Sunday, April 19, 2009

I received an email from Todd Olson, the Producing Artistic Director of American Stage Theatre Company in Tampa Bay, Florida, which appears to be the largest regional theater in its area. Addressed as an "open challenge" to me, he sent it to American Theater magazine. It is by turns passionate, heartfelt, spiteful, ill-informed, and nasty...and I am addressing it openly here.

Why would I do this? Well, I think it's admirable when men and women are passionately moved to fight for the American theater. The whole reason I was driven to create HTFA was the pervasive silence on these issues, so any voice raised is valuable, because I believe there's been too much silence within the theater already. And despite all the hullaballo about HTFA, in truth this is the first time that an artistic director has directly challenged anything I've said in any public forum, so I'm inclined to give it weight.

The terms of the open challenge are that he insists I need to balance his theater's budget for him.

The letter is unaltered except for my responses. The only change that has been made is the correction of my name, which was misspelled throughout.

"Balance My Budget: An Open Challenge to Mike Daisey"

Ironically, Mike Daisey has become a kind of national theatre darling ever since he penned "How Theatre Failed America," a misguided rant inspired by an actress friend of his who had dropped out of the business.

To be clear, it was the premiere and subsequent runs of the monologue HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA that have attracted this attention. The essay, which is actually entitled THE EMPTY SPACES and ran in a Seattle alt-weekly, has been read by a number of people, but the monologue was first and endures far beyond the scope and scale of the short essay.

His article has been reproduced in numerous publications, and he has been a featured performer in places like The Public Theater, Berkeley Rep, Yale Rep, and ART (my alma mater). His notoriety was further advanced when, during one of his performances, an audience member poured water on him as they walked out, interrupting his eloquent waxing about "fucking Paris Hilton." And once that hit YouTube it spread faster than Beyonce's nipple slip at the Oscars.

Water was not poured on me—it was poured on my original outline, destroying it, as can be seen in the clip. That destruction was the principal issue in the event. The scene being interrupted is actually more about using Paris Hilton as a way to describe the excessive narcissism of New York City, but it is also true that it uses the metaphor of fucking her as well. What can I say? I like the collision of high and low culture.

Mike's been a guest on Letterman, NPR, and is a contributor to WIRED, Slate, Salon and others. He was even named "Artist of the year" by the terraNOVA Collective in Soho. And now I see him in American Theatre magazine.

I can't figure out if Daisey's newfound fame comes from the theatre's penchant for punishing itself with guilt, or because producers think their audiences want to see what the fuss was all about, or because Daisey – another in an endless line of one-man shows – is cheap.

Two of these are trashy ad hominem attacks, but one of these rationales is interesting—does the American theater have a penchant for punishing itself with guilt? There's something in this that feels true, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it is because our theaters lean strongly to the left, and so have a degree of schizoid behavior when increasingly they value buildings over artists, and watch their ticket prices rise and rise and cater only to the wealthy. That might make anyone feel guilty.

My question after reading his vision for the future is, "why would the Editors of American Theatre continue to elevate this man who has summarily dismissed and dishonored courageous and noble work done in our nation's regional theatres, and deem him an "inspiring" artist of "vision," declaring that, "Our artistic future...belongs to people like these"?

I would humbly submit that the work in question might not ALWAYS be courageous and noble, and that there might be value in even one artist questioning the system, as previously there was no one within it asking these questions.

Or they may simply like my work from the other monologues. It is hard to say.

That reminds me: American Theatre is a product of TCG, which has been sustained for a quartet century in part by membership and advertising revenues from...regional theatres.

Is this some kind of creepy threat? I mean, wouldn't it be GOOD if TCG actually didn't exist only as the lapdog of the regional theater system? This really sounds like a version of, "...if you know what's good for you, shut up." In light of how often the systemic problems in American theater are met with stonewalled silence, the irony is thick.

Having thus cleared my throat...the prime underpinning of Daisey's theatre universe is classicism and a general ignorance about what it takes to run a professional theatre.

Just so we're clear about some of my bona fides, I've worked as a technical director, managing director, artistic director, and festival producer in my time in a variety of theaters. I've also worked with regional theaters for the last decade, where I've negotiated my own contracts, worked intimately with PR and marketing, and have formed close relations with staff members at theaters at the vast majority of venues I've worked. It's from this background, as an independent theater artist, producer, and "contractor" within many theaters that I've observed the system intimately, from spreadsheets to building capitalization to board politics.

To Mike audiences are "overwhelmingly wealthy" and "practically comatose...docile and easy to handle."

The numbers I have seen nationally, as well as common sense, make it clear that audiences are predominantly white and upper middle class to upper class. They are also aging, and dying off (literally) faster than they can be replaced. If this upsets you, complain to the TCG and NEA national studies, but that is the shape of things on a national level.

All Artistic Directors are "dyed-in-the-wool liberals,"

This one is actually simply true. I'm thinking hard, but I do think every artistic director at every major theater I know would identify that way.

and Board members are persons with whom Artistic Directors make "devil's deals."

To be clear, sometimes AD and the board work together to make a devil's deal. And sometimes it seems like it's the only choice available and can't be refused. That's why they're called devil's deals, you know.

Regional theatres have, Daisey asserts, failed. Failed America. Failed the art. Failed artists. Failed his actress friend.

Don't leave out the rest. I assert that theater has failed America, because we have failed to make it relevant and living in the national consciousness. Every artist shares responsibility for this failure, every technician, everyone who works in the field—we have failed.

But I believe that acknowledging and understanding this failure is the first step to finding a path that works. I believe that when I accept that theater has not succeeded, and that *I* am part of that problem, I can finally begin to actually see things as they are, and work for real change.

I work inside of regional theaters constantly, and many of the artists and administrators I most respect work across the country at many of these institutions. I am complicit in our failure: I'm not a barbarian at the gate, because I already tread the boards across the country. But I know that change is possible.

And American magazine finds him an inspiring visionary.


Evidently, when it comes to anyone who is not an actor, Daisey has known some poor role models.

To be sure, I've known some poor role models who were actors as well. ;)

He thinks theatres have sold their artistic souls only to become bigger and build new buildings for the comfort of their non-artistic paper pushers.

Some of this is actually true, about the souls—but the terrible irony is that the people selling those souls do it with the very best of intentions, hoping to build a stronger institution, but thanks to the corporatization of everything in our culture, and to a large extent the ways that development directors believe money has to be raised, our priorities become terribly skewed. No one believes that staff members in any theaters are luxuriating in comfort—that's ridiculous.

In this sense I guess I'm just the kind of Faustian Artistic Director Mike describes. I run the oldest AEA theatre in Tampa Bay – American Stage Theatre Company – one of two fully AEA theatres in our area. Next month we move into our new building – the first new theatre built for a professional theatre company in the history of Tampa Bay.

If you are serious about your challenge, I will need the full accounting for the budgeting and fundraising of your $4 million dollar fundraising campaign to build the Raymond James Theatre.

Because we're an actor-hating fiefdom? No. Allow me to briefly introduce Mike to ASTC.

We have a budget of $1.45 million and produce 12 months out of the year. We never stop. Our audiences span every income bracket (not "overwhelmingly wealthy")

I'll need accurate and current survey data from your audience base to assess what the economic level of your subscriber base is.

and they enthusiastically support our wide variety of offerings; if they were "practically comatose...docile and easy to handle" then that's news to them and us. I'm more of a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian, and my Trustees are among the most generous and resourceful supporters that any arts organization could hope for.

You're the first libertarian artistic director I've met!

Is it hard at all to square libertarian values like fiscal and operational independence with your decision to sell your existing space to St. Petersburg College and rent the new space from them?

It seems like it'll be a complex deal—I can see what the college gets out of it: two spaces for student shows, space for the Florida Orchestra, and the college gets that all-important grant eligibility to pay for things off the top. You lose the lease, equity, and title on your existing space, and get to rent a new space from the college that has 200 seats instead of 140 seats.

On the other hand, the architectural renderings are attractive—I rather like the lobby. Best of luck with that.

But given the myriad hits that not-for-profit theatres have endured since 9/11 (a period during which Mike has flourished), we have had to work harder (and by "we" I mean all staff members not protected by a union; AEA actors have continued to get 3% raises annually despite decreases in all of our staff salaries, including my own).

It almost sounds like you're comparing people who are paid an annual salary with benefits to itinerant migrant workers who are hired at sub-minimum wage in six week stints, with no promise of any ongoing employment whatsoever. I hope you aren't, because it really wouldn't be terribly logical.

To stay afloat we increased artistic programming by 116%, making more opportunities for actors.

That's great, though the way this is phrased implies that you did more shows, which creates more "opportunity", though without data on how many new roles, and whether the extra programming represents more actual artist hours paid or just an increase in late night and other programming that may not pay. I'd need to know more about exactly how this breaks down.

Sure, we increased ticket prices this year to an average of $33.35...but we also started our "After Hours" series and select "Pay What You Can" performances, all aimed at younger audiences and all costing ticket buyers whatever they wish.

That's great to hear. In any event, you're not creating a sustained ongoing ensemble of artists or providing any kind of security or stability. Don't feel *too* bad—theaters with budgets ten and fifteen times your size aren't doing it either, and it's endemic of the kinds of problems I'm talking about.

Daisey mocks, "Better to revive another August Wilson play and claim to be speaking about race right now"...which is a criticism we don't take lightly, being the only theatre of our size in the country to commit to producing the Wilson Cycle of ten plays over the next decade. Why? Because our theatre sits on a historically fragile racial fault line in St. Petersburg, and devoting a decade to actively courting and dialoguing with an African-American audience is a positive thing for myriad reasons.

First, my comment stands—Wilson is dead, and we can argue about how good and relevant his plays are, but I'd say a more compelling and dangerous project would be a locally generated one about the historically fragile racial fault line in St. Petersburg—now THAT sounds fascinating to me.

But hey, I'm not heartless—if Wilson helps you create a compelling work that touches on something particular to St. Petersburg, good for you.

Inconvenient realities that will never directly touch Daisey (but ones he will nevertheless scorn at just as theatres are forced to make adjustments for) are the fact that ASTC, like so many other theatres, have lost a great deal of state and local funding (we've never enjoyed Federal funding) which has forced us to renew our emphasis on education and community engagement, and reinvigorate our endowment campaign.

I have no idea why you'd think that the difficulties facing theaters wouldn't affect me—I work at them, I do advocacy for and about them, I'm engaged on these issues constantly. My friends and colleagues have been fighting for their lives, and like any calamity it affects everyone: the ones who have made poor choices, and those who have always made great ones.

Because of the blood, sweat and tears of my staff (again read, "not actors") we have nearly doubled our subscriptions and our overall attendance has increased 42%, in large part from young and diverse audiences.

This anti-artist bigotry is getting virulent—"not actors"? The increase of your subscriptions has *nothing* to do with your performers? Or the work in any way?

I'll need to know over what period it increased 42%, and what the hard numbers are, especially as for their composition.

Our Education Department now attracts over $150,000 a year in contributed support for their 20 areas of focus. And during this recession we have raised $4 million for a new theatre, offices, and shop.

Whining about other employees within any professional theatre is misplaced, at best, and at worst, just plain ignorant. It's the structural equivalent of a singer complaining at all the money "wasted" on promoters and roadies.

More bigotry. Apparently, I'll be speaking out of turn if I talk about anyone who works in the theater. What I should be doing is shutting up and sitting in the back of the bus, like a good little actor who can't know nothin' bout nothin'.

I am a professional in the American theater, and my observations and first-hand knowledge is valid and real. What's clear here is that my views can never have weight, nor can my voice be heard, because I'm a performer.

I hate to break it to Mr. Daisey, but if he comes to my theatre he would play to no one without the help of the very same people he accuses of supplanting the actor.

I never accused anyone of "supplanting" the actor. There have always been people doing marketing and PR—and in the best worlds I believe it is when the artists themselves are involved in that process, in an ongoing collaboration, and are interwoven with what is traditionally thought of as "staff" jobs.

Instead what has happened is that roles have been assigned, and the performer has been walled off from other areas, cut down from connecting with the rest of the theater and neutered. This compartamentalization is the currency of the corporatization that has infected most American theater.

I need someone to tell audiences that he's coming; that person is called a Marketing Director. And because Mike's show will return (if we're lucky) about 58 cents on the dollar, I need other people to raise those other 42 cents if I'm to break even; they're called Development Directors.

I know who these people are—I suspect I have had more in-depth discussions with more marketing and development directors over the last few years than you would believe. The state of theater is a central obsession for me, and I pursue my obsessions.

These people don't replace Mike, they insure that Mike has a place to play. They are his team members. And there is an art to fundraising and marketing.

I certainly agree—I've never said otherwise. It doesn't feel like you're a particularly good team member, as you talk a lot of shit about actors with little provocation.

Even gushing Daisey fans like the terraNOVA Collective must concede that only by all staff working together does a theatre thrive. No, they're not actors, but I know Mike knows that it takes more than actors to make a theatre experience. He knows this...right?

I know it extremely well. I question what *YOU* know—your readiness to be divisive, to speak scornfully of artists who sacrifice their economic well being and stability to work in the theater—this is an incredible blindness you've been displaying.

Maybe he's been on stage by himself for so long, he thinks that's it.

With apologies to AEA, when I read Mike's scoff that, "It's not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don't want to actually make any theater", I had an image of going to my development staff and asking them to take a mandatory ten minute break every 80 minutes? Maybe I could supply the Marketing Director with a little cot by his desk? No wait, I'll tell our Education Director to stop working after she reaches the 34 hour mark else she gets paid overtime. But I digress...

It's shocking that an artistic director would show the level of contempt you have for artists so openly. I will give you this: you are bracingly honest about your bigotry. Most mask this.

You've also taken that quote out of context, but I'll make it simple: all three directors you mention above have stability, salaries, and health insurance. You consider them staff and you treat them with respect.

Based on the way you speak about actors and artists in this letter, you do not treat them with the same level of respect. In a few short paragraphs you have mocked them over and over for the few protections they have, you are derisive, and you don't consider them part of your institution and family.

Can you see the wall that exists between the staff and the actors? Between the performance and the office? It is real in many regional theaters and I can tell, from this simple letter alone, that it is very much a presence at your institution.

Daisey's cheapest shot of all is aimed at education! ("Better to invest in another "educational" youth program, mashing up Shakespeare until it is a thin, lifeless paste that any reasonable person would reject as disgusting, but garners more grant money.") How can he lament the graying of the audiences while at the same time dismissing education...otherwise known as audience development? This is where the logic of his rant gets thin.

It's simple. Education programs are only as good as their implementation. Most are shit. Until there is broad reform, showing bused-in kids 45 minutes of ground up Shakespeare built to fit in a school period is a fucking disaster. It fails on every level, except the one where the grants keep coming in to keep the shitty programs alive.

Who on earth does he think will be around in a generation to see him talk about Paris Hilton?

Oh, there will be people...have no doubt of that. I can perform anywhere, and theater will find a way, even if back on the street.

But will theater be a relevant cultural force in the next century?

THAT is the actual question you need to be asking.

Bottom line: the regional theatre movement for which Daisey whistfully pines...

I don't pine for the old regional theater movement. I'm not advocating a return to the old ways—I'm advocating working toward a new path.

...began a half century or more ago, birthing Seattle Rep, Intiman, ACT, and others that Daisey cites from his days in Seattle. But I want to break it to Mike that what kept them alive for the rest of the last century was the work of Artistic and Managing Directors, General Managers, Development Directors, and yes, an occasional wealthy person.

Yes, they did. They are also the same ones, along with all of us, who sold out the soul of the theater inch by inch, and by trying valiantly to keep it alive have landed us where we are today. Nothing is simple: much that has been done was good, or seemed good at the time. Many times it has been good to buy a building and secure a theater's future. But far more often it has been misguided, inch by inch, until we arrive where we are today.

Basically the same group that made it possible for Mike's last play - The Moon Is A Dead World – to be produced in Seattle last Fall.

That production was at Annex Theater. They are a garage theater in Seattle that pays every artist the princely sum of $50 for each show, regardless of role or staff position, and where all decisions are made in a fascinatingly democractic system of discussion and consensus. They are many things, and are quite awesome, but they have vanishingly little to do with the conventional regional theater.

There's only one way for artists to, as Daisey opines, "create great work and make a vibrant American theater tradition flourish." All they have to do is...create great work. Go.

You're not the first person who has said something like this to me, but the naivete takes my breath away—given your libertarian background, I expected more.

After shitting on the artists again and again in this short letter, you turn around and declare that it is, in fact, up to the ARTISTS. If this were ACTUALLY true, why are the artists drastically underpaid and underrepresented? If this were ACTUALLY true, you and your staff should set about finding some incredibly talented artists and simply hand over the building to them and leave. Since all it takes is the artists, give them the building.

Of course, that isn't true: why? Because it's a TEAM, something you said yourself not four paragraphs earlier but in your bigotry and anger have already forgotten. You will need artists who have greatness, but you will also need technicians of skill, savvy marketing people, informed leadership...and a driven dedication to working together. That's the only way greatness can happen in the theater.

Theaters want excellence and originality. We want stories about events of magnitude told by surprising actors whom we cannot take our eyes off of. Maybe that great work is Daisey's story about "fucking Paris Hilton." Or maybe not. In any case, if stage artists are capable of extraordinary art, then they should go about making it, period. The state of the art is and has always been with the artist.

For you to cavalierly heap it all on the people who receive the least support is pathological and telling.

Finally, here's my challenge to Mr. Daisey: let me give you a copy of this year's budget, and then you tell me three things: 1. what salary above AEA scale should I budget for actors, 2. whom should I fire and what should I cut so I can afford that, and 3. how on earth do I make that balance in this or any economy? Mike is also on record as saying theatres should reduce ticket prices to $15, so he should make sure he reduces all of our ticket revenues by 55%.

Yes, I will do this. Here are my terms:

—You'll invite me to do an assessment of your theater as an independent auditor and contractor.
—You'll open all of your files to me, and allow me complete access to interview your staff, your artists, your community and your board.
—You'll allow me to meet with the board, and make a complete report of both my preliminary and final findings.
—You will back my efforts in good faith, will work with me clearly and expeditiously, and evaluate my recommendations to you and to the Board for changes.

In return, I will:

—Make a thorough assessment of the theater, its current state, its future and its mission.
—Compile a report containing clear and implementable policy changes for consideration.
—Work with staff and the board during this time of transition.
—Continue to serve in an advisory role into the future as needed.

If Mike can balance this one budget, I will hire him to bring his one-man show to ASTC or produce any of his plays. Promise.

We'll see.

But if he can't balance this one budget, then he must forever stop with this silly campaign of bashing regional theatres for "failing America."


There is my open challenge, Mike.

An open challenge is one that more than one participant can take part in.

So I'll challenge you in return: read this response again, from the beginning with an open heart. I am not wrong about your bias, and I am not wrong that you have misjudged me. I care about the theater more than you can know, and you must feel similarly or you would not have dedicated your life to it. Listen to the monologue and understand.

You say the "dream" of theatre "is not quantifiable on any spreadsheet." I say, "the hell it isn't." Artistic Directors have to do it every year.

I know it is hard to hear, but if an artistic director has quantified the dream of theater on a spreadsheet, they are dead already. I am sorry to tell you this, but it is true.

Let me know where I can email one big Excel file, and I look forward to your solutions.

Todd Olson
Producing Artistic Director
American Stage Theatre Company

I look forward to working with you. Let me know when we can begin.

Mike Daisey

Link to Part Two
7:19 AM