Entertainment » Theatre

Mike Daisey - How Theater Failed America

by Ellen Wernecke
Contributor
Thursday Apr 24, 2008
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Mike Daisey.
Mike Daisey.  

Ticket holders at actor and author Mike Daisey’s one-man show How Theater Failed America ought to have expected to be challenged, but they probably weren’t all prepared to hear his opening salvo, "You shouldn’t have come here." Daisey, who has taken on Amazon.com, James Frey and Wal-Mart, is on the offensive with his newest monologue, which appeared earlier this year at the Public’s Under the Radar festival and, like a stubborn nettle in a rose garden, has grown back twice as large.

Daisey compares himself and his wife (who directed this monologue) to carrion birds on the corpses of regional theatres because his one-man shows are seen as a cure for a budget-challenged company unable to put on its lavishly planned "Pericles," but needing something -- anything -- to fill that "slot." Daisey’s scorn for the slot makes his eyes bug out and his hands clench with rage; they are the units which turn regional theatres into "factories," dedicated to pushing out a certain amount of "product" each year, with each "slot" being allotted four weeks for the often New York-based actors and director to create a show which will play to a less-than-half-full crowd. These theatres, Daisey argues, place an undue burden on themselves by letting a growth-dominated vision taking hold, building complexes they cannot afford and then programming so that they "need every show to be a home run -- for a while." Worst, these structures have caused them to lose touch with the local artists who could generate interest and buzz among potential audience members, especially those under the ever graying average. "There are no artists," Daisey says about these big new buildings. "They do not live there."

But "How Theater Failed America" is not just a polemic; Daisey cuts his scathing attack on how performing arts are made in the U.S. with tales of his own experiences as a young drama student, from the teacher he called "my first madman" to his attempt directing a corps of Maine high schoolers in commedia dell’arte in a bid to reach the state competition. These stories add a necessary amount of levity to the proceedings, as when Daisey describes his friends’ one-season repertory company Theatre on the Pond, fueled by ramen and lit by track lighting covered in gels "because what are we, animals?"

They also establish Daisey’s authority; instead of merely biting the hand that feeds him, he describes the meals it gave him and genuinely attempts to suck out the venom. When he glances on the topic of theatres’ picking "safe" material over bold new works, he doesn’t even bring up his own experience with unwanted boldness; at a show last year at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, a disgruntled man who was chaperoning a high school field trip to his monologue "Invincible Summer" poured a nearby glass of water all over his notes. (Hope triumphs experience: Daisey still has a glass of water at the ready, though it would be much more difficult to pull such a stunt at Joe’s Pub, for the plethora of tables if not his ardent fans.) Though he ends the show on a hopeful note, Daisey indicates he isn’t finished with the topic. For that, we should be grateful.

Through May 11 at Joe’s Pub
Tickets, Joespub.com
For more information, visit mikedaisey.com

Ellen Wernecke’s work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and The Onion A.V. Club, and she comments on books regularly for WEBR’s "Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine." A Wisconsin native, she now lives in New York City.

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