In the Broadway premiere of David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight play two thespians at different stages in their careers.
The play describes life in the footlights from an actor’s point of view, and focuses on the relationship between the two gentlemen.
Robert (Stewart) is an older, experienced performer who has no trouble dispensing advice at every twist and turn. John (Knight), is a relative newcomer to the stage.
At first, John soaks up Robert’s advice, but as the play progresses it is clear that Robert’s mentoring is not so much wanted or needed.
Mamet, who has worked closely with director Neil Pepe for many years, was inspired to write A Life in the Theatre by what he observed backstage, as well as by his own experiences in his early career.
Although Mamet’s material is famous for brash, quick language, A Life in the Theatre is more humorous than any of the plays that New Yorkers have seen in recent years (Race, Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna).
Pepe, Stewart and Knight recently joined The Improper as they interviewed one another about A Life in the Theatre.
Pepe: I’m truly honored to be directing these two fine actors Sir Patrick Stewart and T.R. Night in A Life in the Theatre. Can you talk a little bit about the characters the two of you play in the play?
Stewart: My character’s called Robert and he’s an actor.
Knight: And I play this guy named John, who is also an actor (laughs).
Stewart: And we are working in some unnamed company in some unnamed city in some corner of the United States.
Knight: At some unnamed time.
Pepe: We know it’s pre-technology, there’s no cell phones and there’s not computers. I feel this play is different from a lot of Mamet’s other plays, I kind of keep referring to it as a love letter to the theatre because it really talks about what happens backstage sort of behind the scenes, and there’s also onstage scenes.
It’s really different than what you might expect, but truly wonderful and very funny. I want to ask you guys about how you both have long and rich histories in the theatre. Talk a little bit about that, and how that relates to this play and informs this play.
Stewart: It’s an appropriate and charming play for me because the character Robert loves the live theatre, has great respect for it, loves its traditions, its jokes, its commitment, its living, immediate contact with an audience. He’s proud of being an actor- all things that apply to me. I spent the last six years with the exception of filming a production of Hamlet and a production of Macbeth, exclusively in the theatre. My life has been spent in dressing rooms backstage, which is where every scene of our play takes place.
Knight: We never leave the theater.
Stewart: Yes, we’re somewhere backstage. All I ever wanted to be was a stage actor. Everything else that has happened to me has been an accident. It was a happy accident, but an accident nonetheless. Of course, there are parallels in our careers. However, there is a divergence in my career from Robert’s. Robert may at one time have had some success, but on the whole his career has really not taken off. When we meet him he’s distinctly on a downward path. Blessedly, fortunately, as of this moment, my experience is different.
Pepe: T.R., you started at The Guthrie in Minneapolis, right?
Knight: Yes, I grew up in Minneapolis, so except for the last five years I’ve just pretty much exclusively done theatre. I started when I was little, and I went back to The Guthrie in my early twenties, and was an apprentice there. It was when they were last doing rep. And this play takes place in a rep company.
That has kind of died out, from what I hear, mostly throughout the country. So what I saw was kind of like the last remnants of it. But I grew up watching these actors that I admired in Minneapolis.
One night you would see them as the maid, and then you’d seem them be the lead. It was just a fascinating experience, and that’s something I really wanted badly to be a part of. I was lucky to have that in my experience before I moved to New York.
Pepe: One of the things that’s been fascinating about being in rehearsal with these two guys is hearing the stories from both of them, which is also what the play deals with and Patrick’s stories of being with the Royal Shakespeare Company for many years and hearing about all the various plays that he’s done, and T.R.’s experience as well and how they relate to each other. We also had the privilege of having David Mamet in rehearsal with us for the first week. What was it like working on a Mamet play with Mamet? What were the challenges of working on Mamet stuff?
Knight: I’ve never done Mamet before, it was something I’ve always wanted to do. I didn’t think that he would be a part of this experience at all, but he’s added and changed some things. It’s such a privilege to have that happen, when a playwright writes a play, when its already been done, especially when it was written over thirty years ago. [Although A Life in the Theatre is making its Broadway debut, it has been performed after Mamet completed the script in 1977.] You don’t think you’re going to have that experience. You just feel very privileged, you feel very lucky to be in the room and to be a part of the process.
Stewart: Here, here. As an actor who has spent a huge amount of his life acting dead white poets, how often have I wished I could say, “Bill, what exactly were you getting at here?” All the years in the late 60s and 70s when I worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, sometimes in preview or on opening night at Stratford-upon-Avon I would walk down the river to Holy Trinity Church and because members of the company had access to the church at pretty much most times, I would go in and I would sit in a pew, and I would look at the tombstone, and usually I would say, “Help!” Well, we can now say that and get some sort of response, though it may not always be principled. That was funnier in my head (laughs).
Pepe: It’s good to note that this play actually has very few racy words in it. Two or three, not many.
Stewart: I am campaigning to make it three, but we have not yet had the author’s approval for that. So, T.R. is right. To be in a rehearsal room with the man who put the words on the page is not only a great privilege, but it’s a tool that we have to use as fully as possible because he’s there, and he can speak from the horse’s mouth.
Knight: I kept on expecting him to sound like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross in that scene they added to the movie. It was kind of intimidating. It was amazing how funny he is.
Pepe: What was very apparent having David here is he loves the theatre and he’s a playwright whose been committed to the theatre his entire life. He was also telling wonderful stories of experiences in theatre in Chicago where he started out and stories about all of these wonderful actors. A Life in the Theatre was done Off-Broadway many years ago, and Patrick actually did it in London a few years back. We’re really excited to be bringing this celebration of theatre to Broadway.
IM: Which challenges did you face in mastering a play consisting of only two actors?
Stewart: We have a brilliant production team everywhere, but we are the play. We cannot exist without the other one. There’s barely a moment in the play when we are not together. We are utterly dependent on each other. And that’s both the charm and the excitement of the play, and the challenge of it is that only a few months ago we hadn’t met, and now we are locked into this dance of David Mamet’s. It’s so complex and so beautiful and subtle and challenging and rhythmical and daring and dazzling.
Knight: It’s very different from an ensemble play. As far as the logistics of our time off stage, it’s better than a monologue play. I find those frightening because there’s no one else to depend on. With this there’s one other person to depend on, and I have to make sure I won’t make him angry (looks at Stewart and laughs).
Stewart: (To Knight) Oh, you will.
Knight: So that’s it, you just have each other.
Pepe: There are twenty-six scenes in this play. These guys are changing costumes in almost every scene. And they get dressed up in a lot of different costumes which will be fun to see. They’re moving a lot. They have a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of set changes as well, so it’s pretty exciting.
Stewart: It simply rattles along. It’s not heavy on narrative, but the story of the dynamics between a young actor at the start of his career and an older actor in what begins to feel like the twilight of his career and how that dynamic changes, shifts and grows, is the narrative of the play, wouldn’t you say?
Knight: What I like, and sometimes it hits a little too close to home, is just the absurdity of an actor’s life at times, it can feel really silly and I think this play highlights that a lot, sometimes to an uncomfortable level for me.
Stewart: It is a crazy existence for grownups. My partner doesn’t know a lot about this business, and struggles to comprehend what we do and we inhabit this make believe world that we are playing in, except our job is telling beautiful lies. That’s why you should never fall in love with us or trust us or lend us money.
Knight: That’s horrible! Horrible! Horrible! (laughs)
Stewart: Well it is! That’s what we do! We take words off the page and make them life, and that’s what Mamet has done, isn’t it? That’s what he has created in this lovely play.
Pepe: There’s a lot of stuff that goes wrong in this story, and in the theatre sometimes there are things that go wrong. Scenery doesn’t move, props don’t come out, and Mamet has had a lot of fun in this play about these incredible actors up there doing their thing, and what happens when a prop doesn’t show up, or what happens when something goes wrong. And those are the sort of beautiful and absurd moments that we have in the theatre. But the way Mamet has portrayed it is wonderful, funny, sad and tragic.
Stewart: Have you ever seen what actors do immediately before stepping out into that light in front of your eyes? Do you know what is happening in the moments backstage? Do you know what we’re actually doing in the dressing room when we’re getting ready? Do you know what we do between shows? Do you know what we do when the show is over? Do you know what we do when we’re down, when we’re up? All of those things, David has written about.
IM: What do you find yourself doing to prepare yourself for each performance?
Knight: They just sound so boring and pretentious when you talk about them. They’re rituals for a reason because they’re just yours. Mostly it’s about calming nerves before you go out, I think, for me.
Stewart: Yeah, all that’s true for me too. I mean, if you’re wearing trousers, you check your zipper or your fly. It’s compulsive. Most of last year I was doing Waiting for Godot in London, and my character enters and his fly is undone. And so the one thing I always had to remember to do was check that it was not done up before I went on. I find the ritual changes from show to show.
IM: Who were some of your own mentors as you were coming up in the entertainment business?
Pepe: For me, David Mamet was a big mentor. It was an honor to be working on this play for that reason.
Stewart: I’ve been blessed all my life to have fallen into the hands of it would seem good people, including right now. When I was 19 and in my first professional company, at different times I shared a dressing room, sometimes with all of them, sometimes with different combinations of these three very experienced, very mature actors, who all their lives have been in regional theater. They didn’t know that they were teaching me every moment that I saw them on stage, or when I was on stage with them, or in the dressing room when they would just talk about their experiences. I would just soak it up.
Knight: I had a series of them actually. As a young person who doesn’t know anything, when you’re lucky enough to be taken under a wing or learn from either acting teachers, fellow actors, directors… What’s interesting about this play and the mentor/mentee relationship is that eventually you have to go out on your own and that mentor/mentee relationship has to change. If it doesn’t change, it dies. It’s an odd experience to live through, especially when you’re going through it and you don’t know because you’ve never experienced it before. I guess it’s kind of like a parent/child relationship. You have to learn how to let them spread their wings and kind of go off on their own, let them explore, let them live with what you’ve taught them.
IM: Why bring A Life in the Theatre to Broadway now, in 2010?
Pepe: Number one, it’s a great play that’s never been seen on Broadway. But number two, there’s something wonderful about celebrating what theatre is at its very essence, the idea of people getting together in a live forum to see actors do a variety of different things. I feel like especially now in this age of technology and video and everything, as a reminder of what’s incredible about theatre, what’s fun, what’s absurd, it’s perfect. David has given this wonderful taste-tester of all these beautiful things about live theatre.
Stewart: It’s always a good time to do a great play. I can see this play being performed decades from now, because it channels authenticity about the backstage experience. This is not a backstage, you know, “My father has a barn kind of show.” It’s not at all like that.
Knight: (Joking) I love those shows.
Stewart: I know you do. I know you love those shows, it’s not about that T.R.
Knight: Even though it was written in ’77, and even though it has pay phones and no cell phones, you get the idea that it’s not right this second, and how ridiculous actors can be and people can be with each other. That never changes at all. That will always be repeated again and again and again.
Stewart: And without laboring the point, the play says, “Live theatre matters.” Live theatre is an embassy of society’s strength of culture, and it’s important for the multitude of ways for which it spotlights the contemporary condition as well as the contemporary conditions as seen through a historical perspective and that’s what David’s play is.
Pepe: One of the lovely things about David Mamet is he likes to give gifts, and he was so excited about Patrick that he had t-shirts sent. The t-shirts had a wonderful picture of Patrick playing Oberon, and he’s wearing a little loin cloth. Patrick went out of the room one day and we all put the t-shirts on, and he came back in and we’re all talking in notes, and he froze. “What are you wearing?”
IM: Did any of you consider a career other than entertainment? How have your parents responded to your choices?
Stewart: There’s a line in the play that’s very pertinent to that, because in the very last scene in the play Robert says to John, “You know, my father always wanted me to be an actor.” That doesn’t apply to me. My father was a professional soldier, an impressive man, and after the war he was a semi-skilled laborer. There was a truly tragic fall in this man’s experience of the world. My mother acted, she was an amateur actress and loved it though she only played very small parts because she had difficulty remembering her lines. I saw her as a child, and I was amazed that that was my mother up there on stage. I started life as a journalist, though that is a rather grandiose name for a very junior reporter on a local weekly newspaper. It lasted a year, I was terrible at it.
Knight: I started when I was five years old. I didn’t drive myself to whatever that audition was, so you have to blame someone else! I’m helpless in that. I think it’s something that happened then that made me realize I was more comfortable on stage or more comfortable acting than I was in regular life. It fit my personal craziness.
Stewart: There’s always been somebody in my life I’ve looked up to and felt I could learn from. I spent twenty-two amazing weeks sharing the stage with Sir Ian McKellan in Waiting for Godot learning every night I was on stage with him. Learning, and falling in love as well. I came out of that show exhausted and fifteen years older, but rich with experience from having spent so much time with him every night.
IM: Patrick, you had done this show before. Did you come looking to work on it again?
Stewart: I didn’t want the production in London to end. When it did end I communicated with Mr. Mamet (whom I didn’t know) and said, “I’m not done with this, if there’s any possibility of a future life, please remember me.” Out of the blue nine months ago I got a call saying, “David Mamet is calling, he would like you to think about…” Good things for good folk, as I quote A Life in the Theatre.
To purchase tickets to A Life in the Theatre visit www.telecharge.com.