Monday, April 21, 2008

On Unexamined Assumptions and Mike Daisey

In my post entitled "Ranting on Teaching, Backstage, and the Level of Discourse," I wrote asbout the "the dismal level of theatrical discourse." When "our journalists show such a lack of depth," I wrote, "such a dearth of critical thinking, such a superficial understanding of theatre history -- well, is it any wonder that our art form itself is about as deep as a child's plastic swimming pool." Case in point: "Shaking Things Up, Regionally Speaking," an article in Sunday's New York Times by Jason Zinoman about Mike Daisey's performance, How the Theatre Failed America.

Zinoman, who apparently keeps up with the theatrosphere, begins by noting the "fevered debate online" (fevered, or heated? Fevered implies some level of babbling hallucination, doesn't it?). He then checks in with a few regional theatre representatives, both of whom exhibit the lack of intellectual wherewithal that leads me to despair for the fate of theatre in this country.

First up is Kurt Beattie, the artistic director of A Contemporary Theater in Seattle, who "has been a longtime admirer of Mr. Daisey’s and has even presented his work," but who "was surprised by how shallow [How Theatre Failed America] was and inapplicable to my theater community.” It was inapplicable and shallow, Mr. Beattie said, because "even if he [Beattie] wanted to import actors, he could not afford it." Excuse me, but WTF? My stepson's father once told him, perhaps indelicately, that "the world does not revolve around your asshole," and it is a lesson that so many theatre people, including Kurt Beattie, could stand to learn. Daisey's observations are inapplicable because ACT can't afford to bring in actors from outside Seattle? Does Beattie think that Daisey's play is about his theatre alone? Is the title How A Contemporary Theatre Failed America? Does he have any knowledge at all about what is happening in the rest of the country, or even in the rest of the theatres in his city? Does he really mean to suggest that Mike Daisey is making this up?

Beattie's solipsistic comments are pure genius compared to those of Nicholas Martin, the outgoing artistic director of the Huntington Theatre in Boston, who had not seen Daisey's show but had read his essay in "The Stranger." Martin dismissed Daisey's idea of raising money for "endowed chairs" for actors (instead of raising money for enormous buildings) with an unqualified "it would never work." Why? “The actors you want just aren’t available for that long,” he said. “Second, the guys who have the money aren’t going to give it to a local actor.”

First of all, has nobody noticed that Martin's lines totally contradict Beattie's dismissal of Daisey's complaint about imported actors as inapplicable -- clearly, the Huntington (or the Huntington's money guys) have no interest in supporting local actors.

More importantly, is anybody capable of doing any reflective critical thinking at all? Is anybody capable of examining their own underlying assumptions in light of observations that draw those assumptions into question? Or are we condemned to shallow, bone-headed dismissals by theatre artists who, Candide-like, apparently think that the way things are is the best of all possible worlds?

Let's look at these sentences more closely:

1. “The actors you want just aren’t available for that long." What is the unacknowledged assumption of that statement? It wouldn't be that the actors "you want" are NYC actors who couldn't possibly be kept away from pursuing film and television work for more than a couple months max, could it? It wouldn't be that those are the only actors one could possible want, right? For all my Boston readers, does this statement make your blood boil? Do you see this as the blatant insult that it is? Surely, a mere Boston actor, who would probably be delighted to make himself or herself available for entire seasons at a time , couldn't possibly be an actor that "you want." You only want TV actors. If that insult isn't enough, Martin goes on with the next doosie.

2. “Second, the guys who have the money aren’t going to give it to a local actor.” Now why in the world would this be the case? Are the Boston money men so knowledgeable about the quality of actors that they will only tolerate imported actors? Or would it be because Martin, the man whose opinion would be most influential to the money men, himself doesn't value local actors? I'll tell you what: if I were a Boston actor, I'd be outside the Huntington picketing. But of course they won't, because they are too afraid that they would damage their career by offending a man who doesn't respect them enough to hire them in the first place.

But then Martin outdoes himself for arrogance. Having read Daisey's essay, he says,

3. "I found some of his points very bracing, but the solutions were facile and often na├»ve...My advice to Mike Daisey is, ‘Go run a theater and get back to me.’ ” Can't you hear it? Can't you see in your mind's eye the smarmy smile and the dismissive handwave that accompanies this statement? I imagine Marie Antoinette doing the same gesture as she said "Let them eat cake." First of all, Mike Daisey does run a theatre. It isn't a Big Box Behemoth like the Huntington, but rather a two-person tribe that nevertheless creates vibrant performances that deal with contemporary issues. And that's the point, isn't it? If you operate from the unexamined assumptions of Nicholas Martin -- that corporate theatre is the only way to do "real" theatre, and NYC actors are the only "real" actors that "you want" -- then Daisey's suggestions do, indeed, seem naive, because he doesn't accept those preconceptions as inevitable or even valuable. But if you have the intellectual wherewithal to look critically at what is being done, and the honesty to entertain that there might actually be something wrong with the status quo, then Daisey's comments are more than "bracing," they should be an earthquake.

But alas, the level of complacency is so high in the theatre world, and the lack of imagination is so appallingly low, that a real examination of the way we create theatre is virtually impossible. On his blog, Daisey wrote: "I also have a vested interest of lowering the politeness level in theatrical discourse—which, I hasten to add, is not the same as throwing away civility. I've just seen far too many "discussions" that should have been full-voiced arguments, too many passions squelched in the face of institutionalized hopelessness, and just too much damn silence, especially from the artists who live and work within the system." I agree, but I would add that what is missing from this over-polite discussion is not only passion, but also intellect, critical thinking, basic reflective thought.

As long as we as artists allow ideas to be dismissed in such haughty, uninformed, and superficial ways, and as long as we fail to fully voice our criticisms for fear of "risking career opportunities," the theatre will continue its rapid descent into irrelevance and triviality. It is time that we demand better from each other. It is time that we demand some courage, and some thought, and some reflection. The woods are burning, as Willie Loman said. Are we just going to comment on the pretty orange color while we get our hot dogs on our stick?


Director said...

Wait a minute... you mean Nylachi actors AREN'T the only ones worth hiring?! Holy crap! When you live under a rock like this all the time, it's hard to realize how much you don't understand!

This guy needs a whiff of reality. When you live with your head up your ass like this guy does, it's hard to convince him his shit stinks just like everyone else's.

Frostwolf said...

I used to live in New York, and I even have an MFA from NYU. While I was living there, I became appalled slowly over time by the increasing insularity and fearfulness of pretty much all the theaters there. I read the Zinoman story, and I'm grateful that you pointed out the biases in the story. I was a mite bothered by the weight he gave to Martin and Beattie, and when I read "Well, maybe he should try to run a theater himself," I roll my eyes. The man revealed himself to be a tone-deaf vampire, if you ask me, a true representative the vEmpire that is sucking us all dry and the Huntington Theatre probably deserved the old c*nt.

(Sidebar: I'd like to propose an alternative use for that good old c-word that feminists hate to love or love to hate: To me, it's the onomatopoetic sound of vampire fangs sinking into flesh, and using the process of synechdoche where the part stands in for the whole--e.g., "grunt" becomes laborer, then c*nt becomes vampire. I realize I am swimming upstream on that, but that is such a rich-sounding word and it seems that it really sticks to people like Nicholas Martin and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, for example. Just a thought.)

I was even part of one of those groups that tries to groom actors, directors and playwrights for a short time, but saw that it was split between those who were institutionalists who would rather squelch originality in favor of entertainment that was just this side of sit-com, and those who were like me, buttkicking "S&M artists" (as one fellow writer referred to me and I took it as a compliment!). It was all rather depressing, and over time I came to see that professionalization of the theater world was part of the problem.

I started working for a law firm that specialized in Entertainment Law too, and that REALLY opened my eyes, so much so I started writing my own take-off on Brecht's "Fear & Misery of the Third Reich" and called it "Fear & Misery, LLP: An Olio of Oiliness for These Unctuous Times."

The very best theater experience I have ever had was when I was in college and we did a summer repertory program. It was all quite community-oriented, theater professionals and professors worked alongside us students to put on three really wonderful plays. I actually lost my ego in all of it, and swam in the sea of a theatrical ocean that gave me sustenance and vibrance. I got a really good grade out of it, and came away from it feeling like this is the way it should be, and sadly I have only had little glimpses of it here and there.

There are individual souls out there who are able to keep a perspective, but there are those too who fall in love with their own genius, and make it hard to create a community, and those too who focus on the costs, who don't take risks.

Gosh, I wrote a lot. Unfortunately I have a lot to say, and I don't have a lot of venues in which to say it. My partner used to run a classical record label, and sometimes he feels like I'm attacking people like him--we're all victims of the vEmpire, and I pray its demise every day. I pray global financial implosion/economic collapse, and my prayers seem to be working, thank Gaia!

We all need a long convalescence.

Art said...

Hi all,

I am not here to defend Martin's seemingly off-hand remarks regarding the show.

In the context of what Daisey's message is, and the premise of Theatre Ideas, he seems to miss the point wildly.

But before we get tooo out of hand about Martin, I thought I would just clarify a few things.

Yes, Martin is a New York theatre guy, through and through. He was exactly what the Huntington was looking for at the time they made their last AD search. (What Boston was looking for is another question.) But, Being such a New York connected guy, it could have been worse, a lot worse.

One of the main initiatives Martin spearheaded, and saw come to complete fruition, was the building of a second stage. Now, before people jump on that, ("See, investing in buildings before hiring actors!") let me explain, that the Calderwood Pavillion, (which was constucted to house the second stage,) also included two other spaces for performance. This was a joint project with the city of Boston and many theatre, some of them tribes, use that space to perform and employ local actors in their shows.

There are arguments and problems with some of these arrangements, and is has resulted, but overall it at least seems to have been a net good, I believe, for the city.

The Huntington also emloyed many more Boston actors on their mainstage under Martin's tenure. Many of the second stage productions have been heavily populated by locals.

On the playwright front: Under Martin's tenure, the Calderwood playwriting fellowships were established. Under this program, many Boston playwrights have received financial and developmental opportunities and local playwrights have received Mainstage and Second Stage world premieres of their work. Melinda Lopez's Sonia Flew christened the new performing space! This year alone, the Huntington produced three premieres by local playwrights.

As Scott and anybody who reads my blog knows, I have no problem examining the downsides for the local community of some of these programs and initiatives by the LORT's.

But I just want to keep a little perspective on Martin's tenure at the Huntington. The connection of the Huntington to the local community, while certainly not ideal, has at least grown.

BTW: The Huntington has chosen another New York guy to replace Martin, Peter Dubois of the Public Theatre. We'll all be watching closely.

Scott Walters said...

Art -- I am not suggesting that Martin is "All Bad" because of what he said. As you note, he has done some good things. The condemnation is of the tenure of these specific comments, which reflect a commonly-held bias that, in my opinion, works against the development of the art form in America, and that contradicts the foundational values of the regional theatre movement. Perhaps more disturbing, it reflects the superficial level of thought that seems rampant within the art form.

Art said...

No Problem,

I understand.

As I said, I don't really have a defense of his comments in this instance.

This was more in response to your questioning as to why Boston Theatre artists aren't out picketing the Huntington over his comments. (And to some of the other coments above.)

To YOUR point: When Ed Siegel was leaving his post as a drama critic for the Boston Globe, he mentioned how he wished that the Huntington would sometimes not cancel intriguing productions it had planned because a NY or LA star had fallen through. To paraphrase, Seigel was saying, "Why doesn't Boston deserve a production of XYZ even if it doesn't have a Liev Schreiber or Robert Sean Leonard in it. What's wrong with a local production."

Although, almost in the same breath, Siegel lamented seeing "the same old faces" of local actors on the stages. How's that for messing with your mind?

Scott Walters said...

Yes, it is a hard nut to crack, one filled with ambivalence. Does familiarity breed contempt or commitment?

nick@ said...

Scott, Art,

"Mr. Martin said that he had not seen Mr. Daisey’s show, but that his agent had sent him an article written by Mr. Daisey that addressed some of its themes and he circulated it to other artistic directors."

Again, here is the conflation of essay and performance. Zinoman needed "the hook" for his article. To that he allows and fuels the Us/Them debate that isn't part of the performance by choosing someone to quote who haven't seen the performance. Of course PR savvy Mike adds few quotes that are neither in the show nor the essay to help this article find its polemic.

No regional theatre artistic director or staff will be upset by the actual performance of How Theater Failed America. I don’t need to argue this anymore. It’s obvious. See the show or read the reviews and tell me something different.

“The title of this new piece, like his angry first impression, is misleading. The show is not a tirade but a gentle remembrance of how Mr. Daisey came to love theater, combined with some very funny stories about his professional misadventures…” --NYTimes

“Blending political anger with striking personal stories, Daisey insists nonprofit theaters are not just faceless institutions but collections of human beings with universal problems…. he's not a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and he's not out to shame some hazy group of donors and artistic staffers. Daisey's piece is effective because it acknowledges that most theater professionals are trying to do what's right.” --Variety

In terms of the debate, if the essay is a pit bull, then performance is a toy poodle. For sure toy poodles have teeth, but they make better lap dogs than attack dogs. Mike is not biting the hand that feeds him with his performance, just playfully nipping at it.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- I agree with you about the difference between the tone of the performance and the essay. As a sidebar, I'm curious: on the pitbull / poodle continuum, where do you think the arguments made on this blog fall?

nick@ said...

This blog is Old Yeller from the 1957 Disney film.

You know the story. And it keeps replaying here.

Yeller develops rabies after being bitten while defending the tribe from an infected Nylachi wolf.

Yeller is the tribe's best friend, but when he goes rabid mouthed on Nick's New York tribe, he needs to be shot down.

Scott Walters said...

Yipe! Yipe! Yipe! Yipe!

Jake said...

Geez, I think you use that anecdote more than I do.