Thursday, July 10, 2008

Don Hall, Mike Daisey, and Me

Don Hall takes a few well-aimed swipes at Mike Daisey and me in his latest post "Sounds Simple, Doesn't It?," which in terms of his take on Daisey is encapsulated in his subtitle: "Mike Daisey Starts the Debate Then Excuses Himself from the Table." In previous posts, I have defended Daisey's not providing solutions -- in fact, Don quotes me doing so. Nevertheless, I must admit to being a little uncomfortable with Mike's "my work here is finished" attitude. Like it or not, Mike has become the face of this issue for a lot of people -- you'll note, for instance, that despite my having written about these issues far longer than Mike has been working on How Theatre Failed America, it wasn't me who was invited to speak to the assembled TCG administrators, or even be on the panel for that matter, and Teresa Eyring didn't call her essay "How Theatre Ideas Failed America"...or something. Anyway. So Daisey finds himself in a difficult situation for an artist: on the one hand, he has created a work of art that has actually influenced the debate on an important issue, which is what many artists dream of doing with their work; on the other hand, as an artist he needs to move on to creating other work, because that's what artists do. So Daisey is now concerned with post-9/11 issues of security, and we are left behind to tend the plates he set spinning on their sticks.

It would be a shame to lose this momentum. The likelihood that there will be other opportunities anytime soon are slim, especially given the attention span of most theatre people. We have already reached a point where Isaac Butler feels the need to apologize for bringing it up at all, titling one of his recent posts "Will You Shoot Me If I Keep Talking About Mike Daisey?", as if doing so is a cause for embarrassment -- because, you know, Mike Daisey is soooo June, dude. Indeed, given these tendencies and Daisey's desire to move on, if I were Teresa Eyring and I just wanted the whole thing to go away, I wouldn't give in to pressure to devote an entire issue of American Theatre to this, but would just let the energy drain away by ignoring it. Because the reality is that, for all the kvetching about the status quo, theatre artists would rather focus on their individual work and leave systemic change to others. And this isn't just true of theatre artists, but all kinds of artists. Last night, I was at a meeting of about ten people who wanted to do something about the lack of local government support for the arts here in Asheville. I suggested that before we focused on the powers-that-be, we needed to create an "us" -- i.e., that we needed Asheville artists to join in common cause. One sculptor, who was supported by another one, said that getting individualistic artists to do anything as a group would be like shoveling frogs into a wheelbarrow, and that given a choice between attending a meeting and working in their studio, we all know which choice would win. In essence, Mike says something similar, and Don concurs: "I have a calling, which I fulfill through my work. I do my part and more. I am an artist—I will nurture, hone, and refine it, and that is what I am responsible for because that is what I am." (Mike Daisey) To which Don replies: "All fair as far as I'm concerned. I suspect that almost every artist on the map will state pretty much the same thing, which is, in essence, "I'm too busy doing some art - let the administrators whose salaries I'm questioning make those decisions."

And there was part of me, last night and this morning, who knew that such single-minded focus is what make artists artists, but there was another part that felt that if they had that attitude then they deserved whatever happened to them. At the moment, the latter opinion has won out. We all would prefer to do exactly what we want to do, but there is a responsibility of every person to be a citizen, part of a community, and to work to improve the lot of the whole. As a college teacher, for instance, I might prefer to spend all my time in the classroom doing what I love to do, help students learn and grow, but the expectations are that I will devote time to research and, as importantly, time to service. And so I serve on committees and donate my time to professional and community organizations, because part of being an academic is being part of the academic community. The expectations toward service, which are an important part of the criteria for my annual reviews and tenure and promotion decisions, nudge me to do what I ought to do. Where are similar expectations for artists?

Should Mike Daisey be held accountable for the discussion he has set in motion? Yes, he should, and to some extent he continues to do so -- the likelihood is strong that his letter to American Theatre will be printed in the next issue rather than Dennis Baker's or my own, and that is as it should be, and Daisey has not skirted that responsibility. Could he do more? Sure. Should he? Yes, I think so, but not alone. What about the rest of the theatre community? When will they take action? When will they join forces?  Because if you don't want to put it on the administrators to create change, then we have to do it ourselves. When will they take a stand?

If the discussion in the theatrosphere is any indication, the answer is never, because far from joining forces in support of the issues Mike Daisey raised and that many have kvetched about in bars and coffee shops for years and years, what I see are artists seeking to pooh-pooh these issues, and to attack Mike Daisey for raising them at all. Don compares being an artist to being a blackjack player, and says that nobody is trying to figure out how to provide health insurance for blackjack players, nor, apparently, should they. Of course, blackjack players seek to make money only for themselves, and what they do does nothing to improve society in any way, whereas artists contribute something valuable -- but let's ignore that. "Nobody forced you to do theatre" seems to be a favorite theme among theatre artists, with the unspoken assumption that once you make such a decision you should expect to be treated like chattel. Others have fretted that the possibility of having a reasonable income from artistic work will take the edge off the creative impulse and lead to complacency, as if there were historical evidence that artists who had money lost the ability to create anything worthwhile. Others have touted their poverty like a badge of honor, a sign of the purity of their creative lives and proof that they haven't "sold out" to middle-class values. R Winsome writes in "Theatre and Labor Relations" that he "strongly disagrees with Daisy's claim that theatre artists are entitled to benefits and guaranteed long-term employment. Eyring's claim that this problem doesn't exist is specious for the reasons Daisy points out, but it does open the door for my conclusion: theatre should not provide such things." Which not only misrepresents Mike Daisey, who has never said artists should be "guaranteed long term employment," but dismisses even the notion that health insurance might be something desirable. At NPAC, Alliance Theatre's Associate Artistic Director Kent Gash, to my total jaw-dropping amazement, said that a expectation that theatre artists be provided a livable wage and the possibility of a stable lifestyle sounded like "entitlement," and he went on to assert, in an argument that lacks any semblance of logic whatsoever, that because African-American theatre artists weren't paid well in the past, nobody should be paid well in the present because African-American theatre artists survived those tough times and "we're not going anywhere" (smattering of applause at such defiance in the face of the powerful "Go Away, African-American theatre artists" movement in America). Injustice yesterday, injustice today, injustice evermore.

It is simply astonishing to me how theatre artists seem to enthusiastically embrace marginalization and economic deprivation, and will attack anyone who dares suggest that things might be changed, much less improved. While theatre artists are too busy making art to confront these questions, and make a big deal about how making that art is more important than any contribution they might make to improve the theatre scene as a whole, they turn as one to attack non-artists who might do so on their behalf, especially if those people are (gasp) academics. And if someone like Mike Daisey actually starts to garner attention and sell tickets and even start to succeed just a wee bit, well, he must be painted as an opportunistic, self-promoting con man who is simply using these issues as a way to fame and fortune.

In a post below, I attributed this unwillingness on the part of theatre artists to engage larger issues to passivity, but I was wrong; this is active self-injury, a masochistic desire  to be dominated and abused, the artistic equivalent of being a "cutter." It used to be religious fanatics who wore hair shirts and scourged themselves with whips, but now it is artists who do so, with the same self-righteous fervor. And if this statement reflects a "pretty low opinion of artists in general," as Don asserts, then I guess I stand convicted, because I have never seen a group of people so bent on self-destruction. It isn't that you all don't agree with Mike Daisey, or with me, it is that you actively resist any suggestion that change is possible or even desirable, and you seek to eviscerate those who would make your lives better. Apparently you are living in a Panglossian best of all possible theatre worlds, a utopia of artistic bliss where the cream always rises to the top and where poverty is just an little obstacle that everybody faces equally and that allows you to show your true artistic superiority. Or the flipside: you are living in a theatrical dystopia that is wholly deterministic -- as Jesus says in Jesus Christ Superstar, "everything is fixed and you can't change it." Regardless, the art form is permanently petrified in amber as far as you're concerned.

To Mike Daisey, I say this: you are the face of this issue, and you have to accept that responsibility, but I wouldn't do much unless you receive some indication from the field that they've got your back, that they are ready to march with you, that they are willing to step out of the rehearsal halls, or put down their beer, take off their hair shirt, and leave the bar, in order to push for change. Otherwise, all bets are off, and you should just say that you were playing a role in How Theatre Failed America, and now you have another role to learn the lines for. And to the rest of you, I say: either step up, or stop whining. Self-inflicted wounds do not qualify you for sainthood.
Blogged with the Flock Browser


Devilvet said...

Solid. This is your first post on the whole HoTFa issue I am inclined to agree with.

isaac butler said...


Why oh why do you feel the need to insult people (in this case, me) who you feel an allegiance with? This dime store psychoanalysis of people is completely beside the points you're trying to make. I wasn't aplogizing with my post, I was making a joke at my own expense. Maybe it's a masochistic selfdestructive desire on your part that's afraid of reaching any kind of success with your ideas because you won't get to be the populist outsider anymore!

No, I'm just kidding with that second part, but considering I wrote two different posts about HTFA this week, I felt a need to have a slightly self-depricating title for one of them. I write abou the show and the issues raised in it a lot. In fact, I was the first theatre blogger to write about HTFA, and it was that post that I wrote that got you interested in the show in the first place.

I don't appreciate the insulting tone of you "that's so June, dude" crack at all. Please stop unnecessarily ragging on people, it does you and your cause no good.

R. Winsome said...

Scott, I agree with the gist of what you're saying and i'd like to clarify my statments. When i said that theatre ought not provide health insurance and long term employment i was not saying that theatre artists ought to accept or relish in poverty, just that we ought not become tied to or dependant on one company in the way that such patronage fosters.

The post-capitalist labor relation is well-paid, empowered free agents, able to use their skills to bounce from project to project continuously challenging themselves and growing. Requesting our employers to be patrons in the tradition of old school capitalism is A. not going to work (we can count on no one but ourselves to improve our lot, begging them to make things better for us is foolish) and B. not desireable or progressive.

The transition between these labor relations requires a LOT of banding together, and some of that banding together is going to require turning down enticements offered by the establishment in an attempt to control and exploit our energy. The solution to that is not to beg the bosses to be nicer to us, it's to find ways to make things work for us by us, without them.

Laura said...

THANK YOU. In following this whole conversation, I keep feeling like I have my poster board and magic markers ready but don't know what to write or where to march with it.

Assuming, in the most idealistic of all possible worlds, that all of the noble work everyone is out there currently doing wouldn't change in the slightest but that they could get a living wage and insurance to do what they're doing, who would reject that? Not likely an immediate possibility, but isn't that a worthwhile goal?

Silly me, there I go with my entitlement again.

Director said...


Adam said...

When I think of the work that Mike and others are doing, I keep thinking about the labor movements of the past.

It may be simplistic but I try to sum up Mike's argument as: "It shouldn't be so damn hard to make it as a pro artist. Yes, it will always be hard, but it could be a little easier if we did some things differently"

I agree entirely with that idea.

But I think that some people have a difficult time balancing two ideas.

The first being that being good enough at anything (painting, basketball, writing, etc.) to make a decent living out of it alone is always going to be a challenge no matter what changes are made in the field.

The second idea is that while it will be hard, it could be easier . . . it should be easier and only active voices will make that happen.

Scott Walters said...

Isaac -- The "that's soooo June" comment wasn't about you, and I wasn't intending to gouge you about your headline, just note it as a symptom. As far as my style: how many years do you think it will take before you realize it is what it is? I don't particularly like the style of your blog lately, but I'm not over there bothering you about it.

Rex -- Thanks for the clarification, and I agree. However, free agency doesn't let institutions off the hook for their practices, right?

Laura -- You could start by writing a letter to American Theatre, then email Mike Daisey your support.

Director -- The congregation will now join together in Hymn #474: Music and the Mirror. Five six seven eight --

Adam -- Good analysis of Mike's point/ I don't think he is proposing that everybody who declares themselves an artist be given $40,000 a year and a car, but rather that those individuals who are "good enough" to be hired by an institution receive a decent wage and some semblance of commitment from said institution. I'm not certain why this isn't a "duh" moment for everybody, but there sure are a lot of artists who want to fight it!

Art said...

Have patience with the following observation, as I have not seen Mike Daisey's monologue and I can only go off of what I have read about it.

It seems to me that there is one element of the discussion that is being left out: The Role of the Union in the performing arts.

The blogosphere has talked quite a bit about Unions in terms of awards and the showcase codes, (it is one of the bullet points in the League of Independent Theatres' mission,) but I haven't seem much talk about it in relation to the HTFA discussion.

One criticism of Richard Florida's Creative Class series is that it seems to tiptoe around this issue as well.

It just seems completely absent in the discussions I've seen lately.

Once again, please have patience, I haven't seen the monologue.

Paul Rekk said...

Along with Isaac, I appear to be at the source of much of this post as well, and if you're gonna throw it on the table, Scott, I may as well pick up the plate:

I don't know that your change is necessarily desirable as far as I am concerned, and I'll thank you very much to not belittle that fact. I don't live in an artistic utopia or dystopia, and that's part of the point -- maybe it's different with everyone else here, but my work is very much intertwined with both the good and the bad that I experience as a working artist. And while I certainly have the same money/insurance issues as every other artist here, the major frustrations that I currently have both as a human being and an artist rarely fall into that camp.

To pick up the ball that Laura threw down; I might just turn down a living wage and health insurance, depending on where it came from.

Perhaps it's because I view myself as more aligned with the avant garde and as such have a predisposition that someone is always out to reign me in, but everything has a price, and unless you can provide me with no worries of compromising my final product, I'm not buying. And it has nothing to do with 'selling out'; it's my own personal level of comfort I'm dealing with.

In your response to me on your last post, you mentioned monks taking a vow of poverty and being provided basic necessities by the community. An open question to all voicing their support of your ideas here: would you live the life of a monk if it meant you were free to be a full-time artist? That's about the only idea that has come across so far that seems enticing to me, yet somehow I get the feeling that the contemporary American idea of a "living wage" goes far beyond anything that could be considered basic necessities.

If you can find a way to get artists rich or even self-supporting, kudos to you. (Although, my next question is how do you regulate who is and is not an artist...) I know it's quite difficult for you to believe, and it has something to do with the punk ethos, but I'm quite content with my socioeconomic setup. Not because everything is perfect, but precisely because some things are not.

There are two ways to avoid biting the hand that feeds you. You're following the obvious one -- stop biting. I prefer finding my own food with the knowledge that I can bite whatever the fuck I want. You all can wank to what ever cash-flowing utopia you prefer and I won't bother you a peep if you want, but in exchange, let's nix the masochistic, self-righteous, superiority complex, cutter inferences, eh?

'Cause either way, I'm not marching with you, but that's the sort of bullshit that's gonna make me want to march against you rather than sit on the sidelines.

silent nic@knight said...

Scott says:
Many have kvetched about in bars and coffee shops for years and years, what I see are artists seeking to pooh-pooh these issues...

You willfully ignore Don’s concluding point about the Off Loop Freedom Charter. And gatherings similar to his OLFC in Chicago are also happening in New York and Austin, Tx and many other large and small cities across the country. This weekend alone I will be attending two different gatherings of independent producers.

More importantly, most bloggers in the theatrosphere are involved in producing alternative theatre. This is an action in and of itself. And collectively it is most important continual challenge to the system. Mike Daisey’s one time indulgence in the issue will come and go. (His attempt is to produce within the system he critiques.) Meanwhile the production of alternative theatre outside the TCG system of regional theatres will continue unabated as it has for many years. The real struggle is to give this alternative theatre the stature it deserves. It is more deserving of the title of our "national theatre" than regional theatre is.

Art-- You are right about Actors Equity. The union as much as any other single factor fixes the centralization of theatre in New York and LA by allowing generous showcase codes to producers (many of whom are union actors) in those cities that do not exist in other cities. Equity actors not only can’t make a living in Seattle, but there are no authorized showcase productions in which they can act and practice their art form. Chicago has countered this condition by building a strong theatre scene with non-Equity actors. The Jeff Awards and Chicago audiences have come to recognize the professionalism of Storefront and Off-Loop theatre.

Tony Adams said...

Scott, have you read TCG's The Artistic Home? It's an interesting read that puts a lot of this in a historical (ish) perspective. It's 20 years old, but it reads like it was written yesterday.

R. Winsome said...

Scott- yes. they should be held accountable, but we can't expect them to go against their interest to help our cause.

Silent Nic- Mike Daisy is running a theatre company with two members doing a form of theatre that seems pretty unsual and un-commodifiable to me. That qualifies him to be "on our side" already if you ask me.

If he sometimes performs in big fancy places cuz he had another show that got him popular enough to do that, fine, more power to him, especially since he's using that opportunity to raise these issues, however fleetingly (which is something that'll be determined by the community as a whole and isn't his responsibility.)

silent nic@knight said...


I see no Us/Them in any of this. The split as I see it is within each individual artist.

Mike Daisey's work is great. I have said this many times. He and his wife are a great alternative theatre model in practice.

R. Winsome said...

silent nic- thanks for clarifying. Where i'm from there's a definite us / them thing going on, so your criticism looked like a weird unjustified rejection of Mike's whole thing to me.