The Conversational Reality

On Mamet’s “Oleanna” and how he and William H. Macy teach acting

Mimi Kramer
51 min readNov 14, 2017

Some years ago, in the middle of an acting class he was giving, the playwright David Mamet launched into a brief send-up of 1930s telephone exposition. He was talking about the evolution of style, explaining why the approach to acting that he and William H. Macy have always espoused is diametrically opposed to “Method” acting, a technique — he pointed out — that had been all about superimposing things on the text. (“What am I thinking here?” “How am I feeling now?”) That technique, in turn, had supplanted the old mechanical how-should-I-say-the-line style of acting —unenlightened from a 1930s standpoint, because it had been all about superimposition.

“Times change, people change,” Mamet said. Those acting techniques had been valid. They weren’t created by idiots but by people with a sincere desire to bring the truth of a script to an audience. But things that had seemed revolutionary fifty or a hundred years ago were commonplace now. Maybe it was because human nature had changed; maybe it was because the weather had changed; maybe it was because we all watched too much television.

“The fact is that nowadays everyone gets the point right off. We don’t need so much narration,” Mamet said.

So what made great acting great before— the expository part — wasn’t neces­sarily going to make great acting now. Leave it out, Mamet told the students. Everyone gets the idea. Everyone’s ahead of you. Everyone’s beaten you to the punchline. That was when Mamet brought up plays of the 1930s and the telephone speech and how it had once been acceptable rise-of-curtain strategy to fill an audience full of information: “No, I’m sorry, the master is out just now. He had to pick up his new hat and coat because, as you know, he’s about to leave on an extended tour of Siberia …”

Mamet’s play “Oleanna” begins with a different sort of parody of exposition: a sequence in which a college professor does nothing to cut short a rather animated and per­sonal phone conversation, despite the fact that a student is sitting in his office, waiting to talk to him.

What makes the scene parody is the fact that no narrative information is passed to the audience via the phone. The words the professor speaks into the receiver are like the flip-side of a conversation, the side that would be going on offstage in another play. The primary piece of information that Mamet uses the phone to convey concerns the professor’s character.

It’s largely a matter of how he uses the phone to belittle the student— to bully her and impress her with his busyness and importance. Later, he will use the phone to belittle other people. Actually, both characters are a little loathsome. The man is a university peacock, one of those maverick teachers so in love with his own virtue and power to do good that he cannot really focus on the student before him. The woman is the liberal-arts major’s nightmare. She’s The Notetaker From Hell — meticulous, plodding, literal-minded; the sort of student who thinks that learning is all about fulfilling a requirement. “I read your book,” she keeps protesting, when she comes to talk to the professor about her grade. “I read your book” — as though that were all there was to it: completing an assignment, fulfilling a requirement, doing what one has been told.

She begins as a monster of literalism and becomes, by the end, a monster of metaphor — a walking embodiment of the feminist axiom that such-and-such action or incident is “tantamount to rape.” We know, because we have seen what really happened, that the charge of sexual harassment the student brings against the professor (by the end of the play, it has escalated to attempted rape) is false. We know exactly how the literal truth is being distorted; and yet….and yet. It would be wrong to say the play ever makes us feel the student is justified. All the same, we’re not completely sorry to see the professor destroyed.

It’s interesting that Mamet undoes this character with a habit of metaphor. Mamet himself is a maverick teacher of some long standing; so is Macy, who created the role of the professor in “Oleanna.” During the 1980s, the two of them set about trying to undermine some of the most basic tenets of mainstream American acting training. One year, they started a summer workshop in Vermont, The Practical Aesthetics Workshop, where they taught an alternative acting technique that Mamet had invented. The workshop became a school, which later spawned a professional company — The Atlantic Theatre — whose members continued to teach what Mamet and Macy had taught them.

It was partly an acting technique and partly a philosophy of theater— an approach that encouraged the actor to dis­tance himself from the character he or she was playing. Where Method actors were taught that they had to become a character, drawing on “sense-memory” and on things that had happened to them in their own lives, Mamet’s students were invited to resort to imagination.

Central to Mamet’s technique was a mnemonic device called “the as-if.” Instead of trying to liken the situation in the play to something the actor or actress had suffered in his or her own life — like students trained in the form of Method Acting that Lee Strasberg made famous — the Mamet-trained actor was asked to think of a hypothetical situa­tion that was unlike the situation in the play but morally analogous, where he or she wanted to achieve something.

In fact, a good deal of what Macy and Mamet taught had to do with inculcating a habit of metaphor with regard to theater. One of Mamet’s main points has always been that theater itself is a kind of metaphor — that plays function in society in much the same way that dreams operate on the unconscious — and that actors and playwrights would do better to strive for the half-­stated and surreal approximation of life that obtains in dreams rather than aspire to naturalism.

“It’s not supposed to be realistic,” Mamet has been heard to say. “It’s the fucking theater.”

The most dreamlike aspect to “Oleanna” was the response the play got when it first opened in New York—the discrepancy between what got written and what got said. Drama critics bristled at how little Mamet had seen fit to tell us about what happens offstage between the man and the woman in the play. They com­plained of the constant ringing of a telephone as well as Mamet’s use of the phone to convey information. (In Variety one reviewer explained slowly and carefully about the old-fashioned rise-of-curtain telephone speech.) Audience members, though, often seemed intrigued by the phone and less inclined to take umbrage at the skeletal picture we get of the relationship in the play.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the controversy the play generated was what people weren’t arguing about. They weren’t debating what had happened in the play. Nobody thought the professor guilty of what the student had accused him of. But there were those who didn’t think him entirely innocent, either, who emerged from the theater feeling he’d spun his own noose somehow, that the same character traits that led him to behave in certain objectionable ways were what ultimately brought him down.

There were patterns, too. Younger women tended to respond to Carol, the student — the role originated by Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon — with indignation, as though they resented a caricature of something they recognized in themselves, while the men who seemed most anxious to distance themselves from Mamet’s “misogynistic” viewpoint were the very ones who most resembled the professor, John.

One of the most revealing patterns had to do with the phone. Some people picked up right away on the preening, aggressive way the professor uses it; some had to have it explained to them; some had no idea what you were talking about. They couldn’t see — or wouldn’t acknowledge — the degree to which the professor is performing with the phone, showing off for the student, establishing how much weightier and more far-reaching his concerns are than hers.

It was as though there were certain things that certain people simply could not see, so that the play was like a cross between a Rorschach and one of those tests for color-blindness. An actress friend, who came with me to an invited dress rehearsal of the New York production, said that it would be a wonderful way to find out about somebody, on a first date or something, and that there ought to be a trope in literature for an object invested with magical powers whereby whoever was looking at it saw something different — the point being, she said, that you couldn’t tell anything at all about the object itself from what people said they saw, but you could tell a whole lot about the people describing it.

“This pedantic, full-of-himself, condescending schmuck,” Macy was saying, “just loving to hear himself speak and just so pleased with himself about his — his intellectual prowess and his power!” He was talking to a broadcast journalist about the character of the professor, shortly before the play’s New York opening.

Macy said that when he’d first started to act the part, every bad teacher he’d ever had came back to him. “And in my business,” Macy went on, “the acting teachers out there? They are such frauds.”

The journalist — it was the arts-radio producer Jan Albert — had begun by asking Macy how he went about preparing for a role like that of the victimized professor in “Oleanna.”

Macy said he hadn’t done any “preparation” at all. “I mean, what are you going to do? It’s all there,” he said. “Also, this whole idea of becoming the character. Well, it’s just nonsense.”

Albert said she’d been fascinated to read about this approach to acting that Mamet and Macy espoused, which argued that feelings were somehow beside the point. “How could feelings be beside the point to an actor?” she asked. “I thought you actors were free-floating repositories of feelings for the rest of us who were too repressed to express them.”

“Well, perhaps we are,” Macy allowed. He said feelings were “beside the point” because they were outside an actor’s con­trol. “You can suppress your feelings, or you can let them go, but you can’t control them. That’s a law of nature.”

“But can’t you manipulate them?” Albert persisted? “As an actor — you know, ‘sense memory’ and all that.”

“No,” Macy said. Could you work yourself into a state? Yes, you could do that. Did it have anything to do with any play he’d ever been in? “No, absolutely not,” Macy said. “What talks is what people do. That’s what an audience perceives.”

Until comparatively recently, the whole notion of worry­ing about what an audience perceives would have been seen as pitiably unsophisticated by the lights of mainstream American acting training. Method acting — or the form of it that Lee Strasberg promoted at the Actors’ Studio — always maintained a basically hypocritical attitude toward the audience. It was embarrassed by the idea of artifice in theater. Strasberg taught the actor to buy into the idea that art, in order to reflect reality, had to reproduce it exactly. What was supposed to be happening to a character at any given moment in the play had to be actually happening to the actor, and anything that seemed to acknowledge that one was performing for an audience smacked of charlatanism.

Why it never occurred to Strasberg and his colleagues at the Group Theater that truth was some­thing to be arrived at indirectly may have to do with the spirit of the time: “serious” theater in this country came of age contemporaneously with psychoanalysis and film. But it may also have to do with something like a “national character” — the high value that we as Americans have always placed on honesty and forthrightness. Older, more sophisticated, more openly decadent cultures have always acknowledged a need for artifice in daily life; and their dramatic literatures reflect this. They make the uses of artifice — hypocrisy, dissembling, affectation, self-deception — an abiding theme.

Very little in American culture applauds the idea of artifice. Mamet was probably the first contemporary American playwright to embrace it, to develop a body of work that recognized artifice as a moral force — one that could be used for good or ill. The characters he wrote about were often conmen and thieves — people who practiced on one another and who — like characters in Ben Jonson or Shakespeare — were interesting and attractive because of this. But on another level, Mamet’s protagonists weren’t really conmen and thieves; at any rate, the robbery or the real-estate deal that the play purported to be about never came to fruition. So, the play had to be about some­thing else.

Latent content, manifest content. “We respond to a drama to that extent to which it corresponds to our dream life,” Mamet has written. And, of course, it wasn’t really that the conmen and thieves weren’t conmen and thieves so much as that, like dream ­images, they functioned in more than one way. Classical actors, accustomed to the language of poetic drama, are familiar with the phenomenon of characters who function variously and represent more than one thing. But it’s a concept completely alien to American realist drama: from O’Neill on down, the character was there to suffer and to say what he meant.

In Mamet’s plays, the characters did not always say what they meant. Sometimes they did. Sometimes when they spoke, they said exactly what they thought they were saying. Sometimes, when they thought they were saying one thing, they were actually saying something else. Sometimes, when they thought they were saying something wonderfully profound, they weren’t saying anything at all. And sometimes, when Mamet’s characters weren’t saying anything at all, and knew they weren’t saying anything — knew, too, that they were making nonsense sound like good sense, like the secret of life — they were doing something so intricate and complicated with language that you couldn’t even describe it. All you could do was sit there and laugh.

“The words are gibberish,” is a phrase that Mamet and Macy always used to refer to that dislocation between utterance and meaning. And it was this phenomenon that the acting technique Mamet had invented was partly designed to bring out, so that while certain words were being said something else could be going on below the surface of the dialogue.

I asked Macy, once — shortly after seeing the original production of “Oleanna” in Boston — how far back that business of what-you-saw being different from what-you-were-hearing had started with Mamet.

Macy said he didn’t think that was quite accurate. He sug­gested coming at it a different way.

“What’s The Truth of the Moment? That’s the question,” Macy said. And the answer wouldn’t necessarily lie in what was being said. It might. Someone might say exactly what he meant, and that would be The Truth of the Moment. But The Truth of the Moment was a thing in and of itself.

“That’s interesting,” I said, “Because what you just said isn’t true of the play you’re doing now.”

“You think not?” Macy said a little dangerously.

“Well, no, I mean— I’m not saying,” I stammered.

“I think you could find a consensus as to what the truth is from moment to moment,” Macy said. “What you’d have trouble finding agreement on is what it all means.”

“Right, right,” I said. I said that was what I’d meant.

When I rang Jan Albert to thank her for lending me the tape of her interview, which Macy had told me about, I asked if she’d really been shocked by his ideas about acting, or if she’d just been trying to get him to talk. She said that she’d been genuinely shocked by Macy’s views. She even sounded a little offended. She said that she wished she’d had more time, that she would have liked to pursue the matter with him. She sounded as though she thought she would have got somewhere if she’d had more time.

The Practical Aesthetics Workshop is now called The Atlantic Acting School. Around thirty years ago, at Mamet’s instigation, I got interested in the Work­shop and what they were teaching there and became, for a time, a frequent visitor to its classes — a temporary fixture, you might say. One spring, in response to an essay about acting, Mamet sent me a book that some former stu­dents of his had written. A year or so later, I was invited up to visit the Workshop during its summer session in Vermont. I sat in on classes, talked to people, and asked a lot of questions. I went on talking to people and asking questions. Then, in 1990, I spent the better part of a summer watching acting classes in Vermont.

In the end, I gave up. I decided I was never going to understand what Mamet and Macy teach. But I came away convinced of two things: that there is definitely something to it, and that you get nowhere trying to argue with Macy about anything.

I was, I realize now, a great disappointment to Macy that summer. I was too passive. At the Workshop, you were supposed to be interested in analyzing scenes and playing something called “The Repetition Game.” I think Macy expected me to join in and see what the exercises they taught were like, even though I was only there to observe. “Don’t you want to try doing this?” he asked me once, with barely suppressed excitement, as though he couldn’t believe that anyone wouldn’t. I looked at him as if he had just grown a second head. Another time, when a couple of students were doing a scene from a John Patrick Shanley play that ended with a line from a disembodied voice, Macy crept up beside me and whispered that I should say the line. I was appalled.

He wanted me to want to try things and do stuff. But I was only interested in history and theory. I wanted to know things, not do them. I wanted to know about “the words are gib­berish,” and what “the conversational reality” was, and who had invented something called “the Dirty-Joke Game.” And I wanted to know where Meisner ended and Mamet began.

Macy, I knew, had been Mamet’s student at Goddard College, where Mamet had gone to teach after a brief — ­and, it was said, unamicable — stint studying with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in the late sixties. Meisner, along with Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Harold Clurman, had been one of the founding members of the Group Theatre and a leading proponent of “the Stanislavsky System,” but where Strasberg taught the actor to look inward, Meisner saw acting as something that had to exist in relation to other things.

He was a musician. He had studied to be a concert pianist before becoming an actor and a teacher, and integral to Meisner’s ideas about acting was a realization that in theater — as in any of the performing arts — two elements had to be reconciled: a fixed element, represented by the script or the score or the choreography, and an element that could not be fixed because it had to do with the reality of performance.

Most of the exercises Meisner devised aimed at teaching actors to work improvisationally with each other the way musicians do — not in the inspired, dramatic sense of the jazz riff or the cadenza, but in the sense of the tiny, intuitive, split-second decisions that have to be made on the basis of what is happening from moment to moment in the performance of a piece. In one of these, The Repetition Game, two acting students batted an arbitrary phrase back and forth like a ping-pong ball.

Macy always shied away from claiming credit for any of the bizarre exercises he and Mamet had their students do, saying that most of the games and exercises they taught — like most of what they had taught at the St. Nicholas Theater in Chicago, years before — were variations on Meisner inventions.

There was a phrase Macy sometimes used in class. He talked about finding “the conversational reality.” (The words always seemed to have quotations marks around them.) “Now listen,” he would say, “the other thing is this whole idea of ‘a conversational reality’ — work at it more.” Did they hear how the language was a little bit stilted? Then he would go all vague and say that he didn’t know what he was saying, really, except that they shouldn’t get stuck in Martian line-readings.

Students at the Workshop always disavowed the phrase when I asked them about it. “Oh, that’s Meisner,” they would say, or, “That’s just something Bill says.”

I wanted “the conversational reality” to be Mamet’s phrase: it seemed to capture so well the phenomenon we refer to when we speak of “Mamet acting”or “Mamet writing” — that heightened pseudo-plausibility which does so much to create the illusion that people are communicating while simultaneously warning us that it is only an illusion.

The one time I tried asking Mamet about the phrase, it seemed to irritate him. “What is that?” he asked impatiently. “What does that mean?”

I said I didn’t know, that it was something I’d heard Macy say and had hoped one of them could explain it to me. But Mamet only changed the subject.

“You probably pissed him off,” Macy said when I told him about it later. “Dave hates any kind of jargon.”

Macy himself was always cagey on the subject. “‘The conversational reality,’” he would begin, “that’s a dicey phrase — I know that it exists…” and then he would break off and laugh and say that he didn’t know what it meant.

“See, you have to develop the skill of treating the words as gibberish,” he told me, once. “But that does not imply that there isn’t a reality to the lines.” He said it was a balance: the ability to act as if the words were gibberish meant they didn’t mean anything in particular, they were wide open to interpretation — on the day, in the moment. But “the conversa­tional reality” was — you had to communicate with the other per­son.

“So whatever you’re doing — and the lines can’t tell you what you’re doing — you’re in a conversation, and it must maintain that reality, that you’re actually talking to each other.”

It seemed to me that when Macy said reality, he really meant illusion (“… the illusion that you’re actually talking to each other …”) But I only said, “Yes, I see.”

Mamet and Macy differed from other acting teachers I had encountered in a number of ways.

In any other acting class I’d ever attended, artistic merit always seemed to be founded on a lie — or at best a subjective truth. Whatever the teacher said was good or true was accepted as good or true, too often pretending to a virtuosity that no one else had seen. Mamet and Macy were less capricious. Whatever they were looking for, it seemed, would have to be something that could be corroborated.

This was the first thing Macy established when he introduced the Repetition Game. Turning to one of two students seated in a couple of metal folding chairs, he would ask to be told “something true” about the other student.

“She has red hair,” the first student might say.

“She has red hair,” Macy would echo. Then he would turn to the class. “Is that true?” Everyone would say yes.

“Does anyone here dispute that statement?” Everyone would say no.

“If we brought more people in, would they dispute it?” Everyone would say no.

“Then it’s true,” Macy would say.

The way the Repetition Game worked was this. One student made a truthful statement about the other (“You’re wearing a blue dress.”) and the second student repeated it from her point of view (“I’m wearing a blue dress.”). Then it went back to the first student (“You’re wearing a blue dress.”), then back to the second (“I’m wearing a blue dress.”), and on and on.

The purpose of the exercise was to get you to watch for instances of “specific behavior” — things that happened in your scene partner that an actor who was “in the moment” could “work off of.”

The rules, as Mamet and Macy conducted the exercise, were very strict: you were supposed to stick with the same words, repeating them over and over, until something you noticed in the other person gave you a reason to change them. If you saw something and acted on it, describing what you had seen, then that became the basis of “the script.”

You said, “You’re slumping,” and your partner said, “I’m slumping,” and it went back and forth. Then, if your scene partner sat up straight, you might say, “You’re not slumping.” That was “being in the moment.” But if you suddenly blurted out, “I hate your sneakers,” that was “making stuff up,” and Macy or Mamet would probably stop the exercise and ask how many people thought you really cared one way or another about your partner’s shoes and how many thought that you were just trying to be interesting.

The tiniest change in the other person was considered an instance of “specific behavior.” If one student blinked or shifted in her seat — ”What was that?” Macy would say.

“Your eyebrow twitched.”

“My eyebrow twitched.”

“Your eyebrow twitched.”

“My eyebrow twitched.”

It was fine to vamp — that’s what the repetition was for. It was just empty verbiage to keep you honest while you kept the game going. The point was that it had to be meaningless verbiage because meaning came burdened with too many preconceptions.

“Your eyebrow twitched.”

“My eyebrow twitched.”

“Your eyebrow twitched.”

“You’re enjoying this.”

“I’m enjoying this.”

“You’re enjoying this.”

It was partly about bravery — just sticking in there — and partly about nimbleness of mind, diminishing the time it took you to perceive something and then act on the basis of what you had seen.

Macy was so good at it that the event he was stopping the students to point out — some change in expression or posture — had usually only occurred one repetition back. For the students, the delay factor was generally longer.

The kind of focus that Mamet and Macy were trying to inculcate in their students has few analogues in ordinary, everyday life. The closest thing to it I’ve ever encountered is the kind of attention one trains on an infant in the first few months of life. In those weeks when a baby is first beginning to track movement or focus on brightly-colored objects, recognize faces, and smile, you watch with heightened vigilance for anything that might be interpreted as a response. It was that level of intensity and analytical impulse.

Another exercise that Mamet taught the students that summer was The Three-Line Game. Here he would invent a two-line exchange and assign each line to one of two volunteers. He told one student to say, “What have you done to your hair?” and the other student to say, “Oh, do you like it?” For the third line, the first student had to report on whatever had manifested itself in the second student’s countenance, tone, bearing or demeanor.

This was a lot harder than playing the Repetition Game. There you could get away with bluffing. Here, if you made something up, you were bound to get called on it, because the game stopped dead as soon as you took your shot.

“What did you do to your hair?”

“Oh, do you like it?”

“You’re afraid.”

“No, she wasn’t afraid — she was smiling at you.”

“She was smiling at me?”

“Wasn’t she?”

“I just thought she was afraid — ”

“Beautiful wide smile — split her whole face in half. Everybody see that? Start again.”

The important thing wasn’t to take time to look, Mamet said. The important thing was to let it come out.

He said it was just like shooting a gun: when you aimed a gun, you got a sight­ picture; as soon as you had the sight-picture, you pulled the trigger. The sight picture was never going to get any better, and thinking about it would only make your arm tired.

“What did you do to your hair?”

“Oh, do you like it?”

“You’re — scared.”

“Was she scared? I don’t think so. Try it again.”

The lines would always be the same, Mamet said, but the moment would always be different. He said it was like basket­ball: you could practice the plays, but when you got out on the court, you were going to have to work off of what was going on in the game. The plays would help or they wouldn’t. You weren’t going to be able to stop and say, “Wait a second, excuse me, but I’m in the midst of a number five here.”

“What did you do to your hair?”

“Oh, do you like it?”

“Don’t placate me!”

“No, she wasn’t placating you, was she? She was kind of teasing you. Let’s start again.”

Mamet could always tell — it seemed — what was or wasn’t “in the moment.” If he noticed a student responding to something real and truthful, he would point that out, too — how “the truth of the moment” had brought her to life. Look, he would say! Did you see what she did? Had they all seen — how what had been dormant in her before had come out, suddenly, and suffused her whole body. “She didn’t put that in,” Mamet would say. “It was there anyway.”

He said it was the same with any acting that you did. “See that’s the thing: that’s why you’ve got to watch. Because you can’t prepare for it, can you? Who knows what’s going to be there?”

The idea of “testability” figured prominently in Mamet and Macy’s approach to acting training. It figured in the way Macy taught the repetition exercise. It figured in their approach to scene analysis, which required the actor to define what a character was doing strictly in terms of another actor in the scene.

According to their technique, which Macy swore Mamet had dreamed up in the course of a single evening shortly before that first summer workshop, any unit of drama — a scene or part of a scene — could be boiled down to a single Action or “essence.” (Most actors would probably call this the character’s objective.) To arrive at a character’s Action you were supposed to look at two things: what the character was literally doing in the scene, and what the character wanted.

It sounded simple enough. But an Action couldn’t be just anything you happened to think up. It had to be something “actable.” There was, indeed, a whole list of requirements that an Action had to fulfill in order to be deemed “actable.” It had to be something feasible — not, say, “Saving the World.” In fact, it had to be something you were getting from another actor in the scene — some effect you wanted to have. An Action also had to be fun to do — something you would want to do every night, over and over again, in performance after performance. It also had to have “a cap.” There had to be soemthing that would tell you when you’d succeeded. (It couldn’t be Make Her Happy, for instance, because how would you know if she was?)

It had to be “testable.” You had to be able to look at the other actor in the scene and tell how well you were doing.

For this reason, most Actions were expressed in terms of getting something from the other actor in the scene, inducing him or her do something: “Get Her to Do the Right Thing” or “Get the Go-Ahead” or “Make Him See the Light.”

“What’s your Action,” Macy would ask, when two scene partners had run through a scene-fragment they had prepared.

“Get Him to Back My Play,” a student might say.

Early in the term, Macy often asked a student: “How will you know when you’ve succeeded?”

Figuring out a character’s Action was only the first part of the analysis. The next part was coming up with an as-if.

“And what’s that like to you?” Macy would ask.

“It’s as if I’m getting Stephen to back me on putting Angie to sleep,” the student might say.

“Okay, let’s hear it,” Macy would say.

Then the student would begin “talking out” the as-if.

“Look, Stephen,” he might say to his scene partner, whose name probably wasn’t Stephen, “I really need your help with this. I can’t do it alone. I know it’s hard — I love her, too, but she’s really suffering. You don’t want her to go on suffering, do you? You don’t want that. I know you don’t, but I really need you to help me out with this.”

If it did look as though the student was doing what she’d said he swas doing — Macy would make a suggestion. “That looked to me more like, Get Him to Do the Right Thing,” he might say.

Laying Down the Law; Getting the Go-Ahead; Encouraging A Risk; Getting A Commitment; Getting A Confession; Getting Him to Open Up; Getting An Apology; Making Her See the Light, Getting My Due.

When students declared their Actions, it often seemed as though there were a finite supply of human desires and needs, sitting on a shelf somewhere, neatly labeled, and the student had just taken one down. Sometimes, perhaps for this reason, when students brought in scenes from plays I knew that they had clearly misunderstood — from Shakespeare, say, or Oscar Wilde — I would get nervous. I couldn’t see how Macy would be able to fix it, using this bizarre approach. But he always did.

Macy invented a new exercise that summer: The 10-Line Game. Here students wrote brief gibberish dialogues for one another to perform with Actions and as-ifs. The scenes were nonsense — they had nothing to do with anything except what happened to be going on in the minds of the students who’d written them:


How are you?

Good. How about you?

No complaints.

What did you do last night?

Nothing much. You?

Watched a little t.v.

Anything good?

Not really. Same old stuff.

Always is.

It was partly a guessing game. You did your ten-liner, and afterward, the class tried to figure out what your action had been.

“Okay, what’s Julie doing?”

“Getting A Commitment.”

“Getting an Apology.”

“Laying Down the Law.”

“Yeah, I was Laying Down the Law,” Julie would say.

“And it’s as if — ?”

“It’s as if Phil called me for the millionth time and I had to tell him, ‘No, I am not going out with you!’”

What did you do last night? Nothing much. You?

Watched a little t.v.

If you spoke your lines in a way that suited your idea of the action, that was “doing the objective.”

“Don’t do the objective, have the objective,” Macy would thunder.

What’s up?

Nothing, Doc. You watch too many cartoons.

Got a carrot, Cottontail?

During the “scene” Macy would stand off to one side watching, occasionally drawing attention to some piece of specific behav­ior. What did this mean? — he would ask, imitating the searching gesture one student had made. (“I don’t know how to handle this.’’) How about the way the other one was standing? (“Who died and left you in charge?”) And he would go on, spinning out the interpretation out like someone riffing out a Homeric simile. Then he would pull up short and turn to everyone, and say, “Now, of course, we’re just making this shit up — it makes no sense, it’s just a process.”

Did you watch the news last night?

Pretty bad, huh?

Yeah, makes me sick.

Why do you think he did it?

You had to invent the scene every single time you did it. “Essentially, we’re talking about your personality here,” Macy explained. “You come up against some sort of problem — you’re gonna solve it differently from anyone else.”

You got any chewing gum?

I don’t have any more.

How about a breath mint?

How about a Milk Dud?

How were you going to do it? That was the fun of the thing, Macy said, working off the other person, who was different every time. “That’s why we love seeing theater,” Macy would say, “because it’s so frigging dangerous. Who knows what could happen!”

“We used to do stuff in gibberish,” Macy told me once. He was talking about the old days, at Goddard College in Vermont. “Dave would often say: ‘Do the scene, keep the blocking, keep the objectives, and speak gibberish.’ And we would literally have to speak gibberish. Or sometimes he would say, ‘You do the words to “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and you do “Peter Piper”’ — the whole point being, stick to the objective and let everything else go hang,” Macy said.

If you hang around Bill Macy for any length of time, you hear a lot about Goddard College in the sixties. It was one of those schools — like Bard or Hampshire — where traditional methods of education were being called into question. Consequently, it had what Macy called “a huge drop-in problem.” You didn’t have to do anything, so there was a great incentive to come to God­dard and no incentive at all to go away. It was sometimes difficult, for this reason, to distinguish between students — who had paid tuition and matriculated — and folks who were just hanging around because they liked being there. Macy was never fully able to explain the presence of a family living at Goddard — a man, woman, and child who in fact called themselves Man, Woman, and Child.

“To this day I don’t know what sex the child was,” Macy said, the last time I asked him to tell me about Man, Woman, and Child. “But they were all beautiful. And every once in a while you’d see them in a class or something.”

From time to time, Macy said, you’d run across them other places, too. Once, coming into the kitchen of his dorm at around four in the morning, he’d found Man there washing dishes. Another time Woman had joined Macy in the shower.

I thought that was hilarious. I laughed and laughed. “God what a horrible time,” I said.

“Oh no, it was wonderful,” Macy said. “You should have seen her.”

At Goddard, there was a building to which Mamet had a par­ticular aversion: the Design Center, it was called. Part student lounge, part exercise-in-experimental-education, The Design Center had been an “alternative building project,” in that anyone who wanted to had been allowed to design a part of it. It was sort of a fun building, Macy said, except that you couldn’t use it for anything. So mostly, it just stood empty all the time.

“See, the idea would be, ‘I feel like building a staircase, so we’ll put a staircase here — because it’s important for my development that I build what I’m feeling.’” Macy was always intrigued by the Design Center, but he said Mamet just loathed it.

“They did some cool stuff,” he told me once. “They would build things with new techniques and make up techniques and stuff like that — ­new designs — ”

“Like what did they do that was good?” I asked.

“They used plywood, I gotta say, in really interesting ways,” Macy said. “They were into curves and things like that, and they would do this great thing — to make the plywood curve, they would nail one end of it and just let the other end of it hang in mid­air. And after about three days, it would just slowly fall down into the curve that they wanted, and then they’d nail it tight.”

“Isn’t that just called warping?” I asked.

Macy said, yeah but they did the same thing with plexiglass.

I always enjoyed hearing about the Design Center. It seemed to me that the things Mamet hated about it were the same things he hated about Method Acting — the self­-servingness and self-indulgence, the idea of form without func­tion. It also occurred to me that Macy liked the building for the same reasons he loved Mamet — he was fascinated by “new techni­ques.” I wouldn’t have told Macy that.

I did once tell him I thought the Design Center was a metaphor for Mamet’s ideas about acting. But Macy said he thought I was being overly interpretive.

Macy thought I over-interpreted everything. He was right, too. It was why I never spoke up in class, why I could never get a handle on Mamet’s approach to scene analysis. I could never get past the first step in the analysis — figuring out what the character was literally doing.

If there is a kind of blindness that keeps one from being able to see things in the simplest, most basic terms, I suffer from it; and my attempts to analyze scenes according to Mamet’s rubric always came to nothing.

Students were required to practice Repetition with one another for an hour or two every night. There were other rules, too. Students with long hair had to tie it back for class, and everyone had to dress appropriately.

Also, there was no eating or drinking in the classroom. Also, you weren’t allowed to talk before class started if you arrived early. Actually, you had to arrive early — the rule was: “If you’re not fifteen minutes early, you’re late.” — and once you entered the classroom, you had to sit, going silently over your notes or your analysis for the scene you had prepared. (“The classroom is a place for study and contemplation,” Workshop students quoted, when you asked them the reason for this.) Anyone who came late was turned away at the door.

I asked Macy, once, if Mamet had always been strict about punctuality and discipline — even back in the Sixties, at Goddard.

“From the very first day I met him,” Macy said.

I said it must have been a novelty — at that time, in that place.

Macy said that it was. “He very quickly brought it around to a matter of respect, though,” Macy said. “He said it was the only way to be respectful of the theatre, that the theatre was a temple. If we didn’t treat it with respect, he said we shouldn’t be a part of it.”

“But it wasn’t a temple,” I said. “It was a teeming morass of exploitation and self-aggrandizement. What was there to have any respect for?”

“He said we had to create the theatre. From the very beginning he said that.”

I’d heard that speech. I heard it the first time I saw Mamet teach, that summer in 1990.

H e said it was a wonder­ful time for young people to be coming into the theatre — because theatre was basically dead. It was all over. There wasn’t any Broadway any more. There wasn’t any off-Broadway. Regional theater had just folded with the NEA. American movies, mean­while, were now almost universally trivial, sloppy, and obscene.

“It’s all gone,” Mamet said. But the impulse toward theatre was stronger than ever — and the need for it — for the very reason that the old forms had died away. And that made it a wonderful time for the students to “be con­trary” by starting theatre companies of their own. Because nobody was going to be there to make it easy for them — there would be no one to welcome and accept them, to say, “Sure, come on in.” And that meant that they were going to have to fight like hell.

“And it will be the best thing in the world for you,” Mamet concluded. “And when you’re done, you will have established something that only belongs to you.” He said it was an opportunity to do something legitimately heroic. Then he turned to one of the two students at the front and asked if he knew a dirty joke.

The way the Dirty Joke Game worked was this. Mamet asked two students named Sam and Emma to come forward and each take a seat in one of two metal folding chairs, cheated out so as to partially face the class rather than one another. Then he asked each student if he or she knew a story or a fairy-tale. Sam said he knew “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and Emma said she knew “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Mamet told Sam to tell his story to Emma and Emma to tell her story to Sam. The rules were that you couldn’t talk at the same time as the other person, and you had to speak in a loud, clear voice, at no more than “conversational” speed. The object of the game, he said, was to get to the end of your story first.

The students began talking at once; but Emma yielded to Sam. Immediately, Mamet stopped the game to point out to the class what had happened. On their second try neither student yielded, and Mamet stopped the game to note that they weren’t obeying the rules. In fact, no matter happened, whatever the students did and however things went forward, Mamet would always stop the exercise after the first few seconds, to analyze or draw attention to what had just happened. So the students rarely got very far in their stories.

Sometimes when Mamet cut in it was to make an adjustment. (“Okay, stop! Cheat out a little more so we can see you.”) Sometimes it was to point something out to the class about what we’d just seen. (“Very good! Did you see him giving her a little break there?”) Sometimes Mamet would make an interpretation. (“See, he went dead on her. He had a preconception: ‘She’s never going to be any good! I’ll just play the whole scene by myself.’ How many times have we all said that in our amateur theatricals?”) Whatever the length or purpose of the interruption, Mamet kept up a constant flow of patter — quoting, explicating, holding forth on whatever subject came to mind. It might be something about acting training — how most of it had become a showcase for performance, and how this or that “studio” was now really just a place for agents and casting directors to come and see your work. You looked at plays and movies these days — they were mostly young actors auditioning for their next role.

Or it might be something about the phenomenology of emotion — how feeling wasn’t important onstage, how it was not engendered by “preparation,” but by what you saw happening in the other person in the scene. Which was why all that stuff about “sense memory” was such a bunch of fuckin’ bullshit — it was just garbage. It didn’t work, and anyway — lookit, if you could control the way you felt, there wouldn’t be any psychiatrists, would there? When in fact psychiatrists were all there was.

Then Mamet would turn back to the students and tell them to start again.

There were two phases to The Dirty Joke Game, the way Mamet taught the exercise that day. After the first pair of volunteers had sparred for a while, he had them sit down and called up another pair. This time, he invited each student to tell a dirty joke or an anecdote. Everything about the game was the same: the object, the rules, the nature of the interruptions — but the dynamic of the exercise was utterly different.

When students had been telling stories we were all familiar with, Mamet’s interruptions and digressions had been the most interesting part of the exercise. When students began telling stories we didn’t already know, the interruptions became jarring; no matter how eloquent Mamet’s patter, or how trivial and banal the joke or anecdote was, we felt a split second of irritation each time Mamet stopped the exercise: because some small part of us wanted to hear how the story ended.

It was like the difference between seeing a bad play and a good play. In the first instance, we hadn’t cared which one was talking or which prevailed. Now, our “sympathies” were with whichever student happened to be telling his or her story: we wanted that one to succeed, because then the story would continue. And when the other student began talking, we found ourselves changing sides. We felt the way people do who are attending the very highest form of drama — plays whose con­flicts are so subtle and complex that whoever happens to be talking at any given moment is the one you agree with.

Which is the opposite of what happens with the constantly ringing phone in Oleanna. I tried explaining this to Macy, one time, after the play had opened in New York. At first, I said, we didn’t care that the phone kept interrupting — because it was amusing, and anyhow there wasn’t anything going on between the two characters. Then, once something had started to happen, the interrupting phone became jarring, like the interruptions in the dirty-joke game.

Then, toward the end of the play, I said — just before everything erupted in violence — there was this weird sequence when one of the characters would say something that echoed our thoughts, only it went too far. We’d be feeling indignant on the professor’s behalf and disgusted with the student — her lies and her distortions, her need to be co-opted and led by some ideology, her antipathy for thought and nuance. But then the telephone would ring and the professor would pick it up and talk to his wife in a way that reminded us what a creep he was. Then the student would call him on that— but in such a slavishly programmatic way that our sympathies would instantly change back again. So it was as though Mamet was saying: “You think you think that? Okay, how about if I have this happen?”

And I said it was like a moral version of the Dirty-Joke Game, only in reverse — because there your “sympathies” were with whichever student was talking, since you wanted to hear the end of the joke or the story. Whereas here, I said, you could only side with whichever character wasn’t talking, because they were both so awful.

And Macy said I should be careful, because I was bringing a literary sensibility to the Dirty Joke Game. “Now you should be clear on this,” he said. “What the dirty joke game does — it’s an exercise — ”

“No, I know that,” I said. “I know.” But why, then — I asked — had Mamet had students tell fairy-tales during in first round of the exercise that day and jokes in the second.

But Macy said it could be anything: they could be reciting the Declaration of Independence, or famous dates. It was just anything you knew really well, that you didn’t have to think of. “The words are absolutely beside the point,” he said. “And any result that they might bring forth in the “audience,” the rest of the class, has absolutely nothing to do with the exercise.”

“Oh, of course — I know that,” I said.

“Okay,” Macy said. “It’s completely fortuitous — “

“I know that.”

“ — and incidental.”

I said, yeah, I knew — I just thought it was interesting.

Macy was passionate about illusion. He was fascinated by the realities of theatre — which is to say its tricks and its fakeries: the truth about how little you had to do to get an idea across or have an effect. He loved reminding the students how incredibly sharp an audience’s focus was — so sharp, he said, that even at the Broadhurst, one of the biggest theaters on Broadway, they could see you raise an eyebrow, and if they couldn’t see it, they could sense that something had happened. On the biggest stage in New York, Macy said, you could get a laugh going by just doing this — and he would raise an eyebrow ever so slightly.

Then he would point out that the opposite of that was Harry Houdini. “He used to be able to get an elephant onstage,” Macy would say. “In a Broadway house, he would sneak an elephant onstage and no one would see it. That’s how strong focus is.” The bigger the house, too, the more concentrated an audience’s focus was. Macy said you could get twelve hundred people to look at the head of a pin, and while you were doing that, you could do anything — anything you liked — elsewhere.

Macy loved showing the students little tricks: how stand or sit or shake hands like a member of the opposite sex; how to make coins disappear; how to purge a tablecloth of crumbs — like a woman having a fight with her boyfriend in a restaurant; how to get a laugh just by throwing the focus.

Once, when a couple of students were working on a first­-date scene, he showed a student how to deliver all his pun­chlines downstage so as to get a laugh.

“But would I do it that way if I were trying to Win Her Trust?” the student objected.

“Hey, what do you want?” Macy deadpanned. “You want to Win Her Trust or get the laugh?” Then he showed the student how he could do both.

Another thing that intrigued Macy was the idea of the unfeasable task. The way some people are fired by the idea of justice or knowledge for its own sake, Macy was fired by the idea of the thing that is worth doing simply because people would say it couldn’t be done. There were two things he’d always longed to attempt, he told students that summer: one was picking up a girl in the line at the Marriage License Bureau; the other was stealing one of the big white globes outside a police station.

Unfeasibility figured in a number of the more recherché exercises that students did in Technique classes. In one of these — the Single-Action Problem — a student was assigned a task to perform that was physically impossible because of the way the exercise had been set up: planting a bomb or stealing a lottery ticket out of a bag without being detected, slipping unnoticed into a room.

In Private Life exercises, students were given rhetorical feats to perform: they were asked to imagine themselves having to win a group of people round to an indefensible or unpopular way of thinking. (“You’re a racist cop addressing a civilian review board,” they were told, “and you have to make it clear to them why they shouldn’t throw you off the force for making ethnic slurs.” Or “You’re trying to get the Board of the Metropolitan Museum to add your trove of Nazi artifacts to their permanent collection.”)

Once, when a student came off seeming like a sleazy salesman (his task had been to persuade the board of trustees of a women’s college that the time had come to admit men), everyone said that the Action he’d chosen (“Sell a Great Idea”) had been “too close to the scene.” But when the student with the collection of Nazi memorabilia made her pitch, people got all hot under the collar and a spirited debate broke out. The Action she had chosen was “Get Someone to Do the Right Thing,” and her as-if had to do with getting her father to forgive his stepson for some ancient wrong: “Dad, you have to get in touch with Matt — he’s your only son. You can’t just erase him from the family. What if something happened to one of you and you never got the chance….You have to do this….”

I thought that the role of Carol in “Oleanna” was like a Private Life exercise. I tried telling Macy that, and he said: “Well, that could be, but did you hear what I just said?”

We were talking about Carol’s Action in the final scene. Macy was explaining, for about the millionth time, how the Action was a crea­tive choice, that the actor had to answer the question: what do you feel about the dilemma the play raises?

“Not just, what’s right and what’s wrong,” Macy said, “but what do you feel about it?” And he said that there were many potentially correct answers, but it was the actor’s job to come up with the one that was the correct answer to her, so that she would be doing something she truly believed in.

“So, for instance, the audience might think you were Ruining the Professor’s Life, because that was how it looked to them, but from your point of view, the way it looked was: ‘I’m Teaching Him a Vital Lesson — a lesson he cannot do without! The world has changed — and this guy, this poor schmuck doesn’t know that a certain kind of behavior simply will not wash anymore. So I’m doing him a big favor — I’m teaching him.’”

“Okay,” I said — carefully, because half the young women of my acquaintance had auditioned for the role of Carol, and I had it on pretty good authority that “Teach A Vital Lesson” was Mamet’s choice for the character’s Action in the scene — “what if you thought that rather than Teaching Him A Vital Lesson, you were — well, Putting A Stop to Him.”

Macy said he thought the trouble with that Action was that nobody would want to be that kind of person.

“What kind of person?”

“The kind of person who puts a stop to someone.”

“To someone who’s dangerous? I mean, if she saw him as dangerous?”

“Well, if I understand that phrase the way you understand it,” Macy said, “I would have trouble — I mean, just guessing the way I act the thing, it would be tough. You’d look at sweet little me sitting there, and some nights you would not want to do it.”

“You don’t see yourself on that stage,” I said.

“Well, but in the third scene? She’s got me beaten. I see it in her eyes — ”

“That’s true. But in that first scene? We’re dying to see you brought down.”

“Well, perhaps that would be good,” Macy said doubtfully. “For me — you know — I would have trouble Ruining Someone’s Life every night.

For once I stood my ground. “I didn’t say ‘Ruining His Life.’ I said ‘Putting A Stop to Him.’”

Macy said he thought Putting A Stop to Someone just wasn’t something an actress would look for­ward to doing to him every night.

“She would if she thought she was slaying a dragon.”

“As long as it’s a dragon in front of you,” Macy said. “But I think you’d get up there and see not a dragon — but me, Bill, with his gooseberry eyes.”

I said I didn’t think that would be a problem, but Macy said it would for the actress, because of the way actors who work together become friends.

And anyway, he said, he’d make it impossible — he’d make you so sorry for him and sorry for what you were doing to him that you wouldn’t be able to go through with it. He’d consider it his duty. He’d use every tool, every weapon, every arrow in his quiver, he’d make himself so pathetic — “And I could do it, too,” he added.

“Oh, I know you could,” I said. “I know that.”

“By the end of one show, I could — ”

“But if she knew that was going to be a part of it — because, I mean, isn’t that what dragons always do?”

But I’m not a dragon!” Macy was apoplectic.

I think you’re a dragon,” I laughed.

In the abstract!” Macy almost shouted. I was glad there was a telephone between us.

It was the same old trouble. I couldn’t see just the metaphor without seeing the thing it stood for. So nothing looked abstract to me.

Also, I thought I knew more about dragons than Macy did.

On the other hand, what I knew about acting you could write on the head of a pin. So when I heard Macy start to say again that maybe he was wrong, and Putting A Stop To Someone was an okay Action for the scene, I said: “Oh no, hey — I was just talking. This is definitely your call!”

Sometimes, scene study class could be very boring. This was mainly because discussions about what constituted a good Action for a scene could go on for so long. An analysis would be found wanting and Macy would throw open the discussion. “Actions for this scene ? Anybody?”

“Make Him See the Light,” someone would say.

“Make Him See the Possibilities.”

“Put Someone on the Right Track.”

“Get Someone to Live Up To My Expectations.”

As each student spoke, Macy would consider and make a ruling. One Action might be judged “too close to the scene.” Another might not logically follow from the analysis. Another might not sound fun to do.

“Encourage A Risk.”

“Get A Commitment.”

“Enlighten to the Truth.”

“Get the Go-Ahead.”

“Win Her Over.”

“Get Him to Do the Right Thing.”

“Get A Confession.”

“Get Him to Open Up.”

“Lay Down the Law.”

“Get An Apology.”

“Inspire A Risk.”

“Make An Ally.”

“Win Support.”

“Gain Her Trust.”

It went on and on.

Once, the Catalogue of Actions went on for so long that I began trying to analyze a brief exchange from “King Lear” in my head— ­anything to get away from the discussion.

Cordelia. Nothing, My Lord.

Lear. Nothing?

Cordelia. Nothing.

Lear. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

What was Cordelia literally doing in the scene? I kept coming up with answers like, “Refusing to stoop to flattery,” and “Distancing herself from the hypocrisy and greed that surround her.” Which was all, all wrong.

I knew that. I understood the concept, saw that there were a hundred different ways of saying, “Nothing, my lord.” You could be Awakening Someone to the Truth or Taking Him to A Higher Plane, Snapping Him into Reality, or Getting Him to Live Up to My Expectations. But how were you supposed to arrive at one of these?

One Monday night, during the Boston run of “Oleanna,” I rang Macy up from New York and asked him to analyze that scene. I read it to him.

“Okay,” I said, “so what’s Cordelia literally doing in the scene?”

Macy said: “She’s saying that she loves him the way a daughter should love a father and that she doesn’t think she should have to say more than that.”

“All right,” I said. “So what does she want?”

“She wants him to quit playing this game,” Macy said. “She wants him to not make her do this.”

“All right,” I said. “So what’s an Action for the scene?”

Macy pointed out that he wasn’t looking at it, so he couldn’t say for sure, but he thought an Action for the scene might be something like Get Him to Grow Up, or Get Him to Open His Eyes — maybe Get Him to Treat Her with Dignity and Respect.

“That’s all valid,” my friend Bobo, a veteran actress, said when I ran this by her.

“I know!” I beamed, overjoyed to have won her approval on Macy’s behalf.

But Bobo grew skeptical when I told her about the as-if. “Why do they have to find an analogy?” she asked. “It’s not important.”

I said it was just a device that they used.

Bobo said she thought that was getting into the realm of psychodrama where kids thought, if they were playing Medea — “Well, how do they deal with those stakes?” she asked.

I said that was sort of the whole point — that was why they did this. Because you couldn’t deal with those stakes. No one knew what it felt like to be Medea, no one could even guess. So you had to translate what the character was doing and wanting and hoping for into something that you personally understood. Otherwise you’d end up playing some idea of Medea.

And whether that meant your notion of a character from clas­sical drama or your notion of a person of tragic stature or your notion of the sort of woman monstrous enough to murder her own children, it wouldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, anything we needed to go to the theatre to find out.

Whereas, if an actor found a way of transposing the values in the play while echoing the same moral viewpoint, then something might be revealed that we couldn’t figure out for ourselves, because it had to be explored through the medium of theater.

“Let me give you an example,” I said. I told Bobo that I had once seen Mamet working with a couple of students on the scene from the end of “A Doll’s House,” where Nora tells Torvald she’s leaving him.

“Now, the Action the student had chosen was to Guide A Loved One Home,” I said. “Don’t ask me how she’d arrived at that — ”

“Well, who was the loved one that she was guiding home?” Bobo asked. “Torvald?”

I nodded and she made a face. “Look, don’t judge for a minute. Just listen.”

I t had taken a long time for them to get it right, because the students — Kevin and Marie — were unconsciously doing what Mamet and Macy call “giving line readings,” saying things in accordance with an idea of how they thought they were supposed to sound. Consequently, Mamet kept interrupting them, and they rarely got much beyond the first few lines. “Where does this come from?” Mamet would ask, stopping and indicating some instance of “brought-in” behavior. “Is that com­ing from him?” Then he would tell them to do it again.

Sometimes, he would ask the students to talk out their as-­ifs. Then Marie might say something that sounded like this: “Just listen to me, okay? I don’t want to talk about any­thing that’s happened. I just want you to come back. We can work this out ….”

Then Kevin might cut in with: “Larry, you’ve already had one heart attack. If you don’t take care of yourself — if you don’t stick to this diet and exercise plan, you’re gonna die.”

Then Mamet would tell them to use the words of the scene. And sometimes, when they managed to sustain the tone or the moral pitch of whatever it was they’d been saying, and carry it over into the scene, you could see how beautiful it was — though it only lasted for a moment or two.

Once, when Kevin was getting frustrated and disgusted with himself because he couldn’t get it right, because he sounded helpless and strained, Mamet stopped the scene to point out that his very frustration was coming out of the scene. He told Kevin that there were two ways to look at what was happening. One was to become overwhelmed, to say, “I’m not acting off of her, nothing I do is any fucking good — I’m a big false fool.” The other way to look at it was to say, “She is so far ahead of me, I’m never going to get what I want from her — what handle could I use to get it?”

He turned to the class, explaining that the scene was “living truthfully” in Kevin not because of anything Kevin had put there, but because he had made a very good choice about the analysis, and because he was trying to work moment to moment off his partner in the scene.

“What’s happening is not that you’re fucking up as an actor,” Mamet told Kevin, “but you’re throwing the scene out.” He said that was always the way — always. “Everybody always wants to keep the pretty stuff, but that’s not where the truth is.” He said that was what the Christ myth meant — that was what every hero-myth meant, that the truth was always hiding in the low places.

If Kevin put his attention on Marie and let the lines come out, there was no way that the scene was not going to live in him. “But it’s going to live in you in an unforeseen way,” Mamet said. “And that’s the beauty of acting: something that is unforeseen because it’s unforeseen to you — so of course it’s unforeseen to the audience. And that’s what brings the audience to the edge of their seats, saying, ‘My god! Who would have thought those words meant that?’”

“Now what did you say your Action was?” Mamet asked, turning to Marie.

“Guide A Loved One Horne,” Marie said.

“And it’s as if what?”

And that was the fascinating part, I told Bobo. “When Mamet asked this student what the Action was like to her, she said it was as if she was getting someone “to reunite a relationship” that he had walked out on.

“See, it was counter-intuitive. In her mind she was doing the opposite of what the character is doing in the scene,” I said. “But it was absolutely beautiful, and it was absolutely true. And it trans­posed the dynamic in the play — in a way you couldn’t fault stylistically — into a contemporary idiom. It was real,” I said, “in our terms, in today’s terms.”

“It worked,” Bobo suggested.

“Well, no,” I said. “I mean yes. I mean, it was an acting class — it only worked for a couple of seconds here and there. But it made you think — in those few moments — that you really could reinvent all of modern drama. That this way to do Ibsen, this way to do Miller and O’Neill and all those deadly American realists — that would be something to see! Because then it would be about more than what the lines say it’s about.”

“Have I told you my idea about what the guy in the play is guilty of?” I asked Macy. We were talking on the phone again. I said I thought it was a chronic inability to be “in the moment.”

For a second it seemed as though Macy might be going to agree with me.

He said, “Actually, that’s not bad. He’s the kind of guy who says: ‘This is the correct way to act — and whether or not it solves the problem is beside the point.’ He doesn’t have the ability to really look at her and sort of measure what is going on here.”

“Oh, I see what you mean,” I said. “You’re right, that’s true.”

“But also,” I went on, “he can’t control his attention. The phone rings, and he can’t let it ring. He’s distracted by it. He’s got to pick it up. And see, it’s the same with his job. He keeps changing his mind about what his job is, you know? Whether it’s to make himself friendly and pleasant and be liked, or really to teach somebody.”

“I mean, the thing to do — ” I said, “the thing for him to do would be to say to her ‘Look, learning isn’t about taking notes, it isn’t about doing the assignment, and it isn’t about parroting back what you’ve been told. It’s about thinking for yourself. Now go out there and think for yourself.’ And she might hate him, and she might think he was a bad, mean man, but she’d learn something — she’d be independent.”

“But he can’t do that,” I went on, “because that isn’t what the character wants.”

“What does he want?” Macy asked.

Oh well, I said, that was the whole power thing: he didn’t just want to teach her, he wanted to teach her in a particular way. “His interest in helping her is inseparable from his self-importance and self-love.”

But Macy said he saw the character’s tragic flaw as emerging later, once the charges had been filed.

I’d promised myself I wasn’t going to try to argue with Macy any more, but I heard myself saying: “See, the reason I think that you see his tragic flaw earlier — ”

I could hear Macy waiting.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t know how to do this analysis thing you guys do. All I know is, in drama you look at what a character says and what the character does, and if there’s a difference, then that’s important.”

“Now, you say that you want to get back to your real estate deal, and you say that you don’t have time to talk to this girl, but you don’t let her go. You stop her — when she’s on her way out the door. Why do you do that? Okay, yes — it’s because you want to help her. But up until a certain point, she has no interest for you — see, there’s this funny little moment, when the phone rings, and for the first time, you don’t want to pick it up. You pick it up anyway, but you don’t want to pick it up. And it isn’t really that you don’t want to pick it up — it’s that you want her to think you don’t want to. For some reason, you care what she thinks of you. You know? And it’s that kind of thing — all I’m saying — ”

“No, I get what you’re saying,” Macy said. “I’m not sure I agree. In the beginning, I say, ‘Lookit, you’re flunking, what do you want me to do?’ Then, when she reveals — when she tips her hand — “

“Wha — tips what hand?”

“As to how she feels about herself.”

“Why is that your business?” I asked.

“Because I’m a teacher,” Macy said. “It’s my job to teach her.”

“Yes, but you’re not her therapist. It’s not your job to worry about how she feels about herself — ”

In any case, Macy said, I was wrong about the phone. He said there was a place where the professor was content just to let the phone ring, when he said, “Forget it, let it go!” Then the phone rang again, and he answered it, but the call consisted of him trashing his wife, telling her, “Lookit, quit calling, I’ll be down as soon as I can,” and hanging up on her.

“Right. But don’t you see?”

“Why did I answer it in the first place?”

“Yeah! You’re answering it so that you can put your wife down — ”

“I don’t think so — oh, maybe. Maybe, yeah, I see what you’re saying. I’m making a little show.”


“Okay, maybe,” Macy said. But he said that the last time the phone rings, when the student is about to reveal something, she breaks the moment and turns away. “And so I get the phone.”

I said I thought what was going on was a lot more complicated than that. I said I thought it was so complicated that you couldn’t even describe it — not possibly. Not even if you could stop the play — the way he and Mamet always stopped the Repeti­tion Game and the Three-Line Game and the Dirty-Joke Game — and say, “Look! Did you see that? Did you all see what he did just then? What was that?”

Because even if you had the sort of lightning-quick moral judgment that Macy and Mamet had for “physical behavior,” you’d be looking at something that wasn’t testable, that you’d never get two people to agree on.

And I said I thought that was what was ingenious about the play and why everybody was so upset by it and also how Mamet had managed to create something that was completely different, depending on who was looking at it.

And I said I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, because I didn’t want to make Macy self-conscious, and Macy said, Yeah, right, right, right. And after that we talked a bit about other things.

Before hanging up, Macy mentioned that Mamet had changed the ending since the dress rehearsal I’d seen.

“Oh no!” I said. “Don’t tell me he fucked it up!”

“He did not fuck it up,” Macy said.

“So what happens? He beats her up — and then what?”

“Well — sort of nothing,” Macy said. “She just says, ‘Yes…that’s right…’ a couple of times. And that’s how it ends.”

“‘Yes…that’s right…?’” I echoed. “You mean, like the gibberish for ‘There, you see? I told you this was where it had to end?’”

“Yeah, kind of,” Macy said. “That’s kind of it.”

I said that was good. I said that was exactly what would happen.

[This essay on Mamet’s play about sexual harassment and his ideas about acting, written for The New Yorker in 1992, was never published.]



Mimi Kramer

Bylines: NY Magazine, The Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, Time, The New Yorker and elsewhere. "Unrelatable" is a continuing series: