A Life in the Theatre is, according to almost any artist who has one: wild, extreme, emotional, heightened and beautiful… and the 1977 play of that name by David Mamet is a perfect example of all these things. Darlinghurst Theatre Company are now bringing this play to life, and I had the chance to chat with Helen Dallimore, the director of the production which has just opened at the Eternity Playhouse, as well as actor John Gaden.
A story about two actors a generation apart and the struggles that success and envy brings to their relationship, A Life in the Theatre is in many ways theatre about theatre. It’s acting about acting, a story about stories… albeit one told in a somewhat in a heightened way. “I think non actors are always fascinated by the process by which actors become a character” says Gaden when asked why seeing actors play someone in their own profession has held such an enduring fascination for audiences. “As people we spend a lot of time trying to “read” people, trying to work out who is genuine or fake, and what is truth and what is a lie. Shakespeare in Macbeth talks about “the equivocation to the fiend that lies like truth”. I think “lies like truth” is a good description of what we do as actors.” Dallimore also believes that “Writers are told to “write what you know”. The same applies to actors. They’re most effective when they are playing something they can strongly relate to. Audiences sense this and share the joy of revelling in familiar territory.”
As Gaden alludes to, seeing actors portray actors, along with the personal and emotional issues that can come with that, has been a favourite device for comedy since Shakespeare’s works such as Midsummer Night’s Dream and before… but I was curious what this more contemporary and focused take on the topic might say about how actors are viewed and affected by their audience. For Dallimore one part of that is “how hard can be to receive criticism as an artist. Given the personal and fiscal sacrifices to do so. The unfairness and subjectiveness of it all. For people in the theatre, a good or bad review can be hugely affecting – as can the opinions of our colleagues. So little value is placed on artists, there is so little respect for what they do. It’s precarious.” Gaden agrees, stating: “It’s a public art in which the audience are a major part, so they are constantly in mind during the rehearsal process and the moment to moment engagement in performance.”
Both characters in the play have their own theatrical egos and insecurities, and this tension between the veteran and the rising star ground their relationship in that reaction to the work as we see them each move through various roles. Gaden says he personally doesn’t “have much trouble separating my personal life from my actor life. In fact I find it important to have an “outside Life”. Without that, things can get very hot-house.” On that subject of how personal lives can be affected, again a prominent theme in the play, Dallimore also points out that “Theatre hours are very anti-social. The term “theatre widow” refers to the wives (or husbands) of actors, who never get to go out at night – unless it’s a Monday… And then there are those actors who miss out on having a family. Who never find the right time to have a baby. Who can’t find a partner willing to put up with the strange hours and crazy lifestyle. It often comes at a huge personal cost to devote one’s life to art.”
If this is all sounding heavy and serious, it’s only because that’s where sharpest and most interesting comedy is born from, and the key takeaway is that both Mamet and the team at Darlinghurst theatre co. understand the comedic potential of these characters and their Life in the Theatre. After spending as much time as he has with Mamet’s words, Gaden is confident that the audience will find both humour and maybe also some pathos in the characters: “It’s a very unsentimental look at two actors, both at crossroads in their lives.” His director agrees “I hope the audience will laugh their arses off and also be moved by the ephemeral, fragile nature of The Theatre and those who sail in her.”
Luke Holmes for Theatre Now and Talking Arts
Pictured: John Gaden and Akos Armont
Photo Credit: Helen White