A newly minted graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Oliver Palmer is performing in David Mamet’s American Buffalo, directed by John Gould Rubin, with Treat Williams and Stephen Adly Guirgis at the Dorset Theatre Festival from August 24-September 2. This is a big deal for a young actor, and the passion and excitement was evident in Palmer’s voice when he said, “I need to prove my worth through this role.”
“I first collaborated with John Gould Rubin when he cast me in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Tisch,” Palmer explained. “I’d never done Brecht before, and my character was essentially an Italian mobster version of Hitler who used the kind of slang they use in The Godfather. It was a helpful for me to stretch because I have primarily trained as a Shakespearean actor thus far.”
Palmer first caught Rubin’s eye when he played a fierce, brutal soldier in the Combative Theater Company production of Coriolanus. That led to the Brecht and now to this opportunity in Dorset. “It is fantastic working with John again. I know what he wants and how to give it to him. For a young actor it’s wonderful to have a director trust me. This has engendered a faith I otherwise couldn’t have learned at such an early age. I try hard to balance faith in my craft with the hard work.”
Attending Tisch seemed a castle-in-the-sky dream for Palmer growing up on a farm in Kentucky. Then in high school he got an opportunity to attend Tabor Academy, a co-ed independent school on Buzzards Bay in southeastern Massachusetts.
“Leaving Kentucky at 14 was the hardest thing I did in my life,” Palmer recalled. “I came from a bottom-five public school to a fine New England prep school, and I was shocked how much class prejudice I met with. I had grown up around conservatives, but they are very different in the northeast. I realized then that immense wealth can do as much to influence one’s world view as immense poverty.”
During his high school years Palmer’s friends were involved in the theatre. “I just kind of fell into it. The first Mamet I did was his radio play The Water Engine. I was 15 and I played the young man, Bernie.”
“I remember sitting in my dorm room and learning that I gotten in to Tisch. I was really humbled. That experience taught me the value of humility and hard work.”
Palmer is thrilled to be tackling Mamet again, and in such good company.
“I am a superfan of Stephen’s!” Palmer enthused. “My first real interest in the theatre was sparked by reading his plays and laughing my ass off.” Guirgis is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a director, as well as an actor.
Williams is a good friend of Mamet’s and has appeared in productions of many of his plays, notably on Broadway in Oleanna. As the youngest member of the cast, Palmer knows he has his work cut out for him. “Here I am with the two big guys and I am learning at a faster rate than I ever imagined possible! On the first beat of the first reading Treat was so far beyond where I was that I am still catching up. It took me four reads to even understand the plot! But Mamet is a lot like Shakespeare in that he tackles epic themes and what you see on the page is not the whole play. And I understood that in Mamet I needed to be muscular in that same way. Mamet’s writing demands as much work as any Shakespeare I’ve done.
Palmer is playing Bobby, the young delivery boy at the junk shop owned by Guirgis’ character, Donny.
“Bobby has such short lines so I need to fill a lot as an actor,” Palmer explained. “It’s beautiful to have a character who says so little and I can make the words mean so much.”
“The most humbling aspect of this role for me is Bobby’s heroin addiction. This is a subject that has touched so many people’s lives. I grew up in an area with a lot of trailer parks, farmers, and people living in poverty and I know it is SO hard when you don’t have money. The temptations are great. There I had greater exposure to meth addicts, but I’ve talked to some people about what it’s like to live with an opioid addiction, and I want to do them justice.
“It is sad that it still feels shameful to talk about drug addiction. Everyone has their problems and there’s no need for such hate. I want to stand up for these people to change the ways we think about and try to help drug addicts.”
American Buffalo is also very much a play about masculinity. “As one of four boys I know the pecking order of masculine domination. Bobby is trying to tell the angry men around him that life is truly beautiful. In the few lines I have I am trying to tell them that they don’t need to be so serious about everything.”
After American Buffalo, Palmer will return to the hard work of trying to make it as an actor in Manhattan. But he also wants to pursue his work as a drummer and composer. “My father is a conductor of classical music and he gave me a good understanding what music can do. In June I did Richard III with Smith Street Stage outdoors in Carroll Park in Brooklyn. I played Brackenbury, but I also composed and performed all the incidental music, so I would be on the drums in costume and then dash back on stage.”
Palmer is enjoying his time in Dorset, hiking and biking around the Green Mountains as his schedule permits. “Although I have to say, organic hamburgers are much cheaper in Kentucky,” he joked.