In the past several years, writer and performer Mike Daisey has become widely known as one of the most compelling artists working in the solo monologue format first trailblazed by the late, great Spalding Gray. If you're not familiar with Gray's work, you'll be forgiven if the word 'monologist' makes your eyelids droop, but in the right hands the form is as riveting and rewarding as the best ensemble theater. And Daisey's hands are assuredly right; typically seated at a desk with just a microphone, Daisey has a knack for disarming his audience with an approachable persona, incandescent wit and a gift for virtuoso storytelling.
His enthralling new play, How Theater Failed America, is at once a rollicking and dismaying backstage tour of the highly dysfunctional "machine that makes theater" in cities across the nation. It's an exhilarating show, as Daisey deftly coaxes the room from raucous laughter to hushed contemplation with personal accounts of an art form that's dying and being reborn across America on a nightly basis.
How Theater Failed America continues for three more performances on Monday, April 28th, Sunday, May 4th and Sunday, May 11th at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater.
How Theater Failed America takes a long hard look at the stagnation of theater across the country. Without revealing too many spoilers, what's wrong with regional theater? The principal issue is that the theatrical establishment in America has lost sight of the values that led to the establishment of regional theaters, and in its place are institutions that value buildings over artists, isolation over engagement, and corporate growth over artistic development. Tied to this trend of massive corporatization, which shows itself in every facet of modern life, is the shrinking and aging audience base, which has led to an art form in contraction, with less and less audiences every year.
The contagion of these two sets of forces lead to an environment of fear, where resources are constantly diminishing, which feeds back on itself by making it increasingly unlikely that new work and ways of working can arise that could change the status quo. It's a negative feedback loop, and it is happening everywhere – though I speak primarily about many cities in America, the forces are here in New York as well, and so I believe the division between "regional" theater and theater here is largely artificial. Theater is theater, and it's in trouble.
What do you say to people who aren't involved in the theater scene and might think How Theater Failed America isn't for them? They might be right; unlike most of my monologues, this one is pitched at a much smaller audience than I usually reach out to. It's a self-selecting audience, however – if you're the kind of person who would consider going to the theater, then you are part of this conversation. After the show I've been speaking to people from many walks of life – photographers, dancers, journalists – who say that the forces at work in American theater are at work in their workplaces as well, and they found many points that hit home for them, so I suspect it is more universal than it may at first appear.
Why do you think the dream of regional theater, with a company of actors paid a living wage, has proven fruitless? Is the dream itself flawed, or its implementation? I don't think the idea has proven fruitless – there was no proof that it didn't work. Instead administrators, facing hard choices, made a deep and mistaken choice to get rid of the artists from their buildings, and in that process sacrificed the essential core of the theater. It was a terrible decision with lasting consequences that are often ignored by those in power, and we in the theater did it to ourselves, choosing to embrace infrastructure and staff over artists and work.
It was not a failure: It was the intention and will of the people who made those choices, and believing that it was imposed by economic considerations alone is a kind of propaganda that keeps us from asking hard questions about why our theaters are failing to capture the hearts and minds of the cities they are in. By killing off the artists at the theaters they went from generators of new work to glorified road houses, and we're reaping the rewards of that now: a lack of connection, continuity, and community.
Or is it that American culture, like the dollar, is in decline and there are just not enough younger audiences who give a shit about theater? First, culture is culture; it's ours, and it changes, but I don't believe it's in decline in any way. The concerns of the culture may be shifting, so that theater isn't capturing the mindspace that it once did, but that's been true for the last century – it's theater's job to make itself relevant, not vice versa. If young people don't care about theater, it's in large part because theater has become tied to educational programs and is perceived as vegetables you have to eat, as opposed to a living art that engages.
The cost of theater [for audiences] is also out of scale with television, film and the internet, and in order to justify these higher prices theater needs to set a higher bar for itself, to create live events that are unique and compelling, and all too often it doesn't try to compete, content to drift in a kind of miasmic nostalgia. If we want theater to be part of the culture we have to do theater that engages with the culture at large, and that will require the courage to change how we do work, how we pay for it, where it gets done. Everything must be on the table.
Are you aware of any regional theaters that are succeeding in attracting a young audience and/or employing a company of actors with health insurance? The short answer is no. There are some theaters that still have repertory companies of actors, but they're vanishingly few and because other theaters have jettisoned their artists it means that they tend to be ingrown and stagnant, as there's no way for the artists to exchange from theater to theater; they're trapped in whatever theater they're part of, never to find another position again. There are theaters that attract young audiences, but they are not part of the theatrical establishment; improv and comedy theaters do quite well at filling their seats with young audiences, but there's very little crossover between those worlds.
There are always going to be theaters making it work on their own terms that I may not have heard of out there, and more power to them, but the state of things is dominated by an absence of young audiences and of artistic ensembles.
If you were an artistic director, how would you demonstrate a theater that did not fail America? First, I'm already the co-artistic director of an ensemble: a theatrical company of two, myself and my collaborator and wife Jean-Michele Gregory. We make a living performing work across America, and have supported ourselves as independent artists for the last eight years. As a married couple we share all our income completely communally, and by running our work with a strong DIY aesthetic we've managed to make things work by wearing all the hats between us. I'd argue that while tiny, this is a legitimate theatrical model, and that given the constraints of the age we live in it’s one of the better artistic models. So I am arguing that in one sense we are demonstrating that kind of theater right now.
Second, speaking more to the hypothetical, the question loses track of the true complexity of the situation: an artistic director would not be able to change an institution alone. You'd need the support of the managing director, and a loyal and united board, and the staff to be galvanized and ready to embrace real change. You'd need to have a vision for that change, and communicate it to all these parts – an AD alone isn't going to be able to do that. I do believe that changing priorities, changing the culture of a place is possible, and that clear, dedicated steps can make that possible: principally I'm interested in roping the development departments of these theaters into raising money to endow ensemble positions to get artists back into the theaters. That would be my first priority.
Nicholas Martin, who was the artistic director of the Huntington Theater in Boston in June after eight years, told the Times that your idea to maintain a company of actors wouldn't work: “The actors you want just aren't available for that long. Second, the guys who have the money aren't going to give it to a local actor.” What do you say to that? Mr. Martin and I have not met – I performed in Boston at ART, but we didn't have a chance to have lunch, and so let me begin by saying that his reputation is very positive. I know that he's well-loved in Boston for his leadership at the Huntington, and I have no doubt that he loves the theater and is speaking the truth as he sees it. That said, it's extremely sad but not unexpected that he has internalized an institutional arrogance and narrow-mindedness that shines through his words. I'll take each of his points in turn.
"The actors you want just aren't available for that long." This is extremely telling: the "you" in this sentence would be Nicholas Martin. This is the expression of the artistic director as ultimate arbiter: the highest, first concern is that the AD be able to get specific actors, from wherever they are in the nation, for his show. I make a strong case in How Theater Failed America that this policy has long-term negative effects on the theater as a whole: By cherry-picking at the whim of each director and not growing a viable, committed ensemble in-house, theaters are doomed to never see the kind of energy and strength a true ensemble can bring to the stage. The only people the current system favors are the directors, who believe they can have whomever they want--but in the long term, it's a losing game.
"Second, the guys who have the money aren't going to give it to a local actor." With all respect to Mr. Martin, he's talking out of his ass here. He has no idea that donors and funders wouldn't give money to endow an ensemble because American theaters have never tried to do that in this era. Granted, he's right that it would require the development people to sell a new bill of goods: to tell the donors and funders that an ensemble, with artists in the building, will yield better work on the stages over time, more continuity for the audiences, a stronger voice for the institution artistically, and the real potential of new work and new programs at the theater growing out of the energy of having actual artists there, working, all year long.
Institutional people believe that their donors and funders are too dense to understand this – that the only thing they will understand are naming rights, and plaques on all the stairwells and bathrooms of buildings. I don't accept that; people who give money to theaters love the theater, or they would choose something else to support. Garnering their support for artists who are part of that theater is not an impossible leap... but it will require the institution to value artists, and that's where the current culture isn't considering this.
What if the self-described “dinosaurs” in charge of regional theaters are simply allowed to enter retirement with their theaters in financial ruin and their subscriber audience dead, thus leaving an opportunity for hungry local artists to fill the vacuum with a new model? That will be absolutely terrible. First, they won't simply die – they'll linger on, in a strange twilight, and they'll eat up all the resources just like they do now, choking off the money that might help smaller, more nimble companies grow. Second, when they do collapse they'll lose their spaces, and in many cases those buildings will be taken over by corporations and turned into event halls, convention center annexes; the small companies won't have the ability to save them, as their models and resources are entirely different. We'll lose a great amount, and it will only help to make theater more irrelevant.
Instead I'm hoping that these large spaces will take hold of the leadership role they should have in the theatrical culture, as many of them are slowly beginning to do, and see themselves as incubators not just of six or seven shows a year, but of an ongoing theatrical legacy--to foster artists in their cities, to connect with the homeless theaters that work in the shadows, and reach out for their own good.
Are you going to be taking your show on the road to regional theaters? We're in talks with a couple of regional theaters, so it is not unthinkable. I think it's noteworthy that the Public Theater, a non-profit theater facing many of the same pressures I describe in the piece, is producing the show now – when I told people I'd be doing this monologue, they laughed and said it would only be produced in a shoebox in the Lower East Side. If people believe in the theater and in change, it is possible. We'll see.
On your blog you wrote: “I've just seen far too many 'discussions' that should have been full-voiced arguments, too many passions squelched in the face of institutionalized hopelessness, and just too much damn silence, especially from the artists who live and work within the system. I'd rather see some feelings get hurt, and then people have to make up later and grow closer than the palpable quiet and passive-aggressive silence that I feel is too often the stock and trade of our theater.” Has any one come forward with hurt feelings yet? How concerned are you about jeopardizing your relationship with these regional theater A.D.s? A few people's feelings have been bruised, and in each case I feel closer to the person after we hashed things out – we're all working very hard within the theater, and it can be a really punishing workplace, so the fear is that I'm speaking from a place of spite rather than a place of love. Those who have seen the show don't have that issue, and I've done what I can to be clear about what I'm saying and why I'm saying it. I have no doubt that I have burned some bridges, but the truth is that if they understand what I'm saying and disagree with it so much that they don't want to work with me, it's probably best that we not work together.
Did you deliberately choose to present this run of How Theater Failed America in a nightclub instead of a traditional theater to make a point? Yes and no. I was excited about the idea of doing it at the Public, after its premiere at Under The Radar, and doing it within the building without being "of" the building – it seemed interesting in a meta-theatrical way to comment on the shape of things.
On the other hand, a lot of it was due to speed and ingenuity – I performed GREAT MEN OF GENIUS in Joe's Pub in the fall, and it went extremely well; our form is one of the few theatrical forms that really works in the environment there, and we loved working with the staff and people. We've also always been very independent, and one of the strength's of Joe's Pub is that they were willing to work with us to make a run possible immediately, rather than waiting a year or more, which is often the case in traditional theater, and that swiftness was vital.
To me the electricity in the room was greater than in most theaters. Not to take anything away from your production, but do you think that in some small part that has to do with the informal bar atmosphere? Perhaps, but I've experienced that electricity at live events in the past – I think it has more to do with the form of the monologues, and the way they work with audiences. I don't work from a script of any kind, so as the show unspools it is being constructed in real-time, right in front and with the audience, and I think that lack of pretense and barriers is palpable and real to the people in that room, and speaks to the very real power of a living theater which exists in the air as its words are spoken and then immediately dissolves. People are drawn to the living and the non-commodifiable, because it defies expectation in an era where it is believed that everything can be bought, sold, and counted.
What are some interesting comments you've heard from people after the show so far? As I mentioned earlier it's touched a lot of people who don't work in the theater, but the most moving thing for me is hearing from actors and artists who have liven in the American theater, and hearing how it resonates for them. It's also heartening to see online the tumult that it has stirred, and how other people have used it as a jumping off point to really wrestle with questions of what we're doing to our theater today. It's much, much larger than me, and I've been humbled by the generosity of artists everywhere in responding to the work and taking what they will from it that speaks to their experiences.
Besides two big Times articles in the past week, you now have a Gawker tag, too. Where can you possibly go from here? Tajikistan. I'm going there this summer as a guest of the American embassy to help create a show where people of Tajikistan tell their own stories onstage in English, Russian and Tajik. I'm also creating a new monologue called IF YOU SEE SOMETHING SAY SOMETHING, about the secret history of the Department of Homeland Security, the unbelievable story of the father of the neutron bomb, and a pilgrimage I took last fall to the Trinity site, where the first atomic weapon was detonated and the sand is still glazed with pieces of green glass. That show will run this summer at the Lensic in Santa Fe, at Woolly Mammoth in Washington DC, and then go on to tour all over the country. Then I suspect I will take a nap and finally clean my desk.