Go Deeper

Mike Daisey: Art, Commerce, Festival

Posted August 31st, 2009

[If you’re not reading Mike Daisey‘s website (How Theater Failed America, The Last Cargo Cult), you should. It’s an ongoing conversation with the world about all things theater, aesthetics, politics, and everything that enters or exits the content of his performances. Today, he responds to Howard Shapiro’s Inquirer piece about money and the Live Arts Festival:]

Fascinating piece on Art and Commerce in the Philadelphia Inquirer today, focusing on the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.

You can read the article here. It’s mainly a rundown of what’s at the Live Arts Festival this year, especially as many of the pieces concern money, economics, wealth and want in different aspects—there’s a mention for our new monologue:

In fact, one of monologist Mike Daisey’s two shows, copresented with the Philadelphia Theatre Company, is The Last Cargo Cult—about people who do not use money. They live on the eastern side of the remote South Pacific island of Tanna, and Daisey lived with them. His story examines both their beliefs and the international financial crisis.

“It’s about how we live in a world that’s built on abstraction,” says Daisey, “and the underpinnings of our own faith-based economy, built like any religion on absolute faith and trust. It’s easy to forget that money is an invention, and we have to believe in it every day for it to have meaning.”

What’s really interesting is the end of the story:

What’s that? Find out after the jump.

Ironically, the festival this year has its own little money conundrum: In a co-presentation with the Joyce Theater, a major Manhattan home for dance, Live Arts/Fringe has accepted money from the Boeing Co. to present 12 local choreographers, who will be winnowed to a single winner by audience vote over a four-night competition called The A.W.A.R.D. Show! In return, the festival keeps the income from tickets to the performances.

From perusing the web, it appears this competition began in 2006 with the Joyce, and thanks to support from Boeing has spread to other cities. Why is it spreading so far and wide?

Boeing is sponsoring such shows in four cities. “The people at Boeing are sincere about helping the arts,” says Stuccio, in the face of some artists’ assertions that the show pits them against one another in a cheesy TV-type reality-show format. The winning choreographer gets $10,000, two runners-up win $1,000.

Let’s be clear: Boeing likes the tax break it gets supporting any eligible non-profit. And it chose to send its money with strings that prevent it from helping any artist or art EXCEPT ones who have fought other artists in a cage match for the pleasure of audiences . . . so whether you think this is a good format or not, Boeing is obviously less interested in art and more interested in live reality TV. Boeing could choose to give money directly to the festival if it actually cared about supporting work. Hell, it could use the same power it has now to earmark the funds to go directly to choreographers. It didn’t want to do that. It wants the choreographers to PROVE they deserve the money, because once you win a fight we know who’s the best.

“I’ll be totally transparent. I’m a little conflicted about it,” Stuccio says. “Should I say to Boeing, no, I’m not going to give money out that way to this community, you keep it? No, I can’t do that.

I feel for Nick—it’s hard to do the right thing. I wouldn’t envy him this situation.

The part that’s hard to swallow is that Boeing will be plastered all over the event, Boeing gets the tax breaks for funding it, and Boeing gets perceived by audiences as giving two shits about art. Meanwhile the artists do their work, as they always must, though now it will be perceived through the lens of a competition–they can be publicly judged and assessed for their self-worth and fight one another for lumps of money which wouldn’t buy a toilet seat on one of Boeing’s planes.

And this is a success story of corporations and the arts working together, because this is America.

–Mike Daisey

Photo by Ursa Waz.