Thursday, February 28, 2008

Leonard Jacobs has written a pointed piece criticizing my essay and what he perceives as "the endless and boring bashing of American Theatre." I'm lumped in with Marsha Norman in his critique, whom I can't speak to at all, so I'll just address some of his points as they pertain to me.

I like Leonard's writing often for its clarity, and near the top he neatly summarizes his issue:

"Everyone who blogs, it seems, seems to have fingers capable of typing all kinds of pissy rants on the American theatre -- regional theatre, I mean -- and everything that is wrong with it. But with the exception of the Zach Mannheimers of the world, I don't see very many people getting off their computer chairs and doing all that much about it."

I'd agree with this—like many things, there are often armchair generals for any field. In fact, it was my dissatisfaction with the state of things that drove me to create

As a monologuist, I look for issues that I'm personally obsessed with that also strike at areas that the culture isn't examining...and after spending the last seven years working in regional theaters around the country, occupying a unique position where our tiny ensemble (performer and director) interface directly with the management, PR, marketing, tech, and artistic departments at these theaters. So far as I can tell very few others do this without being pigeonholed into a role (like actor) where they are shut out of the conversation.

This growing concern for the state of things as I saw them, combined with MANY late-night drinks with actors, staff, board members and artistic directors, as well as TCG conferences, statistic-reading, hard research and emotional stories led me to the piece. So when Leonard rhetorically asks:

"But what is Daisey doing about it?"

I am doing my job as an artist--I am responding within my form to events as I see them, and trying to bring a conversation that is utterly UNKNOWN to audiences and board members out into the light. I think there is inherent worth to that, and I hope that my efforts will rise above dogma and rhetoric to create art that spurs real conversation, especially among people to whom this conversation (as blase as it may be to Leonard, to the point that he's sick of it) is utterly unknown to general audiences, as naturally theaters do their level best to insulate themselves and their board members from anything like it.

What does Leonard think I am doing?

"He's creating more and more one-person shows because he knows he can and does make a living -- however much of a living it is, and I'm quite certain it's not what he ought to be paid -- doing such shows. He even admits as much in his piece."

Yes, Leonard, I do admit that as an artist I make work. I'm a monologuist—that's what I was long before
HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA, and that's what I will be long after that show is memory. I would qualify that while they are technically "one-man shows", they're really monologues—a single voice speaking to an audience, drawing a line of logic and story fully through.

Leonard continues:

"So he despises the nonprofit business model (that has undoubtedly hired him to perform),"

I'm going to have to blow the whistle on this here—this is sloppy. I haven't ever said that I have some issue with the nonprofit business model. I specifically (and I think it's very clear) have an issue with corporations, the fact that corporations have the rights of people, and the effect (corporatization) that this has on organizations ruled by corporations.

I could write a lot here about how I do feel about non-profit and for-profit theater, but that will wait until another time—I'm not an essayist by nature. The long and the short is that I despise the coporatization of American theater, just as I despise the coporatization of American life—and my issues with the regional theater system do not derive from their non-profit status, though many of their internal structures are obviously shaped by that choice of business model.

"he loathes the over-corporatization of the American stage (that undoubtedly paid for many of said performances and their development),"

I'd argue that I loathe the coporatization of the American stage, period—"over" implies that there is a level of corporatization that I would ever be happy with.  ;)

Here we see the Happy Worker charge—since many theaters are corporatized, and I work at some of them, I must approve of their ways and means...I should shut up and be a Happy Worker. This is a Chomsky-esque argument—taken to its logical extreme, I should be living on the side of a mountain in a yurt to ensure that I don't use anything made by a corporation, since I don't approve of their place in our society.

That's bullshit. Some do that—more power to them. Enjoy the yurt. I'm a monologuist and a theater artist, so I need to reach people for my work to exist, and I work in the theaters of America. I work with corporations every day—I pay them to have an internet connection, I pay them for my phone, I receive money from them...they are woven into every part of my life, just as they are in all our lives. I've chosen, as many have, to engage with them, and seek out ways to call them to account in ways large and small.

If I'm uncomfortable with with my relationship with these organizations, and the way theater is run in America, I should probably do something about that. I could start by talking about it. Perhaps even on stage in some way...

...oh. That's right. That's exactly what I'm doing that made Mr. Jacobs question whether I should be speaking at all.

Back to Jacobs:

"and he dismisses with a swat of his all-seeing, all-knowing, all-generalizing hand the efforts of thousands of people who I think frankly do terrific work in regional theatre more often than not"

Here is the second footfall—the I Hate People charge. I have been unrelentingly clear that I am a humanist—I have great and abiding respect for humans of all kinds, especially the ones working throughout the theaters of America. I'm intimately aware of the sacrifices they make, as I have made them, too, and the idea that I am actually decrying them, rather than the corporatized bullshit system that we've all built up around our work is a loathsome accusation I will not waste further words on.

Then Jacobs throws down the gauntlet:

"Here's what I think: STOP PERFORMING IN NONPROFIT VENUES. Will he do that? Will he guarantee that he will never, ever perform in a nonprofit venue of any kind again? How about it? How about putting one's money where one's mouth is."

Ah, the Strawman Comeuppance!

This is the kind of challenge that is really fun to type into a blogger text entry box, but is hard to read later because at a core level it's stupid.

Setting aside that I actually don't have a specific issue with non-profit venues, what Leonard is asking is that I never perform a monologue about changing regional theater at any regional theaters. I think that's hideously dumb—the place where
HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA *most* needs to be performed is at regional theaters.

Okay, let's set that aside. Let's assume Jacobs meant that I should *only* perform
HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA at regional theaters, and no other monologues, as that would be "unclean".

Well, to start with I don't live in a yurt—as I said earlier, I believe in engagement. I work in the American theater, and I believe in it—if I did not believe in the theater, and in communication, I wouldn't be working on this show so hard to bring the ideas and concepts in it to people.

I'm also an artist, and I believe in my work. I believe my work has great value, and is the kind of work that enrichens and deepens the American theater. I will not let the work that I feel is most relevant to audiences today, that routinely pulls younger people to the theaters, be silenced because I am not always comfortable with all the trappings and bullshit of the institutions around it. My work matters. It may sound immodest, but it is the truth.

It does mean I have a large responsibility to keep an eye on what these corporations do, how they treat their audiences, and I feel that I have been trying to discharge that duty—of which this monologue is a part.

Jacobs finishes up with me with this:

"Oh, wait. That's right. He's performing a new piece. Yes, I know. And how nice of the nonprofit Public Theater to help him along. Doesn't anyone find some cognitive dissonance in this?"

There is absolutely no cognitive dissonance. A theater with a history of producing new work is taking a chance producing something that could even be perceived as critical to its own underpinnings. I think that's courageous, and a heartening sign that some are clear-eyed enough to see past fear and ignorance, and have the kind of calm leadership that understands that an informed inquiry into the state of things, backed by the power of art, can be an enriching and ennobling pursuit.

For someone who is ostensibly tired of "bashing" and "complaining", Jacobs is no stranger to using snark. Near the end of the piece, after talking about Marsha Norman and her unrelated issues for a time, he returns to me rhetorically, snidely asking:

"Or maybe we should ask Mike Daisey how to do it better. "

You may, but I wouldn't presume to preach to my peers.

I will say that we have created a model of a tiny ensemble—there are two members, we share all proceeds absolutely communally, and we have forged work that is successful because we are nimble, quick and obsessed with addressing the issues our culture isn't speaking about. I would not recommend it to everyone, but in these dark times it is a model we've made work for ourselves when many others sputter and fail.

Jacobs asks that people
"who launch criticisms should get off their asses and do something about it."

I couldn't agree more.
HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA opens at the Public on April 14th. It will reach people who have never heard these issues before, spark real discussions and lead to more. I will be launching a slate of programs around the run with an eye toward implementable strategies and results. Anyone who wishes to discuss this with me can reach me by email.

Mr. Jacobs, I know you are passionate about such matters—let me know if you're interested in participating.

12:27 AM