‘True and False’ by David Mamet

This was a blast after reading drier, technique-based books on acting. It’s a rant, as if Mamet got back from a bad rehearsal with amateurs, got pissed, and hammered away for 120 pages. His view of an actor is largely from the author’s point of view; if an author does his job, the actor doesn’t have to do much at all. A one paragraph summary would be:

You’ll learn more by going on stage than you will by studying. Most acting teachers are frauds. The Method’s techniques are worthless tools for amateurs. An actor must simply deliver the lines given by the author. And be brave.

To the Actor

4

That is what acting is. Doing the play for the audience. The rest is just practice.

Some Thoughts

5-7 As actors we become convinced that doing our job well is down to luck, becoming envious of those who have “luck” or “technique.” We invest in a “technique based on luck” which becomes “a superstition, an investment in self-consciousness, in introversion.” [I don’t quite get the train of thought, the connections, in all that.]

Our “technique” becomes more devoted to

…a kind of catatonia: Sense memory. Substitution. Emotional memory. The “Fourth Wall.” The creation of auxiliary “stories” which are just as difficult to “perform” as the script but lack the merit of being about anything other than ourselves.

The Stanislavsky “Method,” and the technique of the schools derived from it, is nonsense. It is not a technique out of the practice of which one develops a skill — it is a cult.

Once people feared ghosts when they saw great actors. “…the audience feared for their soul. Now that seems to me something to aim for.”

Ancestor Worship

9-10 The actor’s job is solely to communicate the play to the audience. “The actor does not need to ‘become’ the character … There is no character.” When the actor says the author’s lines “the audience sees an illusion of a character upon the stage … the actor has to undergo nothing whatsoever.”

Eisenstein’s theory about the cut being the important thing, the viewer creating the story.

Similarly, it is the juxtaposition in the mind of the audience between the spoken word of the author and the simple directed-but-uninflected action of the actor which creates the ineluctable idea of character in the mind of the audience.

10-13 An actor cannot “be happy” or “be sad” on order. When on stage the actor will either be trying to reach this state, and thinking they must try harder, or reaching the state and pleased with themselves. One cannot command one’s conscious thoughts. “Control of emotion” is pretending. The Method etc. are “hogwash.” In any extreme state a person doesn’t stop to give attention to their own state — they give “all attention to the state of that person from whom they require their object.” The “outward-directed actor” thrills the viewers. Yes, the outward-directed actor will be moved, but this is a trivial by-product of the performance.

14-16 The “great” actors have risen to prominence through their gifts and their experience, “in spite of their studies.” Fielding: “Education being proved useless save in those cases where it is almost superfluous.” Stanislvaski’s theories are for amateurs — they cannot be put into practice.

A Generation That Would Like to Stay in School

17 Formal education for an actor is harmful.

18

The audience will teach you how to act and the audience will teach you how to write and to direct. [Doesn’t sound much fun for the audience!] The classroom will teach you how to obey, and obediance in the theatre will get you nowhere.

19

If you want to be in the theatre, go into the theatre. If you want to have made a valiant effort to go into the theatre before you go into real estate or law school or marry wealth, then perhaps you should stay in school.

20 The Method teaches you to prepare a series of moments for a play and stick to them. We humans don’t like the unexpected; it makes us reveal ourselves. The Method’s exercises are ways of concealing that revelation.

21 The actor is uncertain on stage, and requires courage. The audience sees this real courage and when it’s “coupled with the lines of the playwright, the illustion of character is created.”

22 The actor shouldn’t undergo the character’s trials. He has his own trials. He mustn’t pretend to the character’s difficulties and manipulate himself, his fellows or the audience.

Scholarship

23 Scholarship and The Method encourage you to study and supply the effect one wants to have on the audience.

24

Our effect is not for us to know. It is not in our control. Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make our intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate, and clear, directed to a concrete, easily stated end, our performances become pure and clear.

Find Your Mark

25-8 We will react emotionally to poor comedy, the predictable or the tribulations of the rich and famous, but this is all cheap compared to the real thing. We want real heroism from ordinary people. Forget about a character’s “situation” and what you or he would do in it. You can’t know. Face the audience and “rather than pretending, we can discover whether or not we are courageous.”

28-30 Actors too easily find reasons for why they can’t do things or aren’t prepared. “The magic phrases and procedures are incantations to lessen the terror of going out there naked.” But you’ll be naked anyway. Methods will not create certainty but will dull you to how the moment actually unfolds.

31-2 Don’t think about what is causing your feelings on stage. Whatever it is, just act on it before thinking about it, or you’ll be too late.

I’m on the Corner

34-6 It’s sensible to “have something to fall back on.” But this will make you sensible and cautious. If you have no alternative to acting you’ll see things differently.

Business is Business

37-9 We all want respect and success, but think about whose good opinions you’re craving, and what you’re prepared to do to get them. There is no character, there’s just you, and you are formed by the decisions you’ve made: roles you take, preparation you do, how you conduct business. You are your character.

40 Participate, do what you want, don’t worry about career paths, etc. “Act first to desire your own good opinion.”

41Invent nothing, deny nothing.” Be truthful to a part. Don’t add to what the writer has provided. Resist the temptation.

43

Let me be impolite: most teachers of acting are frauds, and their schools offer nothing other than the right to consider oneself part of the theatre.

Students, of course, do need a place to develop. That place is upon the stage. Such a model can and probably will be more painful than a life spent in the studios. But it will instruct.

And it is probably finally kinder to the audience to subject them to untutored exuberance than to lifeless and baseless confidence.

Auditions

44-6 An audience comes to be entertained, and probably willy be. The agent or producer at an audition don’t and won’t.

47-8 Actors tend to say “I was terrible” or “tonight was great.” Don’t. The audience rarely notices the difference. Yes, you can learn something you could do better, but don’t “invest such feelings with magical significance.”

50 Don’t worry about pleasing people above you in a heirarchy, who may be inferior. It is more frightening to do your own thing — company, play, film — “but it is not less productive.”

Paint by Numbers

52-4

The only reason to rehearse is to learn to perform the play. It is not to “explore the meaning of the play.”

All the methods taught in schools are for hobbyists who have the time for them and will never be tested by performing.

“Work”

55 The “work” an actor does “on the script” makes no difference. It has been done for him already by the author. The actor must simply deliver the lines and the meaning “will come from your intention toward the person to whom they are said.”

57

Text analysis is simply another attempt by the amateur to gain admittance to our pubs.”

58

The so-called Fourth Wall is a construction of someone afraid of the audience. Why should we strive to convince ourselves of the patently false.

Oral Interpretation

60-3 Investigating the background of the “character,” play, setting, etc. will not help you. Clarifying ambiguities in the information given by the characters will not help you. You must simply learn the lines, find an action for each scene, then do your best to accomplish it while saying the words. “It doesn’t matter how you say the lines. What matters is what you mean.”

Helping the Play

64-6 Don’t decide on the emotions for a scene beforehand.

Acceptance

67-9 Actors want to “forget” they are in a play, to “become” the characters. Acting is a skill and an art, not “the ability to self-induce a delusional state.” Our job is the performance of the next action. You don’t have to believe something has happened — imagine it. Enjoy it.

70-1 Belief induces self-deception. Just accept the situation and work out what to do about it.

The Rehearsal Process

72 Two things should happen in the rehearsal process:

  1. The play should be blocked.
  2. The actors should become acquainted with the actions they are going to perform.

73 Actions should be accomplishable. Simple. You must have an objective.

74 eg. Hamlet wants to find out what is rotten in Denmark. He’s trying to restore order. Scene by scene the tools might be: to interrogate, to confront, to negotiate, etc. Actable objectives. Don’t require preparation, they require commitment.

The Play and the Scene

75-6 Ignore the play’s through-line of the character. Ignore the arcs of play and character — there is none.

Concentrate only on your action for this scene, not even how that relates to the entire play. The total of the scene’s actions is the play.

Emotions

77-81 We don’t like it in life if someone has false emotions — overly happy, smiley, sad, etc. It’s as if they’re trying to extort something from us.

Adding “supposed ‘emotion’ to a performance is an attempt to buy off the audience.” “Emotion memory and sense memory are paint-by-numbers.” Just say the words to accomplish a goal.

Action

82-3 Everything in a joke relates solely to the punchline. Similarly, everything in a play tends towards an actor’s objective: “What do I want?” Belief, emotion, substitution, etc. become irrelevant. “Pack for where you want to go.”

Guilt

86-8 All systems based on belief (eg. acting training) function through guilt. They claim the guilt will be alleviated if the student “believes” more. Guilt, self-consciousness, anxiety, etc. will not be cured. These fears are you. When you accept you don’t know what you’re doing, you put yourself in the same situation as the protagonist.

89-91 You must communicate the play to the audience by doing something like what the character is doing. eg. Horatio comes on looking to see what the fuss is about ghosts. You don’t need to do that, or have a belief in ghosts. One way might be to say your job is to clean up a mess. You can do that. Your action. You can use an “as if” (eg, as if your sister has been caught shoplifting) as a reminder, nothing more, of what it means to clear up a mess.

Concentration

93 Re Stanislavsky’s “circle of concentration.” You can’t force yourself to concentrate on something — concentration will always flow to the most interesting thing. Choose a play and actions that are interesting and fun to you and concentration will be beside the point.

Talent

98-100

It is the actor’s job to be truthful and brave — both qualities which can be developed and exercised through the will.

Habit

101-4 Have pride in doing things well. Arrive early. Work in rehearsal, reflect at home, do your actions on stage. Be generous to others. Improve yourself. Be truthful. Learn theatrical skills. Strive to rise with the ranks, not from them.

The Designated Hitter

105-8 The position of The Great Actor is always filled by someone whose performance makes us exclaim “bravo,” rather than makes us ponder and re-examine.

Performance and Character

109-11 Be truthful and brave. Don’t look inward.

112 Most teachers are charlatans. If you don’t understand a teacher, make them explain. If they can’t explain or demonstrate to your satisfaction “they do not know what they’re doing.”

The Villain and the Hero

113-4 We are all suggestible. We will accept something until given a reason to disbelieve it. We don’t need “characterisations” — the author will have done enough suggesting for the audience to believe we are the hero or the villain.

Acting “As If”

115-120 Actors are uncomfortable in their scene. They “act in spite of it.” Don’t conceal your insecurities with “technique.” Don’t fret over doing a good performance, get something concrete from the other person.

Meritocracy

126

A standing ovation can be extorted from the audience. A gasp cannot.

Comments

  • 82-3 Everything in a joke relates solely to the punchline. Similarly, everything in a play tends towards an actor’s objective: “What do I want?” Belief, emotion, substitution, etc. become irrelevant. “Pack for where you want to go.”

    Wow…that pretty much sums up everything about acting right there. Well put (both the originally work, and this summary of it.)

  • This is utterly ridiculous. It sounds as though he is simply having a hissy fit. You cannot possibly expect the most well written play to be exciting if someone is onstage reading it in monotone with no facial expression.