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Larry Litt

How Theatre Failed America


How Theatre Failed America
Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Joe's Pub at The Public Theatre
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Reviewed April 21, 2008

I'm writing this from a place of long held and unreleased anger. Mike Daisey, the monologist behind "How Theater Failed America," understands my frustration. I too was an actor in the 1960s and 70s, when experimental theater and improv were just beginning to grab the America's imagination. But some where, some how our, my, creativity and radical ideals went astray.

Daisey starts his monologue describing the madness of micro Ivy college theater Professor Dick Soule. He drilled Daisey in Shakespeare's various characters roles. More importantly, Prof Dick as he was called, displayed the manic theater tone anyone who works in theater has come to love and dread. It is the embodiment of the aesthetically driven director who will open the show on time no matter what obstacles confront the cast and crew. When it's over, all will be forgotten. Not for the young actors he's molding.

Daisey's education is indeed perfect casting material for any summer stock production of Midsummer Night's Dream. However Daisey is fascinated by the versatility of actors who are commanded by directors to play at least five roles each summer one after the other. Changing character masks are actors summer stock in trade. If you can't learn the roles and still want to be in theater, you're tech and cleanup crew. From that backstage place you can grow up to be an artistic director.

It's the new regional theater buildings and their creative inhabitants that irk Daisey's imagination. Artistic directors, agents, stage managers, boards of directors, sponsors, grant officers all come under his scrutiny for forgetting about the role of the play and acting in the process of making theater. Theater is now like professional sports, it's the new building that impresses and imparts pride to the local crowd and the ever more important money people. It's a permanent testament to the community's love of the arts, but not art making.

Regional theater, claims Daisey, is a machine for making theater, not plays. The building's needs are far more important and better funded than the resident actors and guest directors who come and go filling the slots in the season's schedule. Daisey is passionate about this rise of the edifice as the contemporary theatrical endeavor. We get the sense he disapproves of professional theater managers' jobs, who out of necessity must plan and deliver a variety of plays and talent every season in the community's new expensive theater. I've been there in my career, he speaks truth to fundraisers. For the non-mainstream artists and their scant audiences there's the basement Studio Theater, the local equivalent of off off B'way. I believe it's where local actors and directors started oh so long ago.

Only when Daisey is describing his Seattle experimental and Maine summer stock days is there a spark of real love and ad lib mischief in his voice and eyes. He loved those salad days and his fellow actors. They put on plays with no budgets, made no money, were almost starving. His memories are hysterically funny, told with an engrossing raconteur's verbal and physical energy.

Even if you've never been that poor, or that creative, Daisey transmits the inner high that working artists feel when it all goes right on stage. That memory of spontaneous electricity remains forever, driving artists to continually seek unstructured stages, stages without strict direction and money goals. It's what keeps underground artists giving their time and talent, always seeking the personal and experimental moment, avoiding high budget, crowd pleasing rote productions. Daisey is an example of the successful, self produced, opinionated, memoir driven actor, fed up with the casting game, out to talk his own talk.

Perhaps what Daisey is really talking about is how competition between actors and directors, instead of reliance on the collective troupe mentality, have destroyed much of what was idealistic in the early, wacky experimental days. Only the remarkable San Francisco Mime Troupe has continually lived up to its political agenda. Nowadays even they must accept partial funding from government grants and corporate sponsorships to continue their free, open air shows. They haven't totally lost their critical edge, but it's a far cry from R. G. Davis's original intention of a free guerilla theater for the people, by the people and of the people unencumbered by potential strings from "The Man."

Mike Daisey is a powerful storyteller who cares about his subjects. From his high school one act play competition student-actors, to his on-the-fly rural Maine summer stock to college theater education, regional theater funding and audience development he speaks from the heart. He is another a mirror of our discontent with creative mediocrity and the corporate art establishment's ego driven need to ever expand arts facilities.

Unfortunately when he bemoans the dwindling, aging theater audience he offers no solutions. Audiences may only want all singing all dancing spectacles or comedies speaking to their personal relationship issues. Carping about aging audiences won't put younger butts in seats. Not until Mike tells the kids to sit down and listen to the truth. The theater and everyone who makes it happen is you, young person, whether you like it or not.


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