A Life in the Theatre: Meet the press - media day

At a media event held on 25 Aug 2010 for the upcoming production of David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre, a few press people were joined by Neil Pepe (Director) and the cast - Patrick Stewart and T. R. Knight.

The press conference began with Neil Pepe reflecting on his warm association with David Mamet that began back in the 1970's .

PEPE: I have always been a fan of Mamet's work. He is one of the smartest writers I know. He is a writer who loves actors and what they bring to the table. He has been in rehearsal with us for the past three days making little changes and adjustments based on our cast. He is a writer who loves actors. He has always been so committed to the wonders and absurdities and the uniqueness of the theatre, and this play is a love letter to the theatre.

QUESTION: Do you have a particular take on this production?

PEPE: I always try to derive my take from a deep understanding of what I think the story is and what the writer's intentions are. The fact that this is being done on Broadway on a larger stage than it was done before (The play was previously produced at the Lortel on Christopher Street in 1977) is certainly informing what Santo Loquasto and I are trying to do with the design. Beyond that, it is basically about utilizing who you have, Sir Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, taking what they are bringing it the table and looking at the best, the richest way possible to stage it. This is a play that has onstage scenes that are sort of Mamet's version of a drawing room comedy, or perhaps Chekov, or a Kinsley play from the 1930's. You try to figure out how to have the most fun and get to the essence of the truth of the material as well as the actors. It's not about "laying on" but about discovering and supporting what's there in the writing, unifying that with the truth of what the actors bring, and then just getting out of the way.

QUESTION: This play is about the traditions in the theatre. How have the traditions changed? Have the young actors lost them?

PEPE: Certainly it's changed. What with the onset of technology, the Internet and TV and other media etc. There was a time when, if people wanted entertainment, they went to the theatre. But I have been finding, ironically, that people are still coming to the theatre. Everyone thought that with the economic crash they would stop. And what does this play do? It celebrates the wonders of live theatre. In some ways it's timeless, and you think it could be taking place in the 1930's or 1940's. It can be difficult to pull an audience in, of course, but the wonder of puling people together for a live theatre event - the experience of actors speaking live in the theatre without anything else - I think that's always going to be around. I don't think we'll lose that. I'm happy that this play celebrates that.

QUESTION: How is the health of the Atlantic theatre Company.

PEPE: I'm thrilled to report that the Atlantic Theatre Company is doing quite well. Of course donations from foundations and corporations are down, but people are still coming to the theatre. I think it's a great time to be in the theatre. If what you are doing is quality work, people will come.

newyorktheatreguide.com: When is the play set?

PEPE: Great question. David wrote it in 1976. It is a pre-technology age. There are no cell phones or computers! And it is kind of timeless. But I think the key for us was to make certain that there is a contemporary window into the play - so we have set it as close in time to cell phones and computers as we could get - early 1990's. We all remember the long phone cords ! There is a pay phone in the play - where do you see those now?

T.R.Kinght (joins the table); This is day 3 of rehearsal so whatever Neil says is fine.

QUESTION: Tell us about your audition process. There must have been many actors who wanted this role.

KNIGHT: This was one of those rare experiences. I got a phone call. It was unexpected and incredible. This is one of those plays that I have had on my shelf - I guess I can say decades now! And to have it fall in my lap was.... I have known Neil since I first arrived in New York (1998).

PEPE: We had many mutual friends in common, and I was a huge fan of his stage work. Then he went out to LA and did Grey's Anatomy, and like I was describing - here is a great actor who can bring the richness - a lot of people don't know he was at the Guthrie and this is a play about repertory. So we figured we would be lucky to get him.

QUESTION: So the actual call was "You go the part"?

KNIGHT: Yes. It's crazy. It's rare to have that experience. You hope they don't realize later on that they made a mistake!

newyorktheatreguide.com: How do you see people who are used to video and computers will receive this play? They will come because they know you from Grey's Anatomy but what about what they take away?

KNIGHT: I think it's exciting, but it falls beyond my knowledge of what I can do. It is our job to entertain. And if people come and are snapped up and fascinated by it then you appreciate it. That's what happened to me when I first went to the theatre. I was very young.

QUESTION: What is compelling about this for you?

KNIGHT: Working in a Mamet play with Neil and Patrick - it's all amazing. And to be sitting at a table as I have been for three days with the three of them where David is changing the play a fair amount. To work with a play that has already been writing and to feel like I am part of this process! And the stories! Normally that is so boring for me. That first week where you sit around the table and read and talk. That's when I start passing notes like a grade school kid. I love getting on my feet. But to sit HERE! The notes I am taking are real notes are because I am hearing stories and references to people, to legends.

PEPE: Because the material is what it is - about actors in the theatre - David and Patrick (Neil and I have our own little stories), THESE guys tell incredible stories! Incredible! They have been doing this forever! Between Mamet's writing and the stories about Royal Shakespeare Company...and it is all feeding into what we're working on - the story of the play.

STEWART (who has just joined us): We must have spent half the time anecdoting and reminiscing, and even though I joked about how "fast" we were moving , I never felt for a moment like we were wasting time.

KNIGHT: I like wasting time like that. If that is wasting time, I want more.

STEWART: You are a young. You have time to waste. Some of us are old!!!! Ahhh! It always felt as though we were rehearsing. Even when we were telling stories.

PEPE: Absolutely because the stories would come out, and then we would read the scene. Again, the play is what happens offstage and on stage to two great actors who have committed to being part of a repertory theatre. And there are just so many incredible things they talk about. Patrick's character talks about etiquette, the Patrick himself will stop and talk about etiquette in the theatre and Mamet and I do.

KNIGHT: And I talk about what I had for lunch.

PEPE: One of the other hilarious elements of this play is that these guys get to do onstage scenes that are sort of references to a play that might seem like a Chekov play or a Journey's End or a drawing room comedy, but there is something wonderful and funny about that tradition of props in a live theatre where set pieces go wrong. It is a window into that unique event.

QUESTION: A lot of Mamet's stories ring uncomfortably true. Have you had experiences that were similar to this play.

STEWART: Everything that happens to Robert and John in this play with one exception has happened to me. A lot of my life has paralleled Robert's life. I have been lucky to have a little more commercial success than Robert has as of yet.

QUESTION: One word for this show?

STEWART: Laughs. A lot of great laughs but perhaps a little untypical?

PEPE: It is. It's really very touching and funny - onstage and offstage scenes. A beautiful look at a life that a lot of people don't know. I keep saying that I think it is Mamet's love letter, his homage to the theatre. But I think it's also an incredible piece for actors and directors.

STEWART: And what has come out as we have sat around this very table is that our author Mamet, of course he has a huge respect for the theatre, has (which doesn't always exist) a real fondness for actors and people who work in the business of life theatre. I think when you look at the title, instead of A Life in the Theatre you should parenthetically change it to HIS Life in the Theatre.

QUESTION: What about profanity? You are about the only person I can think of who can pull that off elegantly.

STEWART: Sit back, because you are going to hear some of that. It is going to be warm language.

Neil PepePatrick StewartT. R. Knight

Originally published on

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