The Playgoer: Mike Daisey's Manifesto

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Mike Daisey's Manifesto

AKA his latest monologue performance, How Theatre Failed America.

For those of us not lucky enough to catch it on tour presently, Mike has given something like a teaser in the Seattle Stranger and it's a knockout read.

Very angry, very moving, and very, very right.

I could quote so much--about the brilliant Seattle actress who has to retire at 40 when she realizes even her local idols live on poverty-line budgets, about the compulsive need for all corporations, profit or non, to "grow" senselessly beyond purpose--but here's just two points I found particularly salient. And singing.

One, on the failure the attract new audiences:

Most regional theaters make less than half of their budget from ticket sales—they have the power to make all their tickets 15 or 20 dollars if they were willing to cut staff and transition through a tight season. It would not be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Of course, that would also require making theater less of a "luxury" item—which raises secret fears that the oldest, whitest, richest donors will stop supporting the theater once the uncouth lower classes with less money and manners start coming through the door. These people might even demand different kinds of plays, which would be annoying and troublesome.
This hits on something rarely spoken--that at some level it's not really in the interest of many theatre institutions to cultivate younger--or just different audiences. (After all, filling the seats with just the children and grandchildren of your existing subscribers might not change the tastes much at all.) Do we really want to speak to people who aren't old, rich and/or white? Or are we asking the young, nonrich and nonwhite to simply learn to appreciate the finer things?

Notice what inevitably happens when a theatre dares to push those boundaries of language, sexuality, and violence that are by now no biggie to the kids, but bring on piles of angry letters (yes, letters, not emails) from subscribers and board members. Guess which response is weighed more: the full-price subscriber and $500+ donor? or the kid who got in on a ten-buck rush ticket?

Where Daisey really throws down the gauntlet, though, is of course the messgae inherent in his title. That whole 1960s vision of those great Ford Foundation grants, the philanthropic mission of the MacNeil Lowrys, the model held up by the original Guthrie--all of it came to naught. Provocative, eh?

That dream is dead. The theaters endure, but the repertory companies they stood for have been long disbanded. When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource: They ship the actors, designers, and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show. To use a sports analogy, theaters have gone from a local league with players you knew intimately to a different lineup for every game, made of players you'll never see again, coached by a stranger, on a field you have no connection to.

Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew. Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work. Marketing and fundraising departments in regional theaters have grown hugely, replacing the artists who once worked there, raising millions of dollars from audiences that are growing smaller, older, and wealthier. It's not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don't want to actually make any theater.


DL said...

I saw the show last night and it was amazing.
I have been forgetting why I am even doing theater or why I started and his show brought it all back for me.
Just amazing story teller performer and truth teller.

Anonymous said...

Love it.

I'm hoping to see his show, but am away on a gig (probably stealing a job away from another actor based in that very community).

My queston is, is this a long overdue and thoroughly justified case of venting, or is it a call to action? And what is that suggested action?

I know Mike reads this blog (when his name is spelled right anyway ;-) so any update would be great.