Go Deeper

How Theater Failed America: Q&A with Mike Daisey

Posted September 2nd, 2009

The first of two monologues Mike Daisey will be performing at the Live Arts Festival, How Theater Failed America opens on Friday night for three performances this weekend. For a preview, watch the YouTube video to the right (some language probably NSFW). And as you might’ve read in this space, I give Mike my hearty personal endorsement, so I’m glad I finally cornered him for a Q&A on the show.

How DID theater fail America?
The way many things in our era are failing or have failed—we sold out our ideals about supporting a true regional theater system that would create true career paths for artists in communities across America for a hub and spoke system, fed out of New York City, that invests its time and energy into real estate over art, and places no value on the artists and workers that make that art possible. As the theater industry has become increasingly corporatized it becomes clear that it is a terrible business model, but since corporate models have no registers for catharsis or community, we squeeze and squeeze year after year looking to improve a bottom line that can’t actually be fixed.

Meanwhile, the changes these things create—shipping in actors, increasingly homogenized productions, a focus on each production as its own element and not part of a larger whole–means that the lifeblood of the theater drains away, both in terms of talent and audiences. You can see that reflected in the NEA and TCG studies that show less people than ever attending theater.

Your own performance career has emerged from and is, in many ways, grounded in regional theater—especially how you workshop your monologues in many different cities. How did your colleagues around the country respond to your critiques? And how did audiences at these theaters, which are heavily composed of subscribers (and thus invested in the theaters), respond?

After the jump: I’ve made an embarrassing error; Mike takes the discussion of failure to directly to theater heads, and lays out the social and economic problems facing arts workers today.

To be clear, my work comes out of the Seattle garage theater scene, and from there my time performing in NYC—I’ve toured a great deal at regional theaters, but it isn’t where I emerged from. It’s an important distinction because I don’t believe most American theater has the aptitude to support new work in a way where that would be possible.

But yes, I perform a lot in theaters around the country, and I’ve taken How Theater Failed America to the TCG conference, where I performed it for the heads of the theaters I directly critique. It’s been an illuminating process—since I try to embrace my own story, and use the monologue to humanize our collective situation in an art we love and are responsible for, the majority of reactions have been positive, accompanied by some soul-searching and some beginnings of a more open conversation.

In some cases where industry reactions have been negative it’s been a useful tool for establishing theaters and individuals I would not have wanted to work with in the first place. It sorts things out quickly.

What work do you think theater is supposed to do? Where are we as theater professionals not doing our jobs?
Usually this question would be answered with aesthetics, but I’ll use it to address our social failure.

For example: actors working at a large equity house, like Philadelphia Theater Company or the Wilma, make Equity wages for their shows. Divided against their work hours they make less than minimum wage, for work they have to audition for, and is not guaranteed to last more than a few weeks or a month. Then they perform in theaters that cost millions to build, with tickets of $40 and $50, in shows like Nickled and Dimed, where they act out the roles of the working poor . . . despite the fact that in front of the wealthy, upper-middle class audiences are actual working poor.

It’s absolutely pathetic and unconscionable, and we tolerate it because it’s on the blood of actors and technicians and workers that the American theater manages to survive. Lockboxed endowments for artist salaries could be done, if the theaters were interested in it—but they are not, because the status quo is what built such lovely pieces of real estate.

The issues can not be solved by making better art. The issues are economic and social and deep, and until the American theater looks into the mirror and confronts them it will shrink, year after year.

How can we make performance a more vital part of the cultural landscape?
Require 1/2 of the funds currently granted to non-profit arts corporations to instead be granted to individual human artists for the making of actual art. Work aggressively to ensure that this support is spread throughout the country, and encourage new performance collectives with these funds that have been freed up.

How do you integrate your ideas about what makes successful theater into your own performances?
I believe in the living moment, and that the only reason to create theater is to see it happen uniquely each and every time. To that end none of my work is scripted, but is instead created in the moment between myself and the audience, working from outlines so that the shape and texture of each monologue on each night is singular and distinct and dissolves in the moment it is born. That is the promise of theater, and I try to embrace it in as elemental a form as possible.

Are there any cities or theaters in particular that you think are doing excellent work? Even if I wasn’t getting (temporarily and very modestly) paid by Live Arts & Fringe, I’d say that Philly is a pretty solid theater town—it’s part of why I moved here a few years back. Although—and this is not to disparage anybody at all—I think the groups I like best are actually those who are not tied to a particular theater. They seem to be the most adventurous, and I have a personal predilection for more experimental work.
There are many cities and theaters that are doing excellent work. What’s more interesting is to ask what theaters are paying their artists anything close to a living wage, or providing the security and stability needed for arts workers to live and thrive outside the carpetbagger model. The answer is effectively zero.

It’s a good question to ask where the art is, but if we don’t examine how our arts economy really works, it’s a question that will be increasingly answered the way it is today: with shrinking audiences and relevance.

Oof. Well, audience, do your part. How Theater Failed America opens Friday night at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, home of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, for three performances this weekend only! The Last Cargo Cult opens next Thursday, September 10, for five shows.

–Nicholas Gilewicz