Saturday, April 27, 2013

Theatre For Thought, April 27, 2013

joel fishbane

David Mamet’s controversial play Race is finishing its Toronto run on May 5th and while its characters confront their ideas of race in America, something equally interesting is happening off stage. Patrons of Race are handed the usual programme, only to find on the first page a unique message from artistic director Matthew Jocelyn.

Jocelyn begins by spelling out the contractual rider which Mamet attached to the play, a rider which forces all theatres to a) obey all stage directions; b) not use music or any artificial sound not included in the text; c) not have any “stage business” before or after the show; d) not employ any trick sets (sets that move, shift or fall apart); and e) forbids post-show talkbacks.  “Why does a writer go to such extreme lengths?” asks Jocelyn. “In Mamet’s desire to take an uncensored look at the ever-burning question of race, he oddly shackles the artists whose very job it is to interpret his work.”

I can’t share Jocelyn’s belief that Mamet’s request is in any way “odd”. While it is definitely the job of other artists to interpret a play, it is also their job to not misinterpret the work. Last week I remarked on the glory of theatrical collaboration and while plays will always be incomplete without a whole team of artists, it is a reality of the industry that once a play finishes its initial run, subsequent productions occur without the playwright’s presence. Actors, designers and directors can have their input in the process but how is a playwright to make himself heard when he is somewhere else?

To produce Children of a Lesser God, you must find actors who are deaf or hearing impaired. Playwright Mark Medoff actually insists on it.

Mamet clearly wanted to write a play that employed no technical hi-jinks to distract from the text; and because he knew he wouldn’t be in the room, he used the power of contractual law to ensure that this vision was respected. The rider is his sole input into the process which, all things considered, isn’t very much. The stage directions in Race aren’t elaborate (Mamet’s stage directions rarely are) and his rider doesn’t interfere with staging or the design of lighting and costumes. And while he forbids trick sets, he doesn’t offer a counter-suggestion, leaving the set designer free to do what he / she will. 

We can view Mamet’s requests as limitations, as Jocelyn does, but we could also see them as challenges which force the artists to employ other techniques to bring the work to life. All plays have some sort of boundary, be they artistic or technical, and in each case the artists who choose to produce the play must find a way to work within these limits. Mamet’s script requires that the cast include two black actors and two white ones: this, technically, is a limitation too. Some aspiring director might make the argument about the significance of having racial blind casting in a play about race – but this would not be the play that Mamet wrote. 

Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter both employ pauses and stage directions which must be obeyed. Musicals demand a set orchestra and actors who can sing within a certain range. To produce Children of a Lesser God, you must find actors who are deaf or hearing impaired. Playwright Mark Medoff actually insists on it. All these are limitations. Do they shackle artists? Or are they guideposts that help others create a production that reflect the writer’s original intent?

Still, the real curiosity is why Jocelyn went out of his way to draw our attention to Mamet’s contractual rider in the first place. To both me and my companion, it sounded very much like a pre-emptive warning designed to separate the theatre’s own aesthetic from the playwright’s. Which is certainly the theatre’s right. But it begs the question: if Mamet’s aesthetic smacks so hard against Canadian Stage’s, why did they produce the play to begin with?

Race by David Mamet continues at Canadian Stage in Toronto until May 5, 2013. For tickets / info visit

1 comment:

  1. I think you are misinterpreting Matthew Jocelyn's message. He admits that while it may seem paradoxical that a playwright, whose intent is to provoke discussion, contractually limits discussion in the theatre, he acknowledges that the rider reflects how sensitive a discussion of race can be. Jocelyn goes on to say that Mamet successfully makes the theatre a space for debate despite the contractual limitations.

    So in essence he agrees with you. I imagine that the note could have been an explanation for regular audience members who enjoy post-show discussions, and perhaps an acknowledgement, and agreement, that it is not a theatre company's job to impose its own views about race or any other divisive topic on its audience.


Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.