3 Playwriting Tips From David Mamet
The Pulitzer-winning and Tony-nominated playwright shares advice he’ll impart in his new online MasterClass.
David Mamet, one of the great playwrights of the modern American theatre, won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984 for Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he also earned a Tony nomination. The writer of stage and screen went on to earn a Tony nomination for his Speed-the-Plow, and a second Oscar nomination for Wag the Dog (his first came in 1983 for The Verdict). Inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 2002, the writer’s signature style has earned its own moniker: Mamet speak.
Now, Mamet dons his professor cap as he teaches Dramatic Writing for MasterClass, the online education platform that creates classes from world-renowned instructors. Open for enrollment as of May 23 (via masterclass.com/dama), his course teaches writing for both the theatre and screen—including how to structure a plot, create compelling characters, and write authentic dialogue. Here, the playwright offers three crucial points of advice as a sampling of what’s to come in the digital classroom:
1. Test your work before an audience—and embrace failure.
“I was very lucky as a young man because I had my own theatre company from the age of about 21, and I just put up plays all the time. So you have the best ideas in the world, you put them on, and they fall flat. And, because that was and is my love—writing drama, staging drama, understanding it—I had to come back and say, ‘Why did that not work?’ It’s basically an ongoing exposure. The playwright begins to associate the joy of writing a long, beautiful scene with the humiliation of seeing the audience go to sleep in the beginning of it. He weens himself of the impulse [to write a scene like that] little by little. It never goes away completely. Everybody has an urge to entertain an audience if they’re writing drama—I hope they do—but the other urge, to have the horror of boring the audience, can only be inculcated by putting on a play for an audience and watching it fail.”
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2. Cut extraneous details.
“I say a perfect example is [the joke]: ‘Why the chicken crossed the road—to get to the other side.’ That’s a good joke. ‘Why did the bantam chicken cross the dirt road?’ We realize that’s absurd, right? We don’t care that it’s a bantam chicken, and we don’t care that the road is dirt. We get it. Nonetheless, when we try to write drama, all of us make that mistake of adding extraneous information. So why did the bantam chicken cross the road is no different than saying, ‘Joe, a young man of moderate experience and perhaps some intelligence. However, he is overwhelmed by the influences of sex and drugs often, as we’ll see here in the story today.’ That’s how a lot of scripts start, right? With extraneous information. Some actor is going to play the part and if these things—moderate taste for sex and drugs—are going to affect the hero, we’ll find out about it throughout the course of the story. Telling us about it beforehand is a waste of our time. Writing drama comes down to three things: What does the hero want? What happens if he doesn’t get it? And why now? Everything else, throw it away.”
3. Never trust a producer.
“Because they’re a bunch of lying thieves. Somebody asked George Burns, ‘What’s the biggest lesson you learned in 90 years of show business?’ He said, ‘Always take your wallet onstage.’ Here’s the problem: Actors and writers, artists in show business, are at a distinct disadvantage, and the disadvantage is that we do it for nothing. Show business is a tough business, and the rules in show business are the same as the rules in poker: When you got nothing, get out; when you got the best hand, make them pay. On the downside, we do it for nothing, and the producers know that, and on the upside, we get the great enjoyment—once in a while—of actually doing something and seeing one of our creations come to life.”
MasterClass was co-founded by David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen with the mission of providing everyone the opportunity to learn from the world’s best. Instructors also include Kevin Spacey, Aaron Sorkin, and Dustin Hoffman. For more information, visit masterclass.com.