Tag Archives: David Mamet

Behind the Curtain: A Conversation About “A Life in the Theatre”

Jason Heil will direct Monday night’s staged reading of “A Life in the Theatre” by David Mamet.

When “A Life in the Theatre” by David Mamet debuted on Broadway in 1977, it opened hot on the heels of the playwright’s first White Way explosion, “American Buffalo.” Needless to say, the heartfelt strains of this new offering were somewhat off-putting for those expecting what the New York Times had called Mamet’s “bad boy bluster.”

Yet, Jason Heil, director of Monday’s night’s staged reading of this Mamet two-hander at the Encinitas Library, feels that this play fits nicely into Mamet’s canon, despite its more vulnerable moments.

“It may not fit into the Mamet mold,” he says, “but his writing style is very much there in this piece.”

That iconic writing style – also seen in “Oleanna,” Intrepid’s Season Four opener earlier this year – is what draws this Shakespeare-focused theatre company to certain contemporary playwrights. Mamet, who so clearly stamped his name on the voice of modern American theatre over three decades ago, lends his signature style and phrasing, this time in a very poignant fashion.

Chronicling the life of two actors – one a veteran and one a promising rookie – “A Life in the Theatre” is a series of vignettes that take place off stage, backstage, and even onstage, giving the audience a sincere portrait of friendship, professional camaraderie, and even a little competitive spirit.

Dale Morris will play veteran actor Robert in Monday night’s reading.

“They are always trying to pin down where they stand with each other,” explains Jason, who directed last season’s main stage production of “Turn of the Screw” for Intrepid. “As the play evolves, and the younger actor gains more status and more confidence, we see how his growth affects their relationship.”

Bantering off of each other on Monday will be Sean Yael-Cox, Intrepid’s Co-Founder and Artistic Director, as the young upstart John, and San Diego notable Dale Morris as Robert, the heavy with a wealth of experience. In a unique segment of San Diego theatre history, Sean and Dale appeared together in a production of “The Elephant Man” when Sean first moved to town in 1998 and have been looking for a project to work on together ever since.

“When we were planning this yearlong series, this play was one of the few comedies we had on the list,” says Sean, referring to Intrepid’s monthly Staged Reading Series at the Encinitas Library that has played to sold out audiences and standing ovations, and has featured contemporary and classical, as well as Shakespearean pieces. This month will mark the ninth installment in what has become known as a concentrated showcase for notable San Diego talent.

“We are lucky to have hosted the highest caliber directors and actors from the start,” says Sean. “”The reading series has been a major undertaking. We’ve set the bar high and we are eager to maintain that level of performance quality for our audiences.”

To that end, every once in a while – however reluctantly – the schedule must be changed to accommodate this uncompromising outlook. For instance, “Julius Caesar” was originally slated for the September reading, but with a cast of more than a dozen actors and a director visiting from Los Angeles, a November timeline ultimately proved to be a solution for scheduling conflicts.

“For us, it was important to get the right group of people, especially for Shakespeare. We didn’t want to compromise on that,” says Sean. “We try to remember that theatre is growing and changing and that it’s a living thing, which means it can be a little unpredictable at times.”

Fortunately, that also means that the Mamet treat originally scheduled for the end of the year will be enjoyed a bit early, and that September’s audience gets to witness the dynamic connection between these two actors who have themselves been longtime friends.

“Both of these actors bring a lot of depth and groundedness to what they do,” says Jason, commenting on the impressive body of combined work. “I’m looking forward to digging in and mulching around with them a bit.”

One of the most interesting dynamics of the play, says Jason, is the fluidity of their relationship. “I like watching the two colleagues attempt to stay professional, to forge a friendship, to figure out the friendship that forges just by working with someone.” Again, it is Mamet’s words that endow that fluidity with a sense of realism.

Sean Yael-Cox will portray young John
(pictured above in last season’s Hamlet, photo Daren Scott).

“He creates this flow with the words that goes back and forth between the actors,” explains Jason. “He messes up clean dialogue and the result mirrors the way we speak. In reality, our thoughts take us somewhere and we overlap and interrupt and we don’t censor ourselves.”

Jason also points out that many modern playwrights now echo Mamet’s realistic style, which at the time of his debut, was a stark departure from the rigidity of his predecessors’ clean lines.

“When you look at the ‘classics,’ even with a modern play, these are texts that are still going to be standing years later,” points out Jason. “A ‘classic’ is a well-built script, where there’s a lot of answers buried within, and not laid out on a platter. It’s the playwright who knows how to write a play through the words and underneath the words at the same time.”

Recently a Broadway revival starring Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, “A Life in the Theatre” has been described as Mamet’s “valentine” to his business. Does that mean that non-theatrical types will still find the play as captivating as those who have taken a turn onstage themselves?

Jason is reassuring. “There are moments in the piece when it is really two people opening up about each other or their feelings for theatre and what theatre means,” he says. “But it’s more that we are saying come and take a peak behind the curtain, and we will show you what’s going on back here.”

–  Tiffany Tang

A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet, a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, September 23. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to boxoffice@intrepidshakespeare.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15. Julius Caesar will play in November.

Intimate Details – A Conversation with Lighting Designer Curtis Mueller

Curtis Mueller, Lighting Designer for Oleanna

Curtis Mueller knows better than to be fooled by simplicity.

When asked to design lights for Intrepid’s production of Oleanna (which is now currently running at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas), he was careful not to presume that a two-person play set in the round would be an easy show to design.

“The challenge with this play is that it’s so focused on just a conversation really, one wouldn’t think that it would be that challenging,” says Curtis.  ”But from a lighting perspective, you are really trying to underscore certain moments of the show, depending on that conversation.”

Having designed for Intrepid’s past productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical (2012) and Hamlet, which just closed in February, Curtis was up to the task of switching gears from these bigger ensemble pieces to Mamet’s intimate office wordplay.

“Scenically, we’re in a professor’s office, so we’re trying to figure out ways to make each scene look different, but still not going too far from reality,” he said, explaining that the lighting will play a big part in portraying both the development of the story as well as the passage of time from one act to the next.

Sunlight image for lighting inspiration

“The opening of the show is just a simple conversation,” he says.  ”The audience doesn’t know what it’s going to escalate to yet, so we have more of an isolated look to it.”

Using the idea of the office windows and playing with the amount of sunlight coming through the blinds is one way in which Curtis plans to tell the story, although without an actual window onstage to work with, this gets tricky.  Enter special effects created by lighting gobos that douse the stage with dappled sunlight on cue.

“By the end of the play, the scene is fully exposed, wider and open,” says Curtis.  This brighter lighting also serves to “expose” the action as the play culminates into its most heated moments.

The specifics of these lighting choices will also serve to distinguish each act.  Since the actors never leave the space and the set never alters, the challenge is making sure that the audience understands that each act takes place in a different time.

Lighting effects play out in Act One. Photo credit: Daren Scott

“We made a point that passage of time would affect the lighting design because we don’t want to have the feeling that nothing changes at all – especially with the way the play progresses, and the characters develop, and argument continues,” he says.

Working in the round also presents its own set of challenges, as the designer has to make sure that the actors and the set are cleanly lit from all angles and from all audience perspectives.  Additionally, the blocking – or the movement of the actors – is different from a traditional stage, so there is extra pressure for the lighting to be uniform no matter which direction the actor is facing.

Given these challenges, this piece is a far departure from its surface simplicity, Curtis acknowledges.  ”We can really strip everything away and focus on the details,” he says.  ”I’m actually excited by the simplicity of it.”  – T.T.

Oleanna is a special engagement that runs through April 14 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas, CA.  Tickets can be purchased here.

 

 

Mastering Mamet

Francis Gercke and Rachael VanWormer
Photo credit: Daren Scott

To see Francis Gercke and Rachael VanWormer laugh together, you would have no idea that they are just days away from opening one of the most challenging plays they have ever worked on – one that is set intimately in the round, written for only two actors who never leave the stage, and featuring the words of a playwright known for his almost infuriating poetic specificity.

Welcome to the world of Intrepid’s Oleanna, written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet and directed by Intrepid Co-Founder and Producing Artistic Director Christy Yael.

Thankfully, these seasoned actors are not intimidated by the task, although they do admit that rehearsals have been equally both daunting and enlightening.

“With Mamet, there is very little room for interpretation,” says Rachael. “Not that he is a dictatorial playwright, but his language is so specific that until you figure out exactly what each word, if not sentence or phrase, means, the rest doesn’t make sense.”

“You have to crack the code,” says Fran. “He seems to be a really thoughtful person, which is crippling to an actor.”

According to TheatreDatabase.com, “the most easily recognizable aspect of Mamet’s style is his sparse, clipped dialogue” reminiscent of Harold Pinter and Samuel Becket. This style is so recognizable, in fact, that it has come to be known as “Mametspeak,” the Orwellian reference invoked, no doubt, to illustrate the pervasiveness of this playwright’s impact.

Wondering what the Mametspeak looks like exactly? Here’s a sampling from page one:

CAROL: You don’t do that.
JOHN: …I…?
CAROL: You don’t do…
JOHN: …I don’t, what…?
CAROL: …for…
JOHN: …I don’t for…
CAROL: …no…
JOHN: …forget things?  Everybody does that.
CAROL: No, they don’t.
JOHN: They don’t…
CAROL: No.
JOHN: (Pause) No.  Everybody does that.

If you are not quite sure what is happening in this scene, you are not alone. On page, there seems to be much room for speculation. However, according to the actors, the more time spent with the text, the more the playwright’s intention behind each disjointed phrase begins to click into place.

“There a lot of fragmented thoughts, but that doesn’t mean that thought itself is complete. It’s just not expressed in a conventional full sentence,” Rachael explains. “It’s about finding the specificity of what those complete thoughts are and how these three words are different from the next three words. That’s been very frustrating but when you finally break through, it’s very rewarding, and so much of the play falls into place.”

“He’s so specific that the story truly turns, literally turns, on one phrase,” says Fran. “There are certain playwrights that have a reputation for being great playwrights. Mamet is just a really good, smart playwright. There’s not a wasted phrase.”

And ultimately, the intentions behind these phrases are what builds into a story. On the surface, the story of this play revolves around a professor and a student who meet to discuss her struggles in his class. However, it is soon clear that much more is going on beyond this seemingly straightforward setup.

“Mamet’s a great storyteller,” says Fran. “You’re compelled to watch. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You know what’s going to happen, you can do nothing to stop it and you end up caring for the people who are in the car headed for the major accident.”

Even in the midst of this train wreck, Mamet is very careful not to take sides, especially when the characters become heated in their discussions. While the play might be known for its controversial themes, the actors are clear that it is truly up to the audience members to form their own interpretation of the action – and that their job is to stay out of the way.

“One of the things that we are discovering in rehearsal that is does not serve us as actors to consider the themes,” says Rachael. “Instead, it’s about finding out what’s personally at stake for the individuals at any given time. It might touch on harassment, power, feminism, but that’s never the intention. When these things come up, it’s out of the circumstance.”

“He writes two really smart, really self-assured, and really uncertain people trying to navigate their way through a real crisis that…just happened,” says Fran. “Mamet writes two strongly opposing points of views and then sets the characters in motion.”

So, as the actors consciously avoid influencing the audience’s conclusions about the action of the play, they find they are left with only the essential theatrical tools at their disposal: the words and each other.

“Fran and I have developed an effective means of keeping each other honest,” says Rachael. “You’re forced to hold each other accountable.  There’s not a compromise in that, but on the other hand, there’s so much gratitude that there’s someone up there with you.”

She pauses, and then adds, “It boils down theatre to its purest form.”  – T.T.

Oleanna opens Saturday April 6 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre on the campus of San Dieguito Academy – 800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas..  This special engagement must close April 14.  You may purchase tickets here.