Friday, June 20, 2008

The Mike Daisey Roundtable (June 15, 2008)

Last Sunday, I attended Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America, which was extremely good. Daisey is a great storyteller with an outrageous sense of humor and comic timing, and the performance just flew by. I know that people continue to compare him to Spalding Gray, and this is high praise indeed, but the comparison seems a bit odd given Gray's cool, ironic, unemotional style versus Daisey's white-hot outrage and deep emotion. There is no way that Gray could have told a story like the one Daisey tells about a high school "loser" who appeared in a play Daisey directed, which Daisey imbues with an aching sense of empathy and understanding. Even more than his description of his depression, which was darkly beautiful, this story resonated in me as a teacher and, perhaps even moreso, as a teacher in various prisons. I could sense the helplessness.

There was one thing that puzzled me about the performance. Daisey is a storyteller, and in posts I have noted that he talks about talking directly to the audience and engaging them in dialogue. Nevertheless, he uses the traditional theatrical approach of having the stage brightly lit and the audience in total darkness, so that it is pretty much impossible for him to actually see anyone in the theatre or talk directly to them. I know that this is the case because I couldn't see the audience hardly at all during the discussion, at least without shading my eyes. So I ask Mike: why not raise those house lights at least a little, and lower those stage lights a little, and try to actually look your listeners in the eyes? I suspect your words would be even more powerful. Just a thought.

After the show, which was well-attended though not full and enthusiastically received, I and my fellow panelists (John Collins and Colleen Werthman of Elevator Repair Service, Elizabeth Dowd of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, Tanya Selvaratnam of the Builders Association, Heidi Schrack of Two-Headed Calf, and Hal Brooks who directed Thom Paine) assembled for the discussion. To my surprise, a large chunk of the audience stayed for the discussion.

It was a good discussion, if probably a bit long. Mike's show started at 7:00, and we didn't end the discussion until 11:00! The initial focus of the discussion was on ensembles, and I guess I was there because the theatre tribe idea is basically an ensemble. It was a lively discussion, and I suspect I talked too much. John Collins and I found ourselves in disagreement rather frequently, and I can't really remember why any more -- [perhaps his decidedly NY-centric attitude. To be honest, the discussion passed in a blur. I found myself sympatico with Elizabeth Dowd, who has been with Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble for 29 of its 30 years, and who seems to be living a life that is both artistically satisfying and fulfilling as a lifestyle. She was proof that it was possible to have a life in the theatre outside of a major metropolitan area, her theatre being in Bloomsburg PA. (And while you may be tempted, please don't click through to the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and feel compelled to weigh in on the season choices of her theatre -- while I'm sure it is important to you, it isn't really relevant to the discussion, nor am I particularly interested.)

Once the floor was open to comments and questions, things got more interesting. I particularly remember a few young people demanding that artists be more active in working with high school students as a way of growing the audience for theatre. "What are you doing about this?," one demanded to know. And the response was, mostly, not much -- "We're too busy trying to make ends meet -- we don't have time." This was greeted with a certain skepticism, as if a drowning man said he didn't have time to swim because he was too busy trying to stay afloat.

The discussion was a personal test for me, because I was accompanied by two people I hold in high regard, Cal Pritner and Evamarii Johnson, who I was pretty certain wouldn't agree with some of what I had to say. It is one thing to have an opinion alone in my study, but to stay true to that opinion in the presence of people you admire more than most is a challenge, at least for me. I managed to do so, I think, and it may have helped that the stage lights kept me from seeing their reactions. The next morning, we had a good conversation about a couple of points, but the most important one is something I want to reiterate: while I am trying to decentralize thw American theatre and find a model that will allow live theatre to spread across America, I am not trying to eliminate the New York theatre. This is not an either or, but a both and. I would like to undermine the hegemony of the New York theatre, yes, but not get rid of it. The fact is that prior to Daisey's performance, I had the privilege to attend August: Osage County, which had the best acting and directing I have ever seen in my career. To me, it isn't an accident that it is the product of an ensemble theatre, and I suspect that the specialness will be greatly lessened by the departure of several of the actors -- I was fortunate to see the last performance with the original cast.

At any rate, thanks to Mike Daisey for asking me to be part of the roundtable -- I felt flattered beyond measure. I had an opportunity to meet Dennis Baker, who was intelligent and articulate, and several other young theatre artists who were interested in finding another path. I wish them the best of luck, and hope to be able to help them in any way I can.

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macrogers said...

Thanks for the writeup, Scott. I wish i had been there.

Mike Daisey said...

The long and the short is that I can see them during the performance--the lights are tuned to make that possible, and years of experience makes it easy. The lights in the discussion are significantly brighter and looser--we're actually just throwing every unit on at a pretty high level to wash the stage.

We've played with different levels of audience illumination, and the truth is that it disrupts their ability to coalesce into an audience--you still get there, but it's much harder, and we don't gain much else.


Scott Walters said...

Good! I couldn't see them at all when I was on the panel, unless I shielded my eyes. Still, I wonder. For me, the darkness in the audience eliminated most of the sense of being part of a group because I couldn't make eye contact with them. I know it is a tradition, but it's actually a pretty recent innovation that has positives and negatives. Thanks for the response -- as I said, it was an excellent show and I wish you the best for the closing weekend.

Scott Walters said...

Mac -- It would have been nice to meet you, so we could get past the screen persona to what is real. Maybe next time!

Dennis Baker said...

I did not think you talked too much. I wish we had heard more from you and Elizabeth Dowd regarding ensembles outside of New York. I felt the conversation was more bent toward the focus on New York theater ensembles and the idea of doing it if you want. But that might have been too much to ask when the conversation is held in New York.

Nick said...

I commented on the irony of this conversation being held in NYC back when it was announced. So Dennis confirms one obvious co-opting that would and did happen. And it’s really difficult to see any of these Sunday panels as anything other than an extensions of Mike’s PR for his show. The “concern for regional theatre” is a very temporary condition for most of the panelists Mike gathered. And of course Mike, the artist, will also move on to his next show and center on his next big concern as well. Most ironic, however, is how Mike’s show was co-opted by TCG itself. So that in the presentation of show at the conference, we have the toy poodle in the lap of its owner, nipping at the hand that feeds it. The concern for How Theater Failed America is once again safely in hands of a “break-out panel” at the annual conference of regional theatres.

Unless somehow the alternative theatre models to the failing regional theatres collectively grow some real fangs and begin to see “the hand that feeds them” as food as well, little will change, and artists remain as competing lap dog performers within the system’s failure.

Scott Walters said...

Well, I suppose it is possible to make such a cynical interpretation. What is particularly good for cynics is that no matter what Daisey does, the interpretation can remain the same. If TCG paid no attention at all Daisey, then you could also say that Daisey is having no effect. It's a lose-lose scenario that suits those who kind of like kvetching more than actually doing something.

But the fact is that Daisey's work has inspired, at least for the time being, a certain amount of awareness and conversation among the powers that be, whether they be AD's, MD's, or TCG staff.

Did the post-show panels serve Daisey? Of course they did. And that is bad in what way? Is there some value in personal obscurity?

Did those in the audience get something from the panels? It probably varies -- one of my mentors left early from one, finding the level of discourse disappointingly low. Others were more inspiring. The point is that people who cared about the issues got an opportunity to think more about them, and hear people talk about them who had given some thought or part of their lives to different approaches.

And frankly, I'm not certain that "fangs" are what is necessary here. Persuasion, perhaps.

Nick said...

Calling a spade a spade is not being cynical. Every conversation or debate on this subject serves and I am not denying that by characterizing the nature of this particular one. TCG in its collective of theaters working under the non-profit model, for all intents and purposes started the conversation and the action of regional theatre years ago. And it still essentially owns that conversation and action, even now as its model miserably fails. Mike’s performance has a great deal of insight and with gentle good-natured humor (no “bitch slapping” administration staff as in his essay) makes fun of the failures of regional theatre. A relevant piece of theatre entertainment that is as least as germane as any breakout session that a TCG conference might throw at the subject. So it’s ironic and interesting that this piece of theatre became the same TCG conference breakout session that it mocks. It’s also ironic and interesting that Scott and his infamous rant against Nylachi is swallowed up by the conversation from and about NYC ensembles.

In a sundry array of alternative models, many more artists are producing theatre in America than those producing under the TCG regional theatre model. I see this kind of commitment and action as the real opposite to what you call kvetching, not panel discussions and TCG conferences.

Scott Walters said...

I think you have to make a distinction between Mike Daisey and me. Mike works within that system, and he wants to change it by raising consciousness and prompting the leaders of the regionals to remember the original values upon which their institutions were built. As such, it makes perfect sense for him to perform for the TCG members. Mike is not a revolutionary, he is a reformer, and so he most effectively works within the power structure.

I, on the other hand, have little interest in the current regional theatre, but only in what the regional theatre was originally supposed to be: a decentralized, company-based, community-oriented movement. I take Daniel Quinn's attitude: it is possible, and probably desirable, to simply walk away from the current system and begin anew -- thus my Buckminster Fuller quotation on the webpage.

So why was I in NYC? For me, it was mental weight-lifting: I needed to practice saying my message out loud in front of an audience that was most likely to be hostile or dismissive. It is one thing to post your ideas from the quiet of your study, and another to speak it in a public forum that aren't true believers. Thus, most of the conflict on the panel was between me and John Collins of Elevator Repaor Service, over the viability of permanent ensembles and the centrality of the NYC theatre scene. The challenge was to make the case in such a way that the NYC audience heard it clearly, and were able to consider it a possibility. Fortunately for me, Elizabeth Dowd was there as well to serve as living proof that it is possible. We supported each other well.

The next step for me is to take the message on the road. My hope is that I can begin attending conferences around the country, specifically academic conferences, to start persuading college teachers that the current NYC focus of their curriculum is not serving the student or the art form. Persuading people who have already committed to Nylachi to take their money off the table and go elsewhere may be less effective than trying to divert some young theatre people away from Nylachi and toward another alternative BEFORE they have placed any bets.

My message may or may not have gotten swallowed up in the discussion -- Mr. Collins certainly had a lot to say, and most of the panelists were New York artists, so I knew the odds going in. But I tried my best not to get lost (to the point of perhaps talking more than I should have), and to preach it as best I could. It was a good exercise for me, but just the start of a long, long process.

Nick said...

A worthy struggle, Scott Keep on keepin' on.

Mike Daisey I would characterize as less a reformer and more an artist who trying to make a living at his art by creating a theatre relevant and producible within the same system he is criticizing in How Theater Failed America.

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