Rich Theatre, Poor Theatre

Mamet’s American Buffalo: Two Sides of the Coin

At the moment in the United States of America there are two productions running of David Mamet’s American Buffalo. One is running in New York City in a major off-Broadway production featuring famous actors in the leading roles. It is directed by a seasoned luminary of the New York theatre scene. The other opens on Friday, May 13, in a thrift store in Casper, Wyoming with unknown amateurs in the show’s three roles. It is directed by a 21 year-old waitress and amateur actor making her debut in “the Big Chair,” Julia Conte.

In comparing the two photos one can easily distinguish which production is which. On the right hand side we see Lawrence Fishburne as Donny Dubrow on the phone; in the photo on the left we see Brett Christensen in the same role, rehearsing in his UPS uniform. But if you look into the background and foreground of both photos and ignore the actors, you might find it a bit trickier to make the distinction. The off-Broadway production, staged in the three-quarter round at the Circle in the Square, boasts a minutely-detailed set that imbues the play with a sense of place so realistic as to make the suspension of disbelief almost effortless. Seated around the thrust stage, the audience is drawn into the characters’ subterranean world by the verisimilitude of the set, the realization of which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and God only knows how many man-hours of labor. In Casper, Don’s Resale Shop is played by P.R. Thrifty, the former Poverty Resistance Thrift Store located at 450 S. Wolcott St., Casper.

The disparity between the ticket prices is telling as well. To see the show at Circle in the Square, you’ll pay $116 for a back row seat, $418 for prime orchestra seats. In Casper, tickets will set you back $15 at the door, $10 if you purchase in advance online.

What, then, is the point of this exercise? The New York production is to the Casper production what the Taj Mahal is to a homeless shelter. The New York production has literally the best of everything one could imagine as regards the art of the theatre. In fact, the only things the two productions can be said to have in common are the script itself and that they are both manifestations of the thing we call “theatre.” Isn’t it obvious that the one is “better” than the other?

“You think you’re better than me?”

If by “better” we mean “more polished, more professional, more spectacular, more lavish,” then yes. But if we mean, “a transfiguring experience of the world of the play,” then it might not be so clear which production is “better.” The great Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, to whom TotP owes so much, showed in Towards a Poor Theatre that it’s the actors who matter most, not the spectacle. In his seminal text, The Empty Space, British director Peter Brook decries the “rich theatre” of high tech wizardry as vacuous and “deadly,” notwithstanding its seemingly endless capacity to reproduce astonishing special effects once thought possible only in film. The “rich theatre” dazzles the audience with what is tantamount to magic; the audience is transported to childhood and revisits the awe of seeing fireworks for the first time. The “poor theatre” cannot compete with this and doesn’t even try, because its objectives are quite different. It does not seek to overwhelm the audience with spectacle, novelty, and forced emotions; rather, it strives to create a “transaction” between the audience and the performers, whose “interaction” produces the world of the play, ritualistically transforming the space and leading everyone in it to a shared understanding of something immediately and ineluctably true about the universe, and about humanity, and what it means to be human.

Nor are we of the “poor theatre” in it for the money. For us, the stakes, at least financially, are quite low. We don’t have New York City rents to pay; we don’t have to meet union scale wages for everyone from the ushers to the star actors. Our “rich theatre” counterparts in the alternate universe known as Broadway are very much in it for the money (your money) because, when you get right down to it, they need you to purchase their product in order for the backers to make a profit. In other words, it’s a business.

Both rich and poor theatre are selling an experience of a performed work of art, with the hope that our “customers” will be “entertained,” “transported” to the world of the play. But as disciples of Grotowski, we of TotP hope that our customers–our audience–come away from our production with something other than the afterimages of refulgent fireworks seared onto the retina of their mind’s eye. We want a transformation to take place, induced by new understanding, new insight, new knowledge. To the extent that every encounter we have with each other changes us in some way, TotP wishes to make the encounter known as theatre one that transforms all of us involved in ways not possible through any other medium.

We make no claim to be better than, or even as good as, the New York production of American Buffalo; we have no way of knowing whether our show in Casper will be as efficacious in transmitting Mamet’s vision as our New York counterpart. However, by taking advantage of what our environment and community offer us, TotP has managed to find a unique way to produce American Buffalo: as a fully immersive experience. Our set doesn’t just look like a junk shop, it smells like a junk shop, it sounds and feels like a junk shop–because it is a junk shop. The audience’s close proximity to the actors will give our production an intensity and immediacy that is not possible at the Circle in the Square. There the audience is separated from the world of the play by means of the conventions of the rich, professional theatre, and at no time does anyone ever regard themselves as not being in a theatre. The actual junk shop immerses the audience entirely in the world of the play. There is no escape, and never any question about where you are.

You can pay $418 to sit at the cusp of the stage at the Circle in the Square, so close as to see the sweat pouring off Fishburne. Or you can pay $10 ($15 at the door) to watch the sweat pour off Christensen, Grund, and Conte. Either way, you’ll have an experience of the darkly comedic, ultimately tragic lives of Donny, Bobby, and Teach, the quality of which will be judged by you, the audience. We hope to see you at the show, and that you will let us know what you think.

William Conte, Artistic Director

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