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 naïve...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?