We Love Arts: How Theater Failed America

How Theater Failed America

“You should not have come.”

That’s how Mike Daisey opens his monologue at Woolly Mammoth, acknowledging that this is going to be a different kind of show. He’s very wrong, mind you: this show has a self-selecting audience that is sure to be glad they came. The show’s title assures that. Anyone who reads “How Theater Failed America” on a program schedule and thinks “that’s something I want to see!” is pretty certain to enjoy it, since anyone who isn’t predisposed to be interested in a critical examination of the business of modern theater isn’t going to be jazzed by a moniker that holds up a metaphorical axe and grindstone.

That’s really too bad, since this is a show that anyone can take something away from. (Well, presuming they’re not afraid of the word “fuck,” which Daisey uses pretty liberally.) Daisey intertwines examination, analysis, personal anecdote and touching revelation to create something worth hearing even if you couldn’t care less about what ends up on local or national stages.Daisey addresses the issue of what the title communicates – both correctly and incorrectly – right at the opening of the show, as well as enumerating some of the likely preconceptions that this somewhat niche audience brings in with them. “I hope he goes after Disney,” he intones, in the voice of a theoretical audience member. IPods, the Internet, youth and attention spans, Reagan, funding… Daisey mentions them all and makes it clear that if you’re expecting a Jello Biafra style hit-piece on specific folks then you’re probably out of luck.

Which isn’t to say there’s no critical analysis here, or that there’s not dissatisfaction. This isn’t a defense of theater in disguise either, though Daisey’s sharp edges and biting wit are accompanied by an obvious love of live performance and stories of rosy and not-so-rosy memories of a life on stage. Daisey’s piece is a curious combination of feature story and biography that works well, each part providing illumination for the other.

Daisey’s control of the room is a big part of why it works. There were moments I missed because people nearby were laughing so hard, but during the powerful moments you could have  heard a pin drop. Daisey leads everyone along the emotional path he wants them on and nobody wanders away. The only point when the audience falls out of lockstep is in the final moments, when Daisey makes an effort at wrap-up and summary.

It’s the weakest part of the act, though that’s partly because it’s unnecessary and mostly because he’s insured that it can’t work perfectly: How Theater Failed America isn’t an indictment, it’s a portrait of where we’ve been and where we are, both in theater specifically and culture in general. There’s nothing wrong with an artist returning to the canvas in order to point out certain key bits and summarize some of what they were trying to say; it’s just unnecessary. A good work stands on its own and leaves you the spots to plug in your own questions and determine your own answers without someone – whether they be the artist or Cliff’s Notes – handing them to you.

This is a good work.

created & performed by MIKE DAISEY
January 7 – 18, 2009

641 D St NW, Washington, DC 20004

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


4 thoughts on “We Love Arts: How Theater Failed America

  1. Daisey was on Kojo Nnamdi’s show today, at 13:06 roughly, and the segment’s been archived for your listening “pleasure”.

    Daisey comes off as angry and petty, which is really sad. His suggestion that if “development just trusted us,” (us being actors? I’m not sure), actors could get more money and earn a better wage.

    I understand he’s displeased by the way in which actors are compensated, but isn’t that something he should take up with Actors Equity?

  2. I gonna say Tom, I disagree completely and have to think you’ve developed a dislike for this guy somewhere in the past and it’s coloring your perception.

    Daisey has some heat in him, but compared, say, to Lewis Black, he’s practically the Dali Lama. You might have missed the lead-up to this comment about development which was in reference to how common it is to have large development campaigns for building expenses. Daisy asserts that those same development people would never run a campaign to raise money that would instead be spent on the artists – actors and other staff – because they don’t believe donors would bite, which he thinks is a serious under-estimation of arts patrons.

    I think if you go back and listen to the interview from the beginning with an open mind you’ll hear someone that doesn’t remotely match the description of angry OR petty.

  3. I’m not sure what interview Tom listened to, either. There’s a difference between angry and petty and the anger of a revolutionary – which Daisey discusses in his show. Anyone who gives up the comfort of job security and a nice retirement to make art must be, on some level, a revolutionary.

    Actor’s Equity (AEA) has done a lot to make the lives of actors better; the contracts are constantly negotiated. But when the theaters build big houses and fill them with small one-person shows, it doesn’t matter what AEA negotiated: they can’t make the theaters hire 10 actors per show. Daisey talks about all of this in the show. He discusses walking through the empty dressing rooms, knowing that if he is there, a larger cast isn’t.

    I think the interview didn’t give a real chance to discuss or explain the issue. If you care about the performing arts at all, go see the show and then decide if the anger is merely bombastic, or if it comes from someone who loves the art and wants to see it last. After all, without actors, what are you going to look at in those lovely buildings?

  4. I just saw the show on Friday, and I truly enjoyed it. Seems like the lessons and mistakes of modern theater pretty much applies to every other artform, musicians, comedians, vis-artists, hell even software designers can walk away with a greater understanding of how things are, and how they can change.

    His next show is actually going to be titled “How Theater Can Win” and I’m excited.