October 09, 1997


Canon Fodder

A chat with David Mamet about "True and False," his provocative addition to the literature of the acting craft.


Reporting by Rob Kendt


Dramatist/director David Mamet has known his share of controversy for his contrarian politics and his uncomprising aesthetic astringency in such defining plays as Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Edmond, Speed-the-Plow, and Oleanna.


With his new book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, Mamet ventures into another well-mined battlefield: the endless, unwinnable debate about developments in the craft and trade of 20th-century acting, specifically the legacy of the Method based on Stanislavski's system. Mamet, who studied with Group Theatre giant Sanford Meisner, seems to agree with his former teacher that the sensory work and "emotional memory" techniques advocated by Lee Strasberg, among others, are "hogwash." But Mamet doesn't stop there, instead constructing a persuasive if overstated argument that the attention contemporary actors have lavished on themselves, in acting training programs from which they can never matriculate, has distorted their proper focus, which is to reach and communicate with a paying audience.


Mamet spoke to Back Stage West recently from his office in Newton, Mass., where he is preparing a new play, The Old Neighborhood, for a November opening on Broadway. A novel, The Old Religion, is also on the way from Random House.


Back Stage West: Was this book motivated more by bad acting you've seen, or more by what you see as actors' wrongheaded approaches to rehearsal and preparation?


David 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. And I think, as I mention in the book, 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 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.


BSW: 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 and the Method, acting was very stagey, and there are still actors around who seem to have learned from an audience only how to be hams.


Mamet: That's a very good point, but I disagree. 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 developing strength, it builds character.


BSW: 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.


BSW: Your point about a lot of preparation--sensory techniques, historical research--is that it's a way for actors to hide, to shield themselves from the spontaneous. But aren't some actors into preparation simply because they love doing it, and it's their life? I think of someone like Kevin Spacey, or of the exercises Uta Hagen developed to work on her craft between acting jobs.


Mamet: Well, I've yet to see it make any difference for good. It's my observation that a lot of people use these 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, and I have definitely seen them do quite a bit of harm. I think that good actors may act well in spite of them.

Listen, finally, it's not my business how anybody prepares to do what they do. As an audience member, I've got no axe to grind that actors have to prepare a certain way; I love to be delighted by the fresh, the unusual, the intuitive, the spontaneous. Now, it's been my experience, working with actors, that these generally do not come from the methods of preparation I enumerate in the book, which is why I don't employ them. But on the other hand, I go to the theatre to be delighted. I don't care how anybody prepares.

BSW§ How would you respond to the criticism that yours is very much a playwright's perspective--that all this talk about simplicity and playing the scene 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.

I guess you might say that one of the people the book 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 in the book.


BSW: What do you say to the point, which my critic, Matthew Surrence, makes in his review, that it's really not all that heretical, in fact, to bash the Method--that to say 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 take a big Magic Marker and cross out the part of the subtitle where it mentions "heresy." I couldn't be happier if the book is supererogatory.


BSW: The quote on the dust jacket 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.

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, "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--and 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?"

I think the same is true of acting--that the art of the actor, which is a great, great art, is finally a mystery. And what I'm suggesting in the book is that in my experience 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.


BSW: In the book, you compare acting to athletics, music, dance, and obviously, athletes, musicians, and dancers have to train a great deal, and go through a lot of coaching.


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 critics--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.

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 only laudable but probably is more geared to individual success than devoting oneself to the institutional mo╔