The first day of September, 2004, marked my debut as an actor and playwright. It might be said that I have always been an actor. That would be hard to argue about. At the moment, I am happy to see this as different. This is how the story started.
A week earlier, Woody Jeffries invited me to an Actors Anonymous workshop in the Railtown Theatre in Gastown. Actors Anonymous was a group of actors and directors who got together once a week to explore a playwright by doing scenes from their plays, working them up over a number of weeks from a cold read to a full off-book performance. Four or five different scenes are performed each evening. After each performance, the director and the actors doing the scene talk about their experience with the work and the playwright as their performance evolves over the weeks. The audience, – the other actors and directors, – engage in the discussion with their own questions and observations.
The workshops were focused on the plays and the playwright rather than on the acting and directing, although the acting and directing play a part in the exploration. There were about thirty-five members in the group. They were in the beginning of an eight-week exploration of David Mamet’s work with scenes from the Duck Variations, Speed the Plow, American Buffalo, Boston Marriage, and Oleanna. During the conversation following a scene that Woody Jeffries was doing from the Duck Variations, Woody said he would like to meet David Mamet.
The idea of Woody wanting to meet David Mamet sparked my imagination. I like David Mamet’s work and his ideas about acting. The next day I wrote a three-page scene called “A Moment with Mamet” that imagined how that encounter might go and called Woody to see if he wanted to put it up.
The following week, Jason Goode, the animator for the Mamet series started the evening by announcing that, coincidentally, David Mamet had been in Vancouver during the week, and happily, Woody had a chance to meet him for coffee. Everyone applauded and were all excited to hear what happened. Woody took the stage and sat at a table with two chairs that we had arranged beforehand. When he was seated, I got up from my seat in the theatre and walked onto the stage as David Mamet and the conversation began.
What was wonderfully unexpected was that the audience believed, until close to the end of the scene, that we were reenacting the conversation. Woody’s friend and fellow actor, Alex, who was doing the scene from the Duck Variations again with Woody later that evening, was listening and engaged and apparently, as we learned later, a little upset because Woody hadn’t told him about Mamet or thought about inviting him. It was only toward the end of the scene when the conversation was beginning to sound like a Mamet play that he realized the encounter was imagined. I would never have imagined that a group of actors, that this group of actors, would be taken in by a Mamet scene, about Mamet, played like Mamet.
Theatre is more powerful at creating an experience and suspending disbelief than I thought. I was delighted to find this happened and excited to have been part of creating this illusion with Woody. It encourages me to keep writing, and acting. Here is the scene.
A Moment with Mamet
Woody: David. Thank you. Good to meet you.
David: It’s a pleasure.
Woody: I wanted to talk to you about your work.
David: Please. Go ahead.
Woody: I have great respect for your work, – not just your plays, – but how you see the actor and the role the actor plays
David: Thank you.
Woody: You’re an actor’s playwright. You show that when a play is well written, – when the parts are well written, – the characters create the connection with the audience. The actor disappears in the character.
David: Thank you.
Woody: You make it easy to be good, – to be a good actor. We were discussing your work, – some actors I know, – and someone said how all your characters are committed. I think you make it easier for actors to be committed, – to be committed to the character, – and to the commitment of the character. The connection becomes easier.
David: It’s all about connection. Theatre is about connection. Life is about connection. Our ability to connect with ourselves, – our ability to connect with others, – our ability to connect with our experience. It’s at the heart of our ability to enjoy our experience. Of being alive. And theatre is powerful in creating that experience. I like to create those connections. I like to feel those connections. I like to help others find them, – and feel them. That’s why you’re here.
David: The connection. When we connect with our character, – we come to know and understand our character. Our interests. Our nature. We experience how our character sees things, – and feels about things. We do our character.
David: So what do you want to talk about? What would you like to know from me? Or about me?
Woody: I don’t know. I’m just excited.
David: All right. Let’s start with excitement. I like excitement. I like to feel excited. Making a connection and feeling connected is exciting. It’s what pulls me forward. I’m not a guru. I just do what I do. I do it for my own pleasure, – for my excitement, – and for my own connectedness.
David: If I were to distill everything I say to my actors, in my plays, and in my direction, – subtle as it might be, – it might amount to this. Remember, this is theatre. Engage in what I say, without expecting what I might say, without denying what I say. It isn’t whether it’s correct. It isn’t whether you see it my way. It isn’t even whether I see it my way. It’s about imagination, – your imagination, – my imagination, – our imagination. That’s what theatre is about. What life is about. Theatre, – and life, – is imagination.
Woody: I know that.
David: Of course. But that’s what I do. That’s my role. That’s my character. I connect you with what you know. And I do it by suspending your disbelief, suspending your judgment, and by engaging you in the experience of others.
Woody: And the actor?
David: Your job, as an actor, is to make my job easy, – in the interests of our audience, – in our interest in connecting with our audience, – and in our interest in being more of who we are and doing more of what we enjoy.
David: Connecting. So it’s not about how we please others. It’s about how we please ourselves.
Woody: I know.
David: I know you know. But being conscious of what we know, becoming more conscious of what we know, and knowing it works is how we become more successful. I can’t tell you what you know. I don’t know what you know. My job isn’t to teach you. Pause. I’m not even interested. I am interested in what I know. I am interested in telling what I know. I am interested in what drives my characters, – in what drives my character. I am interested in learning what I know. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I am in this conversation. I am doing it to please myself. To tell what I know. Learn what I know. Enjoy the experience.
Woody: So I want to learn what I know? Is that my interest?
David: Pause. Does that change the conversation? Pause. What is conversation? Pause. Conversation is an opportunity to explore what we know. To inform about what we think and feel, – what we care about, – to inform ourselves, – to inform others, – to be informed how others think and feel, – what they care about, – to explore for ideas, for knowing, – and to enjoy the experience. In theatre, our audience is engaged in our conversation. They just don’t have lines. A good connection in our conversation, – in what we say and do and how we say and do things, – creates a good connection with our audience.
Woody: Do we feel the connection?
David: We feel through the connection. We experience how others feel through our connection with them, – with their character. We experience how we feel through our connection with ourselves, – with our character. Sometimes we feel the same. Sometimes our feelings are different. It doesn’t matter. It is through our connection that we break the fourth wall. It is through our connection that we come to know our similarities and our differences, – and how our audiences come to know us, – and know themselves.
Woody: So connection and conversation is how we come to know.
David: How else? Even in a conversation with ourselves. If we are in character. If we are honest to our character.
Woody: All right. One more page. I give you a prompt. You give me an answer.
Woody: Theatre is like music.
David: Yes. A good playwright makes it exciting to play the music and exciting to hear. There is a flow, – – even through the pauses. Good actors make the music flow, – and sing, – as the playwright and audience imagine. An uninterrupted connection.
David: Yes. Pause. A pause is human. It’s natural. Especially when we’re considering what’s happening, – what we think, – how we feel, – what we might do. It happens in conversation. Thoughtful conversation. Natural conversation. It is honest. It is real. It makes us real. It makes our conversation real. And the audience pauses. Pause. Waits. Pause. Held.
Woody: Pause. Rapid dialogue.
David: I love it.
David: It’s a device.
Woody: A device?
David: Like an aside.
Woody: How’s that?
David: It tells the audience more.
David: It says there is a connection. Or there’s no connection. It’s an engagement.
Woody: Between the characters.
David: Or within a character. It’s an excitement.
Woody: I’m excited.
David: So am I.
Woody: It is exciting.
Woody: What else.
David: It excites the audience.
David: We can feel them excited about our excitement.
David: We can feel them excited about our engagement.
Woody: I can feel it.
David: They feel excited about this imaginary conversation we are having.
David: Because this conversation is real.
Woody: Because they suspended their disbelief.
David: And they’ve learned more.
Woody: How David Mamet might think.
David: What he might care about.
Woody: About our characters.
David: About us as actors.
Woody: About what we know.
David: About what they know.
Woody: They are connected to our excitement.
David: By our excitement.
Woody: By our connection.
David: By our feelings.
David: All done with rapid-fire.
Woody: I’m thrilled.
David: I’m excited.
Woody: Pause. A good place?
David: I’m finished.
Woody: So am I.
As I left the stage I was asked by one of the directors if I would play the part of the professor in Oleanna, one of my favourite Mamet plays, and I became part of Actors Anonymous for several years.