The Playgoer: My Night With Daisey

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

My Night With Daisey

Yes, it was a few nights ago now, but I did indeed want to follow up on my experience both watching and panel-ing Sunday at Mike Daisey's last performance (for now) of How Theater Failed America.

First, the show. As I often admit, I'm not the biggest fan of monologues. And this runs close to two hours! But luckily Daisey is an incredibly charismatic and engaging performer/storyteller. This is the first show, indeed, I have seen of his live. (Not counting the video excerpts of one particular famous performance last year that at the time cause some controversy between us....but no matter now.)

It helps that he has an important story to tell. At least for anyone who does theatre for a living, or once dreamed of such. Actually it's two stories: One a current-day polemic against the blood-sucking corporate management ethic of our nonprofit institutions. The other, the story of How Theatre Saved Mike Daisey--once upon a time, that is. Alternating between the current critique and flashbacks to memoir-like recountings of his youthful adventures in various low/no budget theatricals, Daisey's strategy is to critique the current system not just through diatribe but by example--example of its opposite. At the risk of sometimes getting nostalgic for the good old days of poor theatre (a nostalgia he fesses up to and tries to contain) these reminiscences serve to point up what's missing in our overly-managed theatres--the sheer spirit and desire to create art. The new fancy buildings some lucky theatres have been able to build, Daisey reminds us, are built for administrators, not artists.

It's a deft balance he achieves in the monologue, since the connection between the two strands remains unspoken. It's up to the audience to contrast in their own minds the thrill of creating theatre "by any means necessary" and the deadness we encounter so much in our larger nonprofits. The solution of course is NOT necessarily to return to Daisey's 5-person college rep-company adventure "Theatre on the Pond". But to find some medium in between, one could say. Allow for a company to have the energy and purpose of Theatre on the Pond with just a little more budget, and audience. But one without the other just won't do it anymore.

It's the reminiscences that take up most of the running time in the piece. But there's two or three of them that are so hilarious I'd say they're worth the wait. (I will never get the image of the rotund Daisey being caught in a shoebox Seattle theatre quite literally with his pants down in what must have been the worst production of The Balcony ever.) In the audience Sunday night--packed with actors--there was a constant laughter of recognition. We've all been there with these stories. But Daisey succeeds in lifting them beyond merely the anecdotal (beyond good post-show bar talk) by pitting them against the larger context of "what's happened" to American theatre in general.

And on that score, there are many acute observations and refreshingly blunt (even when overstated) one-liners. I especially enjoyed his bathroom stall ruminations about visiting one of these shiny new theatre buildings, and realizing that one of its greatest boasts is that was designed to literally recycle shit. Quite a metaphor.

Again, Daisey's folding up this show for now. He tells me he intends to keep it in his rep and may tour it to other cities in the near future. Meanwhile, I also hope he publishes it. Even as just an extended essay--without the aid of his oversize facial expressions and booming voice--it could make a real impact on our continuing national debate on all this.

Anyway, after the performance, I was amazed the audience stayed for nearly another two hours for the panel discussion. Which ranged from a obscure critic-blogger (guess who) to the head of the Public Theatre! Also: Aaron Landsman of Elevator Repair Service, John Eisner of The Lark, and playwright Richard Nelson, who has been a major voice as of late in corralling opinion against "Development Hell" and other failings of our current system. (He also is quoted in Daisey's program from an essay essentially making the same argument as the monologue--a quarter-century ago!). Lastly, I had the pleasure of sitting next to the fine veteran actress Jayne Houdyshell, who gave such wonderful performances in Well and The Receptionist.

Perhaps some of you who were there can fill in more about what was actually said. Among what I found most interesting myself was the continued support of Oskar Eustis for Nelson's campaign for playwright ownership of "subsidiary rights." (This came to the fore a few months ago when Craig Lucas withdrew a play from the Roundabout rather than give them any percentage of future productions. Eustis clearly doesn't want to get on the wrong side of that issue!) It was also refreshing to hear Nelson tell a questioner, a hard working actress, who was complaining about Katie Holmes getting a Broadway part for just being Katie Holmes, something like: "Forget about that! What's going on there, on Broadway, has nothing to do with the art you want to do!"

Other topics included the need to reach out to children and younger audiences by not turning our noses up at "children's theatre"; whether young theatre visionaries should be overturning the old behemoth institutions and everything they stand for, or "take them over!" as Eustis cried; and, not least, how long it took Jayne Houdyshell to buy her own home (hint: pretty recently in her 35 year career).

It was a pleasure just to sit back and listen to these interesting exchanges, and for that I think Mike Daisey for including me. I wish him luck on his grueling summer schedule developing his new show If You See Something, Say Something, which plays the Public in the fall.


Anonymous said...

Oskar mentioned how innovatively theatres have responded to the challenge of how to raise money, to the detriment of course of innovatively creating great art. Among all of the admin-bashing, I thought it was a nice gesture of acknowledging that these professionals are doing great work, just towards the wrong means.

Richard made a great point that theatres have a responsibility to serve the public, based on all the tax breaks the government gives them. And that artists are responsible for holding insitutions feet to the fire. And while theatres purport to support their community, their greatest fear is becoming community theatre.

I was particularly concerned with your point that actors should learn how to teach, in order to support themsevles, and we should encourage 'wpa-style' acting gigs. Leave actors to act--we don't tell chefs right out of culinary school to go teach cooking somewhere.

And a final moment of inspiration from Oskar, "The theatres have been built. *That* is the accomplishment of the regional theatre movement. Now what do we do with them?"

Playgoer said...

Point taken on my "WPA" argument. So let me further clarify what I meant, since I, in principle, agree with you, anon.

All I was saying is that while I too wish stage actors could live solely off acting, I fear that will become less and less possible for the average AEA member. So I read with interest that Sunday Times story on the classical musicians basically being funded year-round (by a private foundation, I believe) on the condition they do some teaching/education outreach work in addition to their symphony and chamber music gigs.

So I couldn't help thinking, what if--just as an option, mind you--the state (if not the NEA then how about just the NY State Council on the Arts) guaranteed you some kind of full-employment for a year in various acting-related gigs? that was the point of the WPA--to put people to work AT THE JOB THEY"RE TRAINED TO DO, wherever they're needed. In my head, that might be something like agreeing to spend 3 months every year teaching OR performing for underserved communities OR role-playing at historical theme parks, even!

I in no way meant to push the whole profession into premature teaching. I agree with Daisey that we have too many acting teachers now who never even got a shot at an acting career (usually through no fault of their own).

Anyway, hope that explains it better.

Anonymous said...

Great wrap-up, Playgoer. I would just add that not only did audiences stay another 2 hours after the show for the panel, but it was a very large percentage of the audience. I've been on panels where we outnumbered the audience, and this was definitely not the case. The tons of people who (god-knows-why) care about the theater is tragically heartening. Also, I'll never eat that post-show reception cheese without thinking of Daisy with his hands swishing over his mouth.