I got myself a Christmas gift (that’s another tradition in my family): David Mamet’s Theatre. Having blitzed through it, I would recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in theatre, theatre marketing, stagecraft, directing, or playwriting—unless you are a devotee of Method acting, in which case it might make you queasy (or at least make you feel as though you’ve wasted a whole lot of money).
I agree with most of the ideas in Mamet’s essays in this book. This is no surprise; he is primarily a playwright and director, and as a writer I have sympathies in the same areas: the fundamental integrity of the text of the play, the minimalist approach to directing, the distaste for “updating” classic plays.
Of course, he’s not a fan of the theatre critic, but it’s for much the same reasons that I’m not a fan of the theatre critic when they lose their perspective as a member of the audience.
Based on my own experience, and influenced heavily by Mamet’s analysis, this is my summary of what a piece of theatre requires*. There is a hierarchy of importance; each level is meaningless and useless without the supporting level below, suggesting the structure of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Also, I like drawing triangles.
First, the play itself must have a plot capable of standing alone, and decent dialogue. The play must hold its own as a text. It is supposed to be, first, a piece of literature. If, and only if, its performance would be better than reading the text, should it be brought to the stage.
If it should be brought to the stage, it must have good acting and decent direction. By direction is meant blocking, movement, and the guidance given to the actors—not interpretation. Interpretation is a sign of weakness in the play.
At this point, you have actors moving on a bare stage in street clothes, speaking lines. Only if this works as it is, do costume and set belong. Barring a few exceptional cases, if the play does not work without lavish costumes or an intricate set, then it does not work with them either. (If the audience is talking about the costumes and the set… then they’re not talking about the play or the acting. Might as well have just rented mannequins; they’re rarely Equity and don’t have to be paid as much.)
After this, well, bells and whistles. What do I mean by that? Pyrotechnics. Audience interaction. Scented biscuits. I don’t know. If you even need anything else. Theatre occurred way back down on the second level of the pyramid.
You will encounter, on occasion, as I have, some enterprising director or collective trying to pull a right rotten play (lacking plot and/or dialogue) out of the mud; sometimes they meet with considerable successs, and you would be well to listen politely to their proud stories of having done so.
Recognize that it is smarter not to paddle upstream where there are rapids in the first place.
* Yes, I’m familiar with Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle’s sixfold division of the elements of theatre is valid, and as worthy of study as it is apparently neglected. There is nothing hierarchical about it. If you’ve heard of the Poetics, but have never read it, go do so.