This is a collection of other collections of essays on a variety of subjects. There is quite a lot of stuff early on in which Mamet recalls his childhood and early career in Chicago and New York. But the essays on acting, writing and directing interested me most, and these are what I took occasional notes on. Although, as he says, his thoughts on directing came after directing only two movies, at which point he thought he knew it all, but didn’t know how much he didn’t know.
Writing in Restaurants - Preface
…the two ideas I discovered as a student [of acting]: (1) every aspect of the production should reflect the idea of the play; (2) the purpose of the play is to bring to the stage the life of the soul.
117-118 Listening to radio drama, people identify with the protagonist, so long as the writer isn’t too specific about him/her (at which point the listener hears ways in which they and protagonist are different). They will fill in gaps in description. So radio drama teaches writers to concentrate on the essentials. Characterizing the people or scene takes time from, weakens, the story. “Working for radio, I learned the way all great drama works: by leaving the endowment of characters, place, and especially action up to the audience.”
Good drama has no stage directions. It is the interaction of the characters’ objectives expressed solely through what they say to each other - not what the author says about them. The better the play, the better it will fare on radio.
As ‘fantastic cinematography’ has been the death of the American film, ‘production’ [values have] been the death of American theater.
An Unhappy Family
130-131 In the American theater there is a hierarchy based on job title, with actors afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. They must do as they’re told for the good of the production.
This unreasoned commercial hierarchy of actor-director-producer has drained the theater of its most powerful force: the phenomenal strength and generosity of the actor; and, as in any situation of unhappy tyranny, the oppressed must free the oppressor.
The Urban solution to most any problem is to do more: to find something new to eat in order to lose weight; to add a sound in order to relax; to upgrade your living arrangements in order to be comfortable; to buy more, to eat more, to do more business.
Notes on The Cherry Orchard
192-198 The Cherry Orchard is “a lot of brilliant scenes” and the whole business with having to sell the orchard is just a pretext for keeping everyone in the same place. Why do we love it nevertheless? The play is only about the actions of its characters (the superficial idiosyncrasies or social states of characters in a play do not involve us in a play like their actions, and they “finally, separate us”). We enjoy “the reiterated action of this reiterated scene: two people at odds — each trying to fulfill his or her frustrated sexuality.”
The attention of the artist [actor] must be focused outward — not on what he is feeling, but on what he is trying to accomplish. …
He must have the courage to say to his fellow actors on stage (and so to the audience): “I am not concerned with influencing or manipulating you, I am not concerned with nicety. I am here on a mission and I demand you give me what I want.
This actor brings to the stage desire rather than completion, will rather than emotion. His performance will be compared not to art, but to life; and when we leave the theater after his performance we will speak of our life rather than his technique. And the difference between this organic actor and the self-concerned performer is the difference between a wood fire and a fluorescent light.
202 The set (and acting, and direction, etc) else should put forward the meaning of the play. Any aspect which doesn’t impedes the meaning. Eg if set in a cafeteria, which aspect of a cafeteria (a place of surveillance? A place of rest?) is important to the meaning? The set should reflect that and nothing else.
To make the transition from realism to truth, from self-consciousness to creativity, the artist must learn how to be specific to something greater than him- or herself on different levels of abstraction: the meaning of the scene, the intention of the author, the thrust of the play. But never “reality,” or “truth,” in general.
A first test of all elements should be not “Do I feel comfortable (i.e., immobile) when considering it?” but “Do I feel impelled? Do I start to move? Does it make me want to do something?”
Introduction from A Practical Handbook for the Actor
246-247 “Most acting training is based on shame and guilt.” Some exercises you won’t understand, the teacher will criticise you and you’ll feel guilty. Others you will understand, but their usefulness will escape you and you’ll be too ashamed to ask. You learn to pretend to do everything “right” like the other students. You’re loath to believe the teachers are frauds so you think you are a fraud.
“Most acting teachers, unfortunately, are frauds, and they rely on your complicity to survive.” This deprives you of your sense of truth, simplicity, wonder and reverence.
To translate these onto the stage “be what you wish to seem” [sounds like pretending to me…]. You can’t control whether your performance or career will be brilliant — you can only control your intention.
Film is a Collaborative Business
When directing on stage, I would arm myself with a detailed outline, the intentions of each character, and notes to myself on how to communicate these intentions to the actors (through the means of direction) and to the audience (through manipulation of the scenic elements).
My “mountain climbing” theory of creative endeavour - get an absolutely firm foothold, and then make a small excursion to another absolutely firm foothold.
On Directing Film
345 The following essays are based on lectures given in1987 when he had “unquestionably progressed beyond the neophyte stage but was not experienced enough to realize the extent of [his] ignorance.”
347 He adheres to Eisenstein’s theory about making movies. It is nothing to do with following a protagonist around but rather
is a succession of images juxtaposed do that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience.
Images should be “uninflected” or you’re slipping into narration.
348 Look at how documentaries tell stories about, say animals, purely by using juxtaposed uninflected images.
If you find that a point cannot be made without narration [verbal or visual], it is virtually certain that the point is unimportant to the story (whuch is to say, to the audience): the audience requires not information but drama.
“Where do you put the camera?”
[Great dialogue between Mamet and students about how to film a scene. This format — presenting the reader with a class in progress — really does help teach ideas to the reader, a bit like Michel Thomas’s technique for teaching foreign languages aurally.]
352 What is the scene about? Film that, don’t just “follow the protagonist”. What does the protagonist want, what does he or she do to get it? The scene is over when they get it.
353-4 Work one beat at a time. Don’t “establish character” — “there is no such thing.” There’s only what the protagonist does in pursuit of their superobjective.
353 A concept must be essential to the scene. If you can tell the story without it, you don’t need it.
358 Keep the audience’s attention “by withholding all information except that information the absence of which would make the progress of the story incomprehensible.”
366 Tell the story in the cut, not the shot. Two shots creating a third idea.
368 Don’t reiterate everything the scene is about in one of its beats, or the film in one of its scenes.
When thinking of the next beat ask yourself, “what would I like to do next in my wildest imagination.”
369 If the scene or movie’s objective has a clear cut success or failure we know where we’re going and when we’re finished.
386 Sometimes you finish a scene before the problem is over, and answer it in the next scene, so he audience will follow you.
The Tasks of the Director
388-391 The job of the actor isn’t to portray the idea of the movie, or to emote or discover, but to accomplish each action as simply as possible.
393 There is no “arc of performance” for the actor. Each shot and action is separate and uninflected and it all happens when these are cut together.