Saturday, December 1, 2007

On Mamet and Education

I went last night to see a student performance of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. (Which, despite its title, is not particularly "perverse.")

This is part my department's Student-Directed Production Festival; every year, at the end of the semester, the students are given the space (and a tiny, tiny budget) to produce... whatever they want. Tired of studying boring old Chekhov? Tired of being told by your acting teacher to do this, do that? This festival has become, like student evaluations, a way of "getting back" at the faculty.

And so we get Sexual Perversity; or Killer Joe, a play notable only for its gigantic bloodbath at the end, which was performed with enough fake blood to leave the classroom-cum-stage ketchup-red for weeks.

These plays, like high school musicals (and High School Musical), inspire a lot of good feeling in our students. They're fun. Like all plays, they require some work to stage, but they're relatively easy to put on. They're also intensely self-gratifying. They're the students saying "this is what I would do if I could do anything I wanted."

And they're usually awful, just as the Mamet was last night. The performance's lack of knowledge about Mamet rhythms and technique; about staging; about sexual chemistry, for that matter, was oh-so-apparent.

But it made the undergrads laugh because the characters kept saying "f*ck," "c*nt," and "p*ssy." Thus, it fulfilled its purpose and will be remembered fondly.

Now, the education part.

When I was a first-year grad student, I also staged a Mamet piece. My adviser let me pretty much alone because he wanted to see me "explore." So I explored.

My actors and I explored so much that it became the longest, most subtext-laden performance of Speed-the-Plow anyone had ever seen.

Afterwards, another faculty member caught up with me in the student lounge and performed, for me, a short Mamet monologue.

"That's how you do Mamet rhythms," he said.

"Got it," I said. (I'm a quick study.)

He looked a little perturbed. "Why didn't anyone talk to you about that before you staged the play?"

I didn't know, then, why no one had mentioned it; but now I'm beginning to understand. Because theatre education is about exploring impulses rather than reining (or training) them in; about breaking away from the masters rather than trying to copy and understand them; about feeling rather than discipline.

Yes, you need feeling. Of course you do. But the more I study and direct performances the more I understand that discipline and specificity are the two most important things a play needs, more important by far than anything else.

It's like a piece of music. Before you can add your own style, you have to learn how to play the note at the right pitch, with the right duration and intensity. Even the great jazz improvisers are playing within a very specific framework.

When I was in Hyderabad, I asked myself the question "which is more important in theatre? the experience, or the final product? and how does the audience factor into this?"

I wrote that I loved working within a "process" framework (exploring the experience, playing), and my casts responded very well to this kind of direction, but it "always felt a bit like cheating."

Now I understand why. After watching my university's Student-Directed Festival, I 100% understand why.

The point of theatre isn't that you play. The point of theatre is that you produce.

But this is not what our students seem to be learning.

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