The Art of Direction

Actor Mark Zeisler leads Elm Shakespeare production of American Buffalo

Mark Zeisler

By David A. Brensilver

New York-based actor Mark Zeisler, who’s worked in film, television, and theater, directs the Elm Shakespeare Company production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, which can be seen at the Kehler Liddell Gallery from May 10-13 and May 17-20. The Arts Paper recently talked with Zeisler about Mamet’s play, his creative process, and more.

Q: The Elm Shakespeare Company production of American Buffalo marks your directorial debut. Having acted in scores of theater, film, and television productions, which acting experiences are you calling on and which are you setting aside in preparing for this production?

A. Well, I hope to stay with what I know that I’m already proficient in, and look for help with things that I don’t know as well. I do know acting and performance, and I know that I can help my actors get to where they need to get to go. I’ll be looking for input and help in technical matters from our terrific lighting and set/costume designers (Jamie Burnett and Elizabeth Bolster). And I also know that I will be listening to what Jim Andreassi has to offer – (Jim) has been doing this a lot longer than I have. Having said that, I have been fortunate to be around some incredible directors in theater and television and film, and their influence has probably made a quiet mark on me in more ways than I’m aware of.

Q: I remember reading or watching an interview with Leonard Bernstein in which he talked about erasing his notes from the score of a work he’d conducted many times and studying the piece anew for an upcoming performance. How are you, as a director, approaching the Elm Shakespeare Company production of American Buffalo, which is, of course, a familiar and iconic work?

A. That’s a great question, and one that I have thought about. Buffalo had some seminal productions in the late ’70s and early ’80s and for kids who were in drama school at the time (like me) they had a profound influence on me. But we’ve had some time now and some years have passed, and every time I go through it now I find there are so many new things to find and new things to explore. The planet has changed in so many ways since the play was written, and in so many ways it has stayed the same. What is timeless about the play is the relationship between these three men. Ultimately, you have to work on the play as if the words are being spoken for the first time, which always helps when the play is of the caliber of American Buffalo.

Q: How might your approach as a director differs from an approach you might take as an actor in this play?

A. As an actor you have a “laser beam” approach to the play – you need to shine a very intense light on one aspect of the play: your role and your performance. That’s what you have to worry about, and a lot of the time that can be a lot to worry about. As a director, you have to make yourself responsible for every aspect of the production. Technical, design, performance, sight lines, whether the actors can be heard: these are all your problems. So it’s a different kind of focus, it’s a different kind of involvement. It’s using a different part of (oneself).

Q: Would you describe your relationship to American Buffalo — in other words, what was your introduction to the play and which performances, productions, and/or adaptations have most influenced you?

A: American Buffalo was the first play by Mamet that I ever saw, and I saw Arvin Brown’s production of (it) at Long Wharf in 1980 with Al Pacino, Clifton James, and Thomas Waites. It put hooks into me that I can remember to this day. I was a second year acting student at SUNY Purchase, and needless to say, it rocked my world. I learned a great deal about acting and production from seeing it.

Q: You’ve appeared as an actor in Elm Shakespeare Company productions of Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, and Hamlet. You’ve thus worked under James Andreassi’s direction. He’ll be acting in American Buffalo. Would you talk a bit about what might be described as “trading places,” particularly as it relates to you and James?

A: Well we trust each other, and I am grateful for that. I can only hope that I will be able to guide him as well in this journey of his as he has in our work together in the past.

Q: Mamet’s dialogue is somewhat inimitable. What are you finding is the best way to let Mamet’s dialogue “speak for itself,” for lack of a better phrase?

A: I am new to Mamet as both a director and an actor, but Mamet is very clear and precise about emphasis and pauses in his scripts. The plays are written almost like music, with an incredible sense of rhythm that approaches mathematics. The only other playwright that is similar in this way is (Harold) Pinter, and he and Mamet are very similar in many ways. As an actor, I think the trick to getting this is to work for you is to become an absolute master of the play, in terms of knowledge and intentions, and then simply let that rhythm take over in your work. Mamet has done a lot of the work for you and once you can trust that, I think the play can start to take off.

Q: Have any elements of Mamet’s later works informed your approach to this, one of his earlier plays?

A: Just that in building this body of work of his, he has created an idea of the use of language that is like none other. You see this through everything from Glengarry Glen Ross all the way to Race. Unique is an overused word, but these people inhabit a world of words that is distinctively their own. I think that Buffalo is the first of the masterpieces of Mamet.

For detailed information about the Elm Shakespeare Company production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, visit elmshakespeare.org.

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