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When “A Life in the Theatre” by David Mamet debuted on Broadway in 1977, it opened hot on the heels of the playwright’s first White Way explosion, “American Buffalo.” Needless to say, the heartfelt strains of this new offering were somewhat off-putting for those expecting what the New York Times had called Mamet’s “bad boy bluster.”
Yet, Jason Heil, director of Monday’s night’s staged reading of this Mamet two-hander at the Encinitas Library, feels that this play fits nicely into Mamet’s canon, despite its more vulnerable moments.
“It may not fit into the Mamet mold,” he says, “but his writing style is very much there in this piece.”
That iconic writing style – also seen in “Oleanna,” Intrepid’s Season Four opener earlier this year – is what draws this Shakespeare-focused theatre company to certain contemporary playwrights. Mamet, who so clearly stamped his name on the voice of modern American theatre over three decades ago, lends his signature style and phrasing, this time in a very poignant fashion.
Chronicling the life of two actors – one a veteran and one a promising rookie – “A Life in the Theatre” is a series of vignettes that take place off stage, backstage, and even onstage, giving the audience a sincere portrait of friendship, professional camaraderie, and even a little competitive spirit.
“They are always trying to pin down where they stand with each other,” explains Jason, who directed last season’s main stage production of “Turn of the Screw” for Intrepid. “As the play evolves, and the younger actor gains more status and more confidence, we see how his growth affects their relationship.”
Bantering off of each other on Monday will be Sean Yael-Cox, Intrepid’s Co-Founder and Artistic Director, as the young upstart John, and San Diego notable Dale Morris as Robert, the heavy with a wealth of experience. In a unique segment of San Diego theatre history, Sean and Dale appeared together in a production of “The Elephant Man” when Sean first moved to town in 1998 and have been looking for a project to work on together ever since.
“When we were planning this yearlong series, this play was one of the few comedies we had on the list,” says Sean, referring to Intrepid’s monthly Staged Reading Series at the Encinitas Library that has played to sold out audiences and standing ovations, and has featured contemporary and classical, as well as Shakespearean pieces. This month will mark the ninth installment in what has become known as a concentrated showcase for notable San Diego talent.
“We are lucky to have hosted the highest caliber directors and actors from the start,” says Sean. “”The reading series has been a major undertaking. We’ve set the bar high and we are eager to maintain that level of performance quality for our audiences.”
To that end, every once in a while – however reluctantly – the schedule must be changed to accommodate this uncompromising outlook. For instance, “Julius Caesar” was originally slated for the September reading, but with a cast of more than a dozen actors and a director visiting from Los Angeles, a November timeline ultimately proved to be a solution for scheduling conflicts.
“For us, it was important to get the right group of people, especially for Shakespeare. We didn’t want to compromise on that,” says Sean. “We try to remember that theatre is growing and changing and that it’s a living thing, which means it can be a little unpredictable at times.”
Fortunately, that also means that the Mamet treat originally scheduled for the end of the year will be enjoyed a bit early, and that September’s audience gets to witness the dynamic connection between these two actors who have themselves been longtime friends.
“Both of these actors bring a lot of depth and groundedness to what they do,” says Jason, commenting on the impressive body of combined work. “I’m looking forward to digging in and mulching around with them a bit.”
One of the most interesting dynamics of the play, says Jason, is the fluidity of their relationship. “I like watching the two colleagues attempt to stay professional, to forge a friendship, to figure out the friendship that forges just by working with someone.” Again, it is Mamet’s words that endow that fluidity with a sense of realism.
“He creates this flow with the words that goes back and forth between the actors,” explains Jason. “He messes up clean dialogue and the result mirrors the way we speak. In reality, our thoughts take us somewhere and we overlap and interrupt and we don’t censor ourselves.”
Jason also points out that many modern playwrights now echo Mamet’s realistic style, which at the time of his debut, was a stark departure from the rigidity of his predecessors’ clean lines.
“When you look at the ‘classics,’ even with a modern play, these are texts that are still going to be standing years later,” points out Jason. “A ‘classic’ is a well-built script, where there’s a lot of answers buried within, and not laid out on a platter. It’s the playwright who knows how to write a play through the words and underneath the words at the same time.”
Recently a Broadway revival starring Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, “A Life in the Theatre” has been described as Mamet’s “valentine” to his business. Does that mean that non-theatrical types will still find the play as captivating as those who have taken a turn onstage themselves?
Jason is reassuring. “There are moments in the piece when it is really two people opening up about each other or their feelings for theatre and what theatre means,” he says. “But it’s more that we are saying come and take a peak behind the curtain, and we will show you what’s going on back here.”
– Tiffany Tang
A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet, a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, September 23. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to email@example.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15. Julius Caesar will play in November.
Mapping Shepard: A conversation with Fran Gercke, “Geography of a Horse Dreamer” staged reading director
“The great thing about a Sam Shepard play is that you don’t know where you’re going or where you’re going to end up. You just know that you took a wild ride.”
Fran Gercke, director of Monday evening’s staged reading of Geography of a Horse Dreamer at the Encinitas Library, pauses a moment before he adds, “And if it’s done well, you want to go again.”
It’s hard to imagine that anything wouldn’t be done well in this reading, with such a formidable cast assembled under Fran’s leadership. Brian Mackey, Tom Stephenson, Tom Hall, Eric Poppick, Jon Sachs, and Jake Rosko will be bringing to life the story of the horse dreamer, whose winning predictions capture the interest of some local mobsters keen on exploiting his talents for big payoffs.
“It’s the story of a wonderfully wacked out, incoherent group of people who get together to solve a problem,” says Fran. “Shepard calls it a ‘mystery,’ but there is no Poirot in this story.”
But there is more here than just your run-of-the-mill struggle for power, says Fran. Although it has been described as a riff on DH Lawrence’s story “The Rocking Horse Winner,” Geography of a Horse Dreamer could also be seen as an unpacking of American culture, as well as an exploration of hope and…dreaming.
“We’re all chasing the ‘American dream,’ but whose dream is that?” Fran says, pointing out one of the most pervasive notes in Shepard’s anthology. “Our quest for authenticity is always based on an image we saw somewhere, or what our grandparents told us about our cultural heritage. When we distort ourselves to match the image we are chasing, we find we don’t like the distortion. It doesn’t feel real.”
However, this struggle for achievement is also part of our cultural landscape, he continues, part of our own “geography” of dreaming. Our only hope lies with the artists, who take on almost shamanic powers in Shepard’s plays.
“In Shepard’s landscape, if you are referred to as an artist, watch out,” says Fran. “You have magical powers, and ones that you probably can’t control yet.”
In Geography, the artist is the dreamer.
“It’s not a perfect play,” says Fran, but it is perhaps the first play where Shepard begins to define his voice. We see the beginning notes of his later, more iconic plays like True West and Curse of the Starving Class.
“Shepard has a really wonderful and goofy sense of humor,” Fran says, mentioning that during rehearsals this week, one of the actors described the play as an amalgamation of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and John Waters.
“Basically he says, let’s have a lot of fun and put people on stage you would never want to run into in real life.”
— Tiffany Tang
Geography of a Horse Dreamer by Sam Shepard – a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, July 22. 6:30 pm complimentary wine and appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to firstname.lastname@example.org and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15.