Act Two. Now What?

When the student is ready the teacher will appear, is a putative Buddhist maxim. Whether or not that’s really authentic to Buddhism, sometimes life does happen that way. This week I experienced that maxim from the writer and director David Mamet.

A fellow playwright had told me about this new course, “David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing”, being offered by Masterclass, an online education company. The company has previously presented a course by another renowned scriptwriter, Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “The Social Network”). The Mamet course offered 26 video sessions for $90. Given Mamet’s accomplishments, that struck us as a good value so we both signed on. Each session runs 10 to 20 minutes.

For readers unfamiliar with Mamet, he has written 36 plays, 29 screenplays, and 17 books, as well as television shows and poetry. He has directed 11 films. His oeuvre includes two of the most important American plays of the 20th century, American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984). Glengarry earned its author the Pulitzer Prize for drama. I figured the guy who’s done all that could teach me a thing or two.

Where do your ideas come from? That’s a question commonly asked of writers of fiction, whether they be novelists, screenwriters or playwrights. Hidden in that question can be a suspicion that story ideas are rare gems only a few miners have the good fortune to find. Whereas in my experience ideas are more like chunks of coal scattered all over a mine’s floor. If not careful you’ll a stub a toe. Great care must go into selecting which chunk of coal to pick up and toil over, because it will likely represent a year of work. And that’s if things go well; it can be several years if it turns into a prolonged wrestling match.

The difficulty lies not in finding ideas, it’s in shaping them into a well-crafted story: a tale with beginning, middle and end; characters who want something and whom we care about; turns; and an ending that is both surprising and inevitable. No small order, all that.

The fairy tale paradigm offers a concise way to think about story: Once upon a time there was . . . (that’s act one, the set-up), then some time passed during which . . . (act two), until one day . . . (act three). Story-crafting is most challenging at the “some time passed” act two phase. Lately I have been stuck at that juncture for a new play of mine. Having written a brilliant first act, I keep bumping up against act two and getting bruises instead of progress. I keep re-reading my act one, which remember is just so amazing, hoping to build up momentum enough, like some downhill skier, to carry me through act two. So far, no go. The series of incidents that occur during the “some time passed” part is really the meat of any involved story. Every morning for the last month I have been bumping up against act two without as yet finding my way forward.

So here’s where Mamet appeared like in the Buddhist saying. He cites an old theatrical truism: “Anyone can write a good first act . . . You’re setting up an interesting problem. The question is how you figure your way out of it.” It’s not that Mamet can show me how to write my act two – I’m the only one who can do that – but in discussing the difficulty of that stage for every script, he has helped fortify me to keep plugging away.

Mamet confesses that “Writing a plot is one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned to do. It’s just hard. . .  Can one learn to write a plot? Yes. And you have to learn it again every play because in every play it’s different. It’s hiding.” He claims writing dialogue is easy. “But to craft a plot is actual work. It feels dreadful, except when you finish and feel proud of yourself.” Reassuring words as I wrestle with my new script.

This is no newfound catechism for Mamet. Twenty years ago he told John Lahr in a profile in the New Yorker: “That’s the only thing I ever really worked hard at in my life: plotting. Do it and do it, and do it again. . . Given the set of circumstances, what does [the story] end up with? How is that inevitable? How is that surprising?”

Mamet has always projected a tough guy persona, a cockiness that can spill over into preening and bombast. A hero of his is Hemingway. This characteristic of Mamet is evident in the Masterclass course. Even when he makes a gesture toward humility I detect a dash of swagger, such as in this injunction: “Write it down. See what you come up with. Are you gonna hate it? Yeah. Are you sometimes gonna love it? Yeah. And then are you gonna hate yourself for feeling so self-confident and doubt yourself? Yeah. Welcome to my world.”

An HBO executive once prefaced a few pages of notes to Mamet on how he could improve a script with “Essentially, almost all of our notes concern the following issues: Chronology, Clarity, and Character (alliteration unintended).  Mamet shot back a message for the exec: “Tell him to Suck my Dick (alliteration unintended).”

It’s worth bearing in mind that teaching is not the same as doing, and Mamet’s experience, wisdom and bravado do not inoculate him against failure. His new plays have not fared well over the last decade or so. In 2012 Mamet’s new play The Anarchist opened on Broadway, starring Debra Winger and Patti LuPone. The story explored crime and punishment. Its producers announced its closing two days after it opened, hardly enough time to post bail.

For dramatists I recommend this Masterclass course. Veteran writers will hear little they haven’t heard before in one guise or another, including in books Mamet has written about acting, directing and writing. But being reminded of basic storytelling principles can help as we go about our daily business of making things up. And David Mamet does hold that the stakes are high: “So the question is, ‘How do we examine our soul? How do we get closer to God? How do we get closer to the truth?’ And one way we do that is through drama.”

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