Mike Daisey Isn’t Done Smacking the American Theater — or Teresa Eyring — Around

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daiseyWas anyone else struck by — or notice — that recent Denver Post feature that revisits monologuist Mike Daisey’s crusade to take the nonprofit theater movement by the scruff of the neck and thrash it around until it begins to act in accordance with his beliefs?

For those of you who did not see How Theater Failed America last year here in New York (and yes, I still take a certain amount of issue with the title), the piece is about — well, let me let Mike tell you himelf:

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The principal argument is that the theatrical establishment in America has lost sight of the values that led to the establishment of regional theaters, and in its place are institutions that value buildings over artists, isolation over engagement and corporate growth over artistic development.

On top and in part because of this is a shrinking and aging audience base, which has led to an art form in contraction, with less and less audience every year. We pay artists and workers starvation wages and make it impossible for a national theater to take root here, while at the same time engaging in orgies of building construction that defy logic or sense.

We have forgotten that the play’s the thing – the show attempts to illustrate that with stories from my years working in theaters across the country, and tries to shake us from our slumber.

Now, there are bits and pieces of this that I and other people might nibble at on the edges. For example, I had always thought Daisey’s real principal argument was that nonprofit regional theaters are managerially top-heavy and such excessive funding would best be channeled into doing things like hiring actors. (My concern about this idea is that I never knew where it was decreed that all nonprofit theaters was slated to be an actor-geared or ensemble enterprises. Indeed, I think some theaters should be actor theaters whereas some should be more playwright theaters or director theaters or ensembles or single-auteur-istic.) In other contexts, such as on his blog and other writings, Daisey also has been very, very outspoken about the utility — well, what he considers the lack of utility — of MFA degrees.

But for the purposes of this post, let’s say that Daisey’s general assessment of the piece’s scope is pretty much right.

What I found remarkable about the Denver Post piece is that Daisey is taking shots at Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, the key arts service organization for the nonprofit regional theater system. Notice this acid-tipped exchange:

Denver Post: You made quite an impression here delivering that monologue at last year’s convention. What was your response to Teresa Eyring’s rebuttal in American Theatre magazine, “How Theatre Saved America, Part I”?

Mike Daisey: Was it a rebuttal? It was poorly reasoned and largely illogical. From a title that claims theater has “saved America,” a bizarre and nonsensical statement made without any support, it simply failed to engage with any of the substantive arguments in the piece.

It’s not unusual, though – in large part the theater leaders of America have failed to establish real vision, so reactions in public to my arguments have been pale and muted, as no one knows what to say to the truth.

In person, however, the crowd of theater leaders in Denver was absolutely electrified – the show was incredibly well-received – so I try to believe they will find their better selves in time, or the next generation will do it for them.

Of course, part of me finds it just hilarious. After all, when I have echoed Daisey and suggested that when it comes to developing new business models for the theater, it’s lazy and short-sighted for our arts leader to just beat the drums over and over again on behalf of the NEA, and now that we know that the $50 million in stimulus funds designated to the NEA will only help the very largest and already-vetted of the TCG constituency, it’s clear that our arts leaders are not so much visionaries but lackeys, beholden to those who wield the most economic clout. They are lobbyists and water-carriers. Or at least one could make that argument.

Part of my frustration, too, when people write to me and say that if I’m going to take Eyring or whomever to task, I should at least put specific ideas on the table, is that I’m not an economist. And besides, isn’t Eyring paid to have a vision, to identify issues, to propose radical and exciting new ways to address them?

But back to Daisey’s sideswipe against Eyring — or what came next. The writer of the story, the very fine John Moore, now raised another issue facing the nonprofit regional theater — one that TCG seems determined leave substantively unaddressed:

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Denver Post: You have described the slow death of newspapers as “the next great crisis of the American regional theater.” Why?

Mike Daisey: Theater is deeply interdependent on the newspaper industry – theater critics have been an integral part of theater’s identity for more than a century, woven into the core rituals of opening night, previews and so forth. With the current model of newspapers collapsing, we will lose that support system of critical feedback, and it will strike a deep blow to theater’s sense of itself as a relevant art form.

The media that replaces and evolves from newspapers are unlikely to give theater as much attention as it is getting now, and the loss of advertising space will mean theater needs to actually think about how to reach people. It will be a difficult transition that theaters are poorly equipped to handle.

Well, here I’d like to make a few points. Until the middle of this decade, the theater was deeply interdependent on the newspaper industry. Actually, that wording isn’t quite right — theater was dependent on the newspaper industry as it was indeed on all forms of print advertising, with the arts representing one piece of that now-tattered business model. Also, the whole opening night/preview dynamic is, historically speaking, relatively new; plenty of stories can still be told of critics dashing out before the show ended to get to their desks to pound out a review on a typewriter (what the hell is that?), fresh from the first flush of seeing a show. I’ll check my sources on this, but I think I read about Brooks Atkinson of the Times puffing away on his pipe while the copy boys awaited his prose. (Maybe that was Walter Kerr?) Anyway, the real question comes later in Daisey’s response: What media will replace newspapers and what place will theater have in it? I agree wholeheartedly that many theaters are hardly ready to face the changing media landscape. Quite frankly, a lot of publicists have told me that, albeit on the q-t.

Here in New York, meanwhile, you’ve got major nonprofit theaters siphoning off bloggers and segregating them, like African-Americans on Alabama buses. They calling them into early-preview invitations and dubbing whatever those bloggers write “marketing initiativess” and not treating them like what they are — legitimate critics. It’s absurd and it’s shameful. It’s as if Brown vs. Board of Education was written with an exemption for those that worship at the Temple of Dionysus. Feh — as if it isn’t already absurd that blogger-critics aren’t paid to write what they write, because they ought to be. And please, oh Lord, don’t give me the argument that there are too many bloggers and press agents can’t discern which ones are “legitimate.” It was the same story 10 years ago when all the theater websites cropped up and, well, the market figured it out — the publicists figured it out. No, what Daisey is getting at is another manifestation of theaters being too dumb, too dim, too insular to turn the ship before it strikes the iceberg. It’s also about the fact that the managerial and administrative enablers also depend on the status quo for their own economic survival.

After all, while we’re figuring out what media will replace newspapers insofar as the nonprofit regional theater goes, what, if anything, will publicists be good for when newspapers are replaced? I know: publicists will always be needed. It’s true! But the death of newspapers will affect their jobs more than even they know.

So Daisey will continue to raise these issues and so will I. He’s just better behind a desk monologuing than I am.

  • Art

    Just a quick note: You don’t even have to go back as far as Atkinson and Kerr for an anecdote.

    Frank Rich’s essay Exit the Critic includes the story of how he had to rush back to the office to get out the review of the opening of 42nd Street and missed Merrick’s announcement of Gower Champion’s death.

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