The Playgoer: Mike Daisey: "Theatre Failed America"

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mike Daisey: "Theatre Failed America"

I'm sorry I had to miss Mike Daisey's one-time-only showing at the Public's Under The Radar of his latest solo think-piece: "How Theatre Failed America." (I'm just glad he doesn't appear to have blamed me!) But luckily Isaac Butler went and wrote about it.

First on Daisey's list... The Outsourcing of Artistic Talent, Particularly Actors. [...] So what Daisey essentially says (And I agree) that the original regional theater model of rep companies has basically devolved into a system in which theaters import all of their artists from other places (mainly New York) and put on shows. And what they don't get about this is that although they think the quality of the show will be "better" and although it's cheaper because they don't have to pay a rep company's salaries etc... No one in the communities they perform for has any real connection to the work they're doing because the casts and crews are these anonymous interchangeable people who rarely come back and with whom you have no connection.
My own experience working for regional theatre bears this out. I was amazed when I first noticde more local audience (and even press!) enthusiasm for the "amateur" community theatre across the street from us. But then I realized how important the "community" in "community theatre" is in that case. And we had none.

Think how much the New York audience benefits from seeing various actors and directors grow and stretch from project to project. We compare them to each other, dream up "fantasy casts" for great revivals. At most regional theatres, the subscribers know each other a lot more than the people on stage. Here it's often the opposite!

Of course, there are economic obstacles to the sustaining of permanent acting pools in various cities. A Chicago actor can eek it out. Probably many in DC and Minneapolis, too. But if there isn't a sit-down rep company, or enough companies & local activity to provide steady employment, then you're looking at part-time actors. This is why anyone serious about pursuing a full-time stage acting career has to set up camp in NY, since that's where the jobs are. And if the jobs bring the actors here, then that's where everyone else, including the regionals, will have to come to see them. So it's where the auditions are, as well, for every imaginable regional production, road company, and cruise gig.

Anyway, it seems like just one of many important issues in Daisey's show, which I look forward to catching in its next appearance. Meanwhile Isaac actually already hosted a dialogue about the regional/acting pool question, so I heartily recommend revisiting that (both here and here) for more perspectives. And here's a West Coast take from my friends at Theatre Bay Area.


Anonymous said...

You'd be surprised: there are more AEA actors in DC/Baltimore than there are in Chicago and most of the actors I know here (I divide my time between DC and NYC: "here" is DC as I write this) are full-time actors and sometimes maybe part-time teachers or office drudges. Woolly, Everyman, the Shakespeare theatre and even Arena are all company driven (for the less glamorous roles, anyway) and Round House, Folger and Studio might as well be--as hard as it is for a newbie to get in! In fact, CenterStage stands out in the local community for its stubborn refusal to honestly look at local actors, and much of the local press derides the big-name (jobbed in) productions for lacking heart (sometimes spitefully and wrongfully so!). The audiences don't always reward these New York actors either, and a local actor or actress who has "done good" (moved up the food chain from non-Eq to Eq to LORT to Production Contract) will always be first in line for kudos and good paychecks... especially with many of the ADs here, who push for local talent as much as they can. The out of town directors frequently prefer to cast New York talent, but again, the producers really do push for the local casting pool.

The payoff of this, as you might imagine, is a pretty vital theatre scene, with many LORT theatres, tons of SPTs, several Guest Artist contracts and more non-Eq companies than you can shake a stick at: plus, a really involved and intelligent theatre audience with the feeling that they have something "at stake" in the theatre.

Scott Walters said...

I'm just curious how anyone can say that the jobs in in NY when AEA has a -- what? -- 87% unemployment rate? My impression, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that the vast majority of NYC actors are also part-time actors. So the difference between NYC and other theatre scens is what?

Anonymous said...

Just arguing for Chicago: there are plenty of theatre jobs in Chicago. Our problem isn't lack of work, it is lack of respect for those that are here. Our major theatres have a tendency to hire plenty of local actors for most shows, even trumpeting "X Theatre regular", or "a Chicago favorite" when doing press releases about upcoming shows. But when the same theatres to their "showcase" production(s) of the season (for lack of a better term), they nearly always bring in NY based actors, and only hire the locals (the same locals that were leads in other productions) to chorus roles.

Its not that NYC is where the jobs are (at least not the theatre jobs), its that regionals are forgetting their region on large/major shows. Bring in a name, if you want, to sell tickets, but don't pack the show with out-of-towners. Otherwise you are just doing a tour.

Playgoer said...

Fair point, Scott. Indeed many a waiter in this town might think of themselves as "part time actor" indeed! (Especially when the waiting tables pays more.)

And that would be sadly ironic if so many actors left their hometowns to NOT act here, as opposed to not acting at home. I'm sure many relate to that.

But I guess the payoff for being New York, is that your odds of landing a job just increase. It's not just the stage work, but TV (esp. soaps and commercials, not to mention Law and Order) and the ability to juggle them both.

LA obviously would have more such work, but for a stage actor, NY is still your best bet at patching some income together from stage AND tv AND regional AND tours while maintaining the same official residence all year. (Even if you're sleeping there less than 3 months.)

By the way, I do refer those interested in this to follow Scott's blog, too--to which Isaac links. (

Mike Daisey said...

Just a heads up: my name is misspelled in your post, and the link in my name is for some reason to a TBA article on actor training.