Acting’s Like Riding a Bike

A Response to David Mamet.

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David Mamet and "True and False"

Acting is more like riding a bike than piloting an airplane. This is a short response to David Mamet’s “True and False.”

Length: 1200 words

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Note From the Future Me: Re-reading this after posting it, I realise that I’ve argued myself into mostly agreeing with Mamet. However, I decided to post it anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. I have an abiding respect for David Mamet’s work. His series on is enlightening and vivid. I have taken great joy in seeing, reading, directing and performing in Mamet’s plays. His deployment of classic, stoic philosophy is admirable and a character trait I aspire to myself (as evident in my post, The Stoic Actor).

However, there are a couple things in Mamet’s book, True and False (1997) that spurred me to debate him (if only in my imagination). First, he takes a spectacular swing at Stanislavski, a move that made me re-read a couple of times.  I admire Mamet’s audacity (read: cahones). There needs to be more of it among acting teachers.

So much of an actor’s education involves learning to admire Stanislavski’s creation without understanding all of his system. It’s a form of totem-making. Now, I don’t consider myself a true-believer. However, at the same time, I confess that part of me saw it as swearing in church.

[Stanislavski’s] contribution as a theoretician was that of a dilettante, and has, since his day, been a lodestone for the theoretical, I will say the antipractical, soul. For amateurs. For his theories cannot be put into practice (Mamet, p.14).
A Jab in the Eye

Casting Stanislavski in this light uses the rhetorical device of poetic justice. Stanislavski  staunchly rejected dilettantism (amateurish dabbling). Mamet uses all of his points well in his onslaught. For example, Stanislavski’s upbringing in a wealthy family (Mamet, p.7), his transition from being an actor to taking an “administrative” position (Mamet, p.15) as head of the national theatre in a socialist country.

Mamet reduces Stanislavski’s life greatly. He alludes that it lacks the integrity of honest labour earning an honest buck—never being forced to please and entertain an audience under the capitalist, free market paradigm (Mamet, p.7). Mamet also sidesteps significant contextual factors such as having an audience who was, well, Stalin! Avoiding  execution, I would imagine, is a form of great profit.

However, the grander question this begs is “where do creative ideas come from if not through tinkering, hacking and failing—numerous times?” As a result, most of these scenarios (coupled with perseverance) end with compelling, practical solutions.

This angled picture of Stanislavski and his system frames a depreciation of experimentation and examination, two things Stanislavski dedicated his life to.

Despite the problems people have (legitimately) with Stanislavski, I still give the bloke an ‘A’ for effort. After all, without falling off the bike and getting back on, you never figure out how to ride.

Acting is like riding a bike.

A rider-less bike.

Story as Bicycle

Permit me to extend this bike-riding metaphor a little further. A second thing got my back up (and yes, I suspect that was Mamet’s intention toward all his readers). It was his admonishment of actors and directors who feel they need to “do” something beyond what’s in the text (Mamet, p.9). I understand that contorting a story, even slightly, can be frustrating for a writer. Especially when the story is as contemporary, context-aware and well-designed as Mamet’s.

Emotional memory,” “sense memory,” and the tenets of the Method back to and including Stanislavsky’s trilogy are a lot of hogwash. This “method” does not work; it cannot be practiced; it is, in theory, design, and supposed execution supererogatory—it is as useless as teaching pilots to flap their arms while in the cockpit in order to increase the lift of the plane (Mamet, p.12).

Ok. I have to confess, that last line is funny. It really should be in a joke—a punchline for “What do Ivanka and Jared do to reduce the emissions of their private jet? Answer: Flap their arms”… something like that.

True, False and Untrue

The thing rings as “untrue” about the metaphor is it seems to assert a passive role on the actors, directors and audience of a story. In this metaphor, we are all the pilots and passengers in the finely tuned vehicle. We attend to its mechanisms by flipping switches and pushing levers.

Conversely, a more fair-minded metaphor might imply that we are all participants, partners and collaborators who (re)tell, re[hear]se and actively witness the story. We receive stories actively, we’re not merely told them.

A story is more like riding a bike than flying in an airplane. On a bike, you push the pedals to propel both the vehicle and you, the rider, to the destination. It’s an active, churning, physical imaginative effort (on the part of the performers and the audience alike), pushing into the story (usually uphill come act 3) to keep it in motion. When that effort falters, the bike wobbles. If it stops, the bike tips over.

The Job
The actor has his own trials to undergo, and they are right in front of him. They don’t have to be superadded; they exist. His challenge is not to recapitulate, to pretend to the difficulties of the written character; it is to open the mouth, stand straight, and say the words bravely—adding nothing, denying nothing, and without the intent to manipulate anyone: himself, his fellows, the audience( Mamet, p.21).

The actor’s job is definitely to “show up” and to give a full-throated, courageous voice to the same journey that faces the character (Mamet, p.12). Additionally, I think it’s an activated imagination that is the key to entering the text. Stanislavski got that right–but if he was looking in the wrong place, I don’t think throwing the whole system out is necessary.

Emotional memory is flawed. Yes, “substitution” can be flimsy and harmful. They both unnecessarily burden the actor by concentrating on the feelings they must produce rather than what they must do. But the actor’s job is not as removed or unengaged as being the technician of an advanced machine.

A Proposal

Stripping the story back to its archetypal frame (so to speak) could help. Consequently, the pared-back version of the story gives the actor the clearest idea of what to do rather than what to feel. In my opinion, that is the actor borrowing the audience’s perspective. The actor is the muscle power that moves it along rather than sitting in the circumstances passively. Aligning the actor’s archetypal psychological objects with those of the story will help with this. In this sense, the actor is more of a cooperative co-storyteller.

Thinking this through has certainly given me a new sense of my own conviction when working with scenes (and most certainly when working with Emblems and Archetypal Partners in the Crosspoints). Probably it’s what Mamet meant all along when he wrote “True and False,” provoking his readers to stop, re-evaluate and solve their own dissonance. I needed to think (and write) my way around his points.

Thanks Mr. Mamet.

True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, David Mamet, 1997.

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