Thursday, July 03, 2008

A response to HOW THEATRE SAVED AMERICA, PART ONE and an open letter to AMERICAN THEATRE magazine:

I was recently made aware that American Theatre magazine had published a response to my monologue HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA in its July/August 2008 issue, written by Theresa Eyring, the Executive Director of TCG. (Full disclosure: I met Ms. Eyring briefly at the TCG Conference this June in Denver, and I performed the aforementioned monologue at that conference.) You can read that article here.

I wish I could be delighted at the exchange of ideas, but this article's publication was disappointing for three reasons.

The first is the lack of context given for the piece—it is such an important topic that I wish American Theatre would dedicate an entire issue to it, and open its doors to multiple voices on the matter. A two-page article (even in two parts, as this one is, which will give us a grand total of four pages) can't cover even the preamble to such a topic. It is far larger than my monologue, which is the reason I was inspired to develop the piece—because it touches on the heart of our shared form, and how we treat our artists and our audiences should lie at the core of our concerns.

Secondly it is disappointing because it is such a poor title. My piece is called HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA because I am speaking about the responsibility the institution of theater has to America, how it has failed that responsibility, and how we are all implicated in this.

Ms. Eyring's title takes one's breath away. If it were called HOW THEATRE WILL SAVE AMERICA it would still be defensible, if a bit sweeping—it could fantasize about a nearly unimaginable future when theater will reach out from the stage and save all of America from corporate greed, the military-industrial complex, racism, sexism, and human nature itself by reshaping America.

That's bold. But Ms. Eyring takes it a step further and uses the past tense—HOW THEATRE SAVED AMERICA—informing us that the work is done, the wars have been fought and that we actually live in a glorious utopia right now, one that has been created by the American theater. If one didn't know better, one might think it is an attempt at wit—a shallow attempt to play off of my title for comic effect, ignoring the actual meaning implicit in the words I’d chosen.

It is a shockingly poor idea to make such an assertion in the title, unless the essay that follows brings some serious arguments to bear, and this is the third problem with the piece. HOW THEATRE SAVED AMERICA, PART ONE chooses to accomplish this goal not by grappling with any of the arguments in my monologue, but instead displaying examples of theaters that are working within their communities as a kind of proof positive that theater has saved America. It specifically cites one example at length, describing the work of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.

I find it reaching to claim that one company from a town of 12,000 in Pennsylvania, however wonderful they might be, contraindicates the larger story of the arts infrastructure in a country of 300 million, but I will set that aside for a moment. In the opening of Ms. Eyring's second paragraph, she mentions my work directly:

"While permanent acting ensembles are indeed a rare commodity at major U.S. theatres, typically ignored—even by the popular monologist Mike Daisey in How Theatre Failed America, which ran Off Broadway through June 22—is the array of ensemble companies working across the country. What about, for instance, the long-term acting collaborations of Minneapolis’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Brooklyn’s Irondale Ensemble Project, New York City’s Wooster Group, California’s Dell’Arte International, Pig Iron Theatre Company of Philadelphia, and Touchstone Theatre, also of Pennsylvania?"

While I am flattered to be thought "popular", I don't know if I can agree that I belong to a group that has "typically ignored" ensembles. I programmed and hosted a series of roundtables during the Off-Broadway run of HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA about the state of American theater, featuring luminaries like Oskar Eustis, Richard Nelson, Rocco Landesman, James Bundy and many more in conversation with working actors, technicians, arts funders and more.

One of the symposiums, titled "ASSEMBLING ENSEMBLES", was focused on exactly this kind of artist-driven work, and featured representatives of the Civilians, Elevator Repair Service, Printer's Devil and...wait for it...Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble! The lovely Elizabeth Dowd, a 29-year veteran of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble was on hand, and an absolutely wonderful and essential voice at the roundtable.

So it is foolish to paint me as someone who has "typically ignored" these ensembles...but even if I had ignored them utterly this would not change the issues argued in HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA. The existence of a good theater in no way invalidates the arguments in my monologue—I am speaking very clearly about failures within the institution of American theater, which afflict the institutions that dominate that world. The existence of any theater company who is doing good work is always cause for celebration, but to ignore the state of the industry as a whole by cherry-picking test cases that don't represent where the vast majority of arts funding is going is disingenuous at best, and irrational blindness at worst.

Once Ms. Eyring is done extolling the virtues of this one small company (which indeed sounds quite excellent—I heard a great deal about their model from Elizabeth Dowd) she moves on to her second argument, which I will recount here:

"In larger cities, there’s another interesting dynamic at play in terms of how theatres and artists productively coexist. Many cities boast one or two major theatres that set down roots in the 1960s and ’70s, alongside a range of small and midsize companies that have sprung up within the community over time: think Chicago, Philadelphia, the Twin Cities, Washington, D.C. In many of these communities, a strong local acting, artistic and production community has also evolved. This group has in effect become a repertory company—not of a single theatre, but of an entire community. Many actors—instead of performing in several shows with a single theatre company in the same season—construct year-round employment by performing in different theatres throughout the year. Audience members get to know the actors of their community by seeing them in a number of plays at various venues. Yes, this arrangement still calls upon actors to freelance and lacks the year-after-year commitment of a seasonal contract with one institution; there can be frustrations when theatres hire too heavily from outside the community, or when there isn’t much opportunity for crossover between larger and smaller houses. But the fact remains that in these cities, the regional theatre movement’s larger goal of making it possible for theatre professionals to make a living in their own communities has in many cases been achieved."

The facts of what Ms. Eyring has set forth here are correct—it's her analysis that is deeply flawed. The fact that actors can create a career cobbled together through blood and sweat in the face of the failure of the American theater to create any kind of sustainable path for its artists does not do credit to the existing system—quite the opposite, in fact.

Often artistic directors and other administrators have made this argument to me—in the New York Times recently Kurt Beattie, artistic director of ACT Theatre in Seattle said as much, claiming that the arguments of my piece are "shallow" to him because they do not apply to his theater, as the majority of the actors ACT employees are local. His argument would be that if ACT hires most people locally, piecemeal when it needs a role filled, it has served and supported the local community—what more could they possibly do?

Kurt is a friend, but he is perpetuating the same falsehood Ms. Eyring is with this analysis—if actors manage to create community and continuity IN SPITE OF the institutions, no credit for that reflects back on theaters that refuse to support artists in a meaningful fashion: with staff positions, with health insurance, with a modicum of respect and dignity earned by working craftsman anywhere. Dribs and drabs of roles given when artists can jump for them are no substitute for real institutional support, and to claim otherwise is absurd.

To steal the achievement of making a career work back from the artists who have made it happen is to heap another injustice on good people to whom almost nothing has been offered...and when they make their own luck, against all odds, institutions are ready to point and say, "See? They never needed any help...they'll figure it out on their own. Let us return to raising funds for a glorious new building--after all, artists will always find a way to get by, and if they don't, there are always more. Buildings, on the other hand, won't build themselves."

Even Ms. Eyring seems to understand this is a load of horse manure, given the number of caveats she includes in the her assertions: she mentions the lack of any level of commitment from the theaters, the absence of crossover between large and small theaters, and the fact that at any point New York actors can be flown in whenever convenient. But then she comes to a remarkable conclusion:

"But the fact remains that in these cities, the regional theatre movement’s larger goal of making it possible for theatre professionals to make a living in their own communities has in many cases been achieved."

This "fact" is worthy of Orwell—and if it is "possible" to eke out a living from year to year, without any kind of security, it owes everything to these artists, and little or nothing to the regional theatre movement, which has systematically ignored and abused the artists who work within it while profiting from them.

Ms. Eyring ends her piece saying, "And this is just the beginning of how theatre saved America." The implication is that we will see a great deal more of her argument in Part Two. I do hope that this response will make her think more judiciously about the title for the second half of this article, and I hope some of the criticisms I've raised may be addressed in its contents.

If American Theatre magazine wishes to address the issues raised in HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA, there is an abundance of informed bloggers and theatrical luminaries who would leap at the opportunity to debate within its pages. If anyone from American Theatre is reading this, I'd be happy to transcribe one of the performances of HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA to create a transcript that would be publishable in the magazine, especially for such a purpose—it's a vital conversation we should be having.

I know that after six weeks of roundtables with some of the finest minds in the American theatre there was much debate over many issues, but not one voice ever argued that it had actually saved America. If Ms. Eyring, TCG and American Theatre magazine want this assertion to be taken seriously, they need to open their doors, let the light in, and engage with the artists, technicians, and administrators of the theater today. If they make this necessary step, they will find both the passion and empathy that has been missing for too long from the national conversation.

Mike Daisey
Working Artist
July 3rd, 2008

9:48 PM