On Habit

Posted on by Luke

As a company, we’ve been spending the last few weeks (and the upcoming weeks as well), looking at Glasswater and figuring out how to best serve our artistic goals as well as the needs of the theatre community in Toronto. That means lots of meetings and discussion (and good food!) as part of the process. While we will be updating the blog more often later one, I thought I would update the blog with one of my favourite writings on theatre. From his book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, this chapter by David Mamet is one of the most succinct summaries of our art form. Enjoy!


We tend to repeat those things we have repeated. It’s not especially laziness; it’s just the way we are constructed. It is the way our mind works. How can we use this propensity to our advantage? By habitually performing the tasks of our craft in the same way.

In the theatre, as in other endeavors, correctness in the small is the key to correctness in the large. Show up fifteen minutes early. Know your lines cold. Choose a good, fun, physical objective. Bring to rehearsal and performance those things you will need and leave the rest behind.

You can also cultivate the habit of wiping your feet at the door. We all know we should do this when we enter the theatre door, but we should also do this when we leave.

Leave the concerns of the street on the street. And when you leave the theatre, leave that performance behind you. It’s over—if there is something you want to do differently next time, do it.

Put things in their proper place. Rehearsal is the time for work. Home is the time for reflection.[ The stage is the time for action. Compartmentalize and cultivate that habit and you will find your performances incline to take on the tinge of action.

Be generous to others. Everyone tries to do the best he or she can. Take the beam from your own eye. There is certainly something you can correct or improve in yourself today—over which you have control. That habit will make you strong. Yearning to correct and amend something in someone else will make you petty.

Cultivate the habit of only having aversion for those things you can avoid (those things in yourself) and only desiring those things you can give yourself. Improve yourself.

An actor is, primarily, a philosopher. A philosopher of acting. And the audience understands him as such.

People, thought they may not know it, come to the theatre to hear the truth and celebrate it with each other. Though they are continually disappointed, the urge is so inbred and primal they still come. Your task is to tell the truth. It’s a high calling. Cultivate the habit of pride in your accomplishments, large and small. To prepare a scene, to be punctual, to refrain from criticism, to learn your lines cold—these are all accomplishments, and while you pursue them, you are learning a trade, a most valuable trade.

You bring onstage the same thing you bring into a room: the person you are. Your strength, your weakness, your capacity for action. Dealing with things as they are strengthens your point of view. A most valuable possession for an actor.

Cultivate a love of skill. Learn theatrical skills. They will give you continual pleasure, self-confidence, and link you to fifty thousand years of the history of our profession.

Singing, voice, dance, juggling, tap, magic, tumbling. Practice in them will perfectly define for you the difference between possession and nonpossession of a skill. If you do these things, you will begin to cultivate the habit of humility, which means peace. A person who has done her job that day has fulfilled her responsibilities and pleased God. That person can sleep well.

Cultivate the habit of mutuality. Create with your peers, and you are building a true theatre. When you desire and strive to rise from the ranks rather than with the ranks, you are divisiveness and loneliness in yourself, in the theatre, and in the world. All things come in their time.

Cultivate the habit of truth in yourself.

In choosing the stage, you offer yourself constantly to the opinion of others. Mediocre minds must, of necessity, have mediocre ideas of what constitutes greatness. Consider the source.

Be your own best friend and the ally of your peers, and you may, in fact, become that person, that friend, that preceptor, that benefactor you have always wished to encounter.

That is not a character onstage. It is you onstage. Everything you are. Nothing can be hidden. Finally, nothing can be hidden in any aspect of your life. When we say Lincoln had character, we do not mean the way he held a cigarette. When you say your grandmother had character, we do not mean the way she used a hanky. If you have character, your work will have character. It will have your character. The character to do your exercises every day over the years creates the strength of character to form your own theatre rather than go to Hollywood; to act the truth of the moment when the audience would rather not hear it; to stand up for the play, the theatre, the life you would like to lead. There is nothing more pragmatic than idealism.

© 1997 by David Mamet, from True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, pp. 101-104.

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