Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It’s always a delicate thing to comment on reviews—as a rule theater artists never do. Recently Neil LaBute violated this guideline in the comments section at TimeOut Chicago in an unfortunate series of posts that capture exactly why this rule makes sense.

However, I also believe that the absence of real dialogue in American theatrical discourse is one of its core weaknesses—and since I strive to embrace the change I want to see, I’m going to address a number of points made by Chris Jones
in his review of HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA for the Chicago Tribune.

“On the other hand — and this is the other side of the coin to which Daisey gives short-shrift — there would be howls of anguish from the bleachers if the Chicago Cubs suddenly announced they were going to hire their players entirely from within the city of Chicago.”

I give them short-shrift in the piece because it’s a false dichotomy. What institution in the American theater is going to “suddenly” do anything? And where did anyone dictate “entirely”? There are still presenting organizations in Chicago to bring work in, and I’m expecting commercial theater to follow where the money is—and if that’s casting stars, that’s what they will do.

I’m advocating most specifically for non-profit theaters, especially the largest ones, to return to their original mandates and support artists by integrating them back into the life of the theaters—to move away from believing that real estate is more important than what happens inside the building. I advocate for this not only because it is humane, but because the institutions desperately need this change—without it they lose more and more identity every year, and can’t understand why their audiences are slipping away and not being replaced.

The problem of the artists being so supported and comfortable that the work becomes static is one that has afflicted ensembles in parts of Russia and Europe at times—it’s a real issue when it raises its head, and a thorny one to untangle. This is so far from the central economic realities that confront us in American theater that it’s laughable. Non-profit theaters whose missions are supporting arts and artists routinely build multimillion dollar buildings and won’t raise their workers wages over starvation levels with no possibility of security or connection of any kind. That is the story that is untold outside the world of the theater.

“And, being an out of-towner with a scripted show, Daisey doesn't note that most Chicago theaters cast locally and rely on an ensemble tradition.”

As anyone familiar with my monologues should know, they are unscripted. They are performed extemporaneously from an outline, and refined through performance. To the best of my ability on each night, I tell the story I want to tell to the people in the room.

The story I’m telling at Victory Gardens is the story Chicago needs to hear. The monologue is not called:




It’s called
HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA because it is about the failure of the American theater to be relevant and vital in our culture, and the decisions we made about what to support within this art form. It’s about all of us, and we all share in this problem.

I love Chicago theater—a lot of the best work I’ve ever seen comes from here, and the ecology is deep and varied. I love the commitment to ensembles, the explosion of devised work, and the spirit of its artists is inspiring.

Peel back the surface however and it isn’t so utopian. Many of your largest institutions don’t cast locally at all—they make a point of not doing so, like the Goodman. There are still large gulfs between the artists and staff even at mid-level theaters, leading to collapses like the American Theater Company schism last year.

Most despicably, when actors had the temerity to actually speak in public about how impossible it is to make a living wage, the non-profit theaters of Chicago blackballed those actors and they left town.

In many ways the strengths of Chicago are also its weaknesses—and I feel as an artist it is my job to provoke and agitate for the community to open its eyes and not sit content. That is why there is no section about how wonderful Chicago theater is: it is the last thing Chicago needs to hear.

“Anyway, in an industry that relies upon pleasing the audience, the more salient question is whether audiences share that preference (box-office data on the appeal of out-of-town stars suggest not). Don't audiences have a right to see and hear about the best of the world, coming to their town?”

I’d suggest that if we believe rely on “pleasing the audience”, then we should pack up the non-profit theaters and leave the field. Our mission should be to make work that compels, amazes, angers, delights, subverts, and transforms.

If non-profit theaters can’t find a way to do that without giving back to the artists from whom they have taken so much, they should have their non-profit status revoked and become the commercial theaters they so desperately and poorly imitate.


“And some of the careful shading (such as keeping his objects of his withering critique anonymous) are at odds with his purported frankness.”

This isn’t being done to protect myself—I’ve already lost all the colleagues I am going to lose performing this piece. I don’t state their names because the moment you do that, theater artists and administrators in the room sigh in relief…because this story is about someone else, and it is not them. They compartmentalize and wall themselves off, tell themselves that they are “different”.

It would be easier to name names. The truth is that the story implicates us all, and that it is about us. Only when we begin to look inside can there be real hope, because that is exactly where each of us keeps possibility alive—a tenuous, flickering, necessary thing.

1:11 PM