an audience.

Q: The mutual-critique model, though, is contrasted with the masterclass model, in which the teacher does all the criticism.

Mamet: But also you have to understand, and I make the point in the book, you have to really use your common sense and look at who that teacher is. That teacher, with a few exceptions, is not someone who’s successful at their profession, but is successful in getting a job as a teacher in a school which he or she did not work to found. At the beginning, whether it was Lee Strasberg or Sanford Meisner or Vakhtangov or Joan Littlewood--those people attracted colleagues to themselves and their way of thinking through a great deal of energy, inventiveness, and some degree of charisma, and through the ability of having their tenets put into application. Most people who are teaching in schools nowadays--and God bless ’em, I spent a lot of time out of work myself--have joined ongoing institutions that have the imprimatur of longevity about them. And that’s a different kind of person than the first group I mentioned.

Again, what the book is about is, I’m not trying to damn anyone to hell, or be holier than thou. The book is written for actors, and I hope one of the things I’m doing is suggesting an alternative, and further suggesting that to embrace such an alternative is not foolish, but is, not only laudable but probably more geared to individual success than devoting oneself to the institutional model.

And the other thing you find out when you start working with a real theatre company, which is to say a theatre company made up of actors, directors, and writers, is that they cross-pollinate. The wonderful of the last couple of years have all come out of theatre companies, and most of them started out as actors. And that’s as it should be: It’s not only how you learn to act, it’s how you learn to write.

See also: "Mamet Vs. Brecht: The Wrong Fight."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Mamet has defined himself as a professional Devil's advocate. Whether it's his right-wing views on Israel, his racism, or his woman-bashing, Mamet never feels at home floating down the river. He's always swimming upstream like a salmon in rutting season. I will acknowledge that his dialog is snappy, but his plays and his screenplays are devoid of people one cares about. His direction likewise generates plays that are more about ideas than people. If you like being in a sterile lab late at night, you might like his work, his characters, his opinions. But like the late-night lab, it just gives me the creeps.