Pepe and Mamet had this exchange prior to the beginning of rehearsals. Right out of the gate, it's clear that a caustic comic wit still drives the Pulitzer Prize-winning master storyteller.
Neil Pepe: So Dave, what inspired you to write this play, A Life in the Theatre?
David Mamet: There were these two ancient Nazis, this was like in 1970-something so they must [have] been like, I don't know like, 55 years old at the time. And they kidnapped my mother. And, uh, they told me, if I didn't write the play, they were gonna do some dreadful, dreadful things to her. They weren't specific. But you know, I looked at those uniforms with the jodhpurs and the big, high…hip boots and the Walther automatics…and I said to Gregory Mosher [the director of the original 1977 production in Chicago], I said, "Greg, what should I do?" "Dave," he said, "Dave. The Nazis got your mom." So I've used that phrase many times to remind myself that sometimes it's important to undertake difficult tasks in the service of duty.
NP: How is it different looking at [A Life in the Theatre] 30 years later from when you first started working on it?
DM: I haven't looked at it. I gotta wait till you put it on.
NP: Yeah, yeah. The thing that I love about this play [is that] I always thought of it [not only] as a love letter to the theatre, but also to actors.
DM: Well, I mean, they're doing something magical. After everything is said and done, and all the theories that idiots like I have, and all the acting schools, they're doing something that's just magic. They're taking something which is unreal and making it real. And how are they doing it? Nobody knows. NP: I've had the honor and good fortune over the past 25 years of working with you through the Atlantic Theater Company, and you've certainly been a great mentor to us. Can you talk about that mentor–mentee relationship in the context of this play?
DM: Well, I don't know, these plays are written a long time ago, so when you're young you're looking for advice, right? So the question is: "From whom do you take advice?" So that was a thing that fascinated me. The possibility to get good advice.
NP: And were there specific people in your life that you considered mentors?
DM: I was inspired by anybody who could write well; specifically, [Harold] Pinter and [Samuel] Beckett, and later on by [Terence] Rattigan and [Ferenc] Molnár and Shakespeare, of course, [Heinrich von] Kleist. Um, anybody who can write a good play. God bless 'em.
NP: And are you feeling like the state of what a "life in the theatre" means is different now than when you first wrote [the play]?
DM: It's all the same thing. You know, you try to get a bunch of guys together to put on a play…like [ A Life in the Theatre stars] Patrick Stewart, for example, and T.R. [Knight]. They show up because they love being in the theatre.
NP: So in a way, [it's] a celebration of those people who have that passion and integrity to want to commit themselves to something that's worthwhile?
DM: Yeah. They don't even need integrity.
NP: (Laughs.) Yeah. They just need to act it well.
DM: Well, yeah. The nice thing about the theatre is the people you meet…. You meet a few people — very, very few over the course of the years — who aren't stand-up people, don't have sufficient integrity, do some unfortunate things. And they are shunned, not as a punishment, but just as a matter of course by the community as a whole, who think of them not with anger but with — not even so much with contempt, but with sorrow. And why would you want to turn your back on a community like that? And I'm not speaking specifically about Jeremy Piven.
NP: In your new book, "Theatre," you talk about whether the director is needed in the theatre any more. Do you think I should consider a second career in plumbing?
DM: No, I don't. I think what I said was, the director is needed. But the director is not needed for the things the English department would have us believe the director is needed for. What the director is needed for is [to] oversee the design of the sets and costumes in such a way that they aid the audience's enjoyment and to oversee the staging and pacing. [Most directors] spend all their time talking about the character. One of the other things directors do is they take young actors and they distract and destroy them talking about "character" and "the backstory." What a waste.
NP: And I think you also say at the end of the day it's really about whether the story is compelling to an audience. [That our job is to] make it an entertaining evening of theatre.
DM: It's like arranging a clothing store. I've got a friend with a great clothing store in Boston. And he said it's all about where you put the merchandise, what order you put the merchandise in, if you're gonna make the sale. You can't make people hunt for it. You're creating a dramatic experience. What they see in the window, what they see when they come in, what they're looking at on the racks and in what order: that's what staging is like.
NP: Right. And especially when you're working with great actors, it's framing it up and getting out of the way.
DM: And letting the audience see them. It's not really what you pay the actors for, if the audience can't see them.
NP: Yeah. Well, I'm excited to get started.
DM: Yum yum.
T.R. Knight discusses the rehearsal process: