Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mike Daisey Refutes Me...

Mike Daisey's written a response/rebuttal/parry/thrust/whine regarding my earlier post -- and perhaps that's because, in this verbalicious world of blogging and fisking, he had to do both (very Isaac Butler of him). Having been out of the sandbox for awhile, I wanted to jump in before Daisey raises the moat on his sand castle and gets eaten by crocs.

In his response, Daisey fisks my post, lamenting that he was "lumped in" with my thoughts on Marsha Norman's essay on how to make more and better plays a la August: Osage County. This was partly to illustrate my point that there's no unanimity in American theatre theory anymore, aesthetically or otherwise, and while perhaps that's not an anomaly from a historical point of view (at all), what Norman seems to be advocating and what Daisey seems to be advocating are fundamentally at odds with one another. Perhaps Daisey only wants to be viewed in some sort of hortatory political-aesthetic vacuum. It would have helped if he'd taken Norman on, read her essay, thought about it, and -- key word -- engaged with it.

Anyway, due to Daisey's

growing concern for the state of things as I saw them, combined with MANY late-night drinks with actors, staff, board members and artistic directors, as well as TCG conferences, statistic-reading, hard research and emotional stories
he's created his new piece, How Theater Failed America.

That's fine. I have no problem with creating. But please allow me to suggest that Daisey (who I should note does compliment my writing) may be unaware that I, too, have had many late-night drinks -- and lunches, breakfasts, coffees, and phone calls -- with actors, staff and other industry folk. That's part of my job. That's what I did when I was a reporter for five years; that's what I still do as I oversee a lot of Back Stage coverage (even though most of my bylines are attached to my work as a first-string critic); that's what I do as I write for various other publications. I want to add that I don't feel the need to get out there, wave the flag, and scream "I made that story happen, I made that story happen," mostly because editors don't usually get the credit from the outside world for what they do. That's fine, and I'm not after that. But I do want to be sure that Daisey (and you, the reader) are aware that he doesn't have a monopoly on information.

And byline or no byline, I've been reporting on the state of the industry for years. No, it has not involved attendance at TCG conferences (although I've been invited, my company didn't budget travel for it until this year), but it has involved many interviews, on and off-the-record, with TCG executive directors (I had lunch recently with Teresa Eyring), plus familiar faces from ART/NY, plus artistic directors and managing directors at major, minor, and utterly unheard of regional theatres; plus relationships with full-time, name-brand arts advocates across the nation -- organizations that theatre people don't necessarily talk about but are key to its survival, from Americans for the Arts to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

I have reported extensively from the factual, statistical and anecdotal points of view on the state of the American theatre and I am proud of my record.

Daisey writes:

So when Leonard rhetorically asks:"But what is Daisey doing about it?"I am doing my job as an artist--I am responding within my form to events as I see them, and trying to bring a conversation that is utterly UNKNOWN to audiences and board members out into the light. I think there is inherent worth to that, and I hope that my efforts will rise above dogma and rhetoric to create art that spurs real conversation, especially among people to whom this conversation (as blase as it may be to Leonard, to the point that he's sick of it) is utterly unknown to general audiences, as naturally theaters do their level best to insulate themselves and their board members from anything like it.What does Leonard think I am doing?

You see, I don't know that it's an artist's job to respond to events as he sees them, but I do feel it's an artist's opportunity to respond to events as he sees them. Not having seen his piece yet, I cannot agree or disagree that there will be a conversation "unknown to audiences and board members" that he's trying to bring "out into the light." But if it's a monologue, I ask you, where is the dialogue? After the play? Ah, I see: it's about what "spurs" real conversation after the presentation of the art. I get it. Well, that's ok, I guess. But wouldn't it be even more powerful if the conversation occurred during the presentation of the art? If the art itself was the conversation? Invent a second character and debate it, Mr. Daisey. Possible?

In my prior post, I went on to write that Daisey "despises the nonprofit business model (that has undoubtedly hired him to perform)..." He writes,

I'm going to have to blow the whistle on this here—this is sloppy. I haven't ever said that I have some issue with the nonprofit business model. I specifically (and I think it's very clear) have an issue with corporations, the fact that corporations have the rights of people, and the effect (corporatization) that this has on organizations ruled by corporations.

I could write a lot here about how I do feel about non-profit and for-profit theater, but that will wait until another time—I'm not an essayist by nature. The long and the short is that I despise the coporatization of American theater, just as I despise the coporatization of American life—and my issues with the regional theater system do not derive from their non-profit status, though many of their internal structures are obviously shaped by that choice of business model.
But in Daisey's original essay, he deliberately picks apart the nonprofit business model. How does the following NOT criticize the nonprofit business model:

....Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work. Marketing and fundraising departments in regional theaters have grown hugely, replacing the artists who once worked there, raising millions of dollars from audiences that are growing smaller, older, and wealthier. It's not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don't want to actually make any theater.

The biggest reason the artists were removed was because it was best for the institution. I often have to remind myself that "institution" is a nice word for "nonprofit corporation," and the primary goal of any corporation is to grow. The best way to grow a nonprofit corporation is to raise money, use the money to market for more donors, and to build bigger and bigger buildings and fill them with more staff.
I mean, Daisey writes that I'm "sloppy" for analyzing his essay as a take-down of the nonprofit business model, but it's Daisey who mentions "raising millions" from a dying demographic, who has to "remind" himself that " 'institution' is a nice word for 'nonprofit corporation'." He actually wrote -- have to post this twice:

I haven't ever said that I have some issue with the nonprofit business model.
Really? Anyway, Daisey goes on:

I'd argue that I loathe the coporatization of the American stage, period—"over" implies that there is a level of corporatization that I would ever be happy with. :)

Here we see the Happy Worker charge—since many theaters are corporatized, and I work at some of them, I must approve of their ways and means...I should shut up and be a Happy Worker. This is a Chomsky-esque argument—taken to its logical extreme, I should be living on the side of a mountain in a yurt to ensure that I don't use anything made by a corporation, since I don't approve of their place in our society.

That's bullshit. Some do that—more power to them. Enjoy the yurt. I'm a monologuist and a theater artist, so I need to reach people for my work to exist, and I work in the theaters of America. I work with corporations every day—I pay them to have an internet connection, I pay them for my phone, I receive money from them...they are woven into every part of my life, just as they are in all our lives. I've chosen, as many have, to engage with them, and seek out ways to call them to account in ways large and small.

If I'm uncomfortable with with my relationship with these organizations, and the way theater is run in America, I should probably do something about that. I could start by talking about it. Perhaps even on stage in some way.

...oh. That's right. That's exactly what I'm doing that made Mr. Jacobs question whether I should be speaking at all.
The following is directed to Mr. Daisey.

Mr. Daisey, please allow me to directly introduce you to Minnie Maddern Fiske. For the last part of the 19th century and until her death in 1932, she was deemed one of the most audacious and forward thinking and artistically progressive actresses on the American stage. Like you, she had a real problem with the corporatization of the American stage -- as exemplified by a commercial entity called the Theatrical Syndicate, also called The Trust. Look it up if you want to research it.

Well, the Trust controlled virtually all live regional theatre in the US, and great swaths of the theatre in New York. Period. No exaggeration. Next to Mr. Rockefeller's Standard Oil, it was one of the largest pure monopolies in America. You worked in their houses, you played by their rules and you didn't complain. There were no unions. There were no other theatres. And none of it even remotely favored actors, writers -- anyone.

For reasons you can also investigate, Mrs. Fiske decided not to play ball. At all. Period. True, she enjoyed the benefits of being wedded to Harrison Grey Fiske, publisher of the New York Dramatic Mirror, a broadsheet, but that was neither here nor there. She challenged the Trust and almost immediately she had a problem -- no place to play. At one point, Mrs. Fiske was shlepping not just herself but her own company of actors around the nation, playing in barns, tents, out in the open air -- anywhere that wasn't run by the Trust. My God, a yurt would have been like Trump's Mar-a-Lago to the woman. So when I suggest that, if you really have issues with the corporatization (whatever that means) of the nonprofit theatre world, you should think about performing somewhere else, it's not such an unfathomable or radical idea. What all of this is is the continuation -- and repitition -- of history, almost exactly 100 years later, with names and some of the circumstances different today. Virtually by herself, Mrs. Fiske managed to take down the Trust through her actions and her bravery. And it took years. Indeed, there were zero financial incentives for her to do what she did. But she did what she did because she elected to put her money where her mouth was.

Let me add: I'm all for engagement. But the idea that nonprofit theatres are going to decorporatize (whatever that means) is unrealistic. First, I know at least as many artistic directors and managing directors as you do, and even off the record I've never had a single one talk about devil's bargains with board members and feeling shackled. Good nonprofit governance, they have told me time and again, is about acquiring board members who support the artistic goals of the institution, not bring their own agendas to bear. So unless you're suggesting that you have proof that company after company is being sundered to the evil agendas of board members -- and if you do, how about some specific names, hm? -- I fear there's something agenda-driven, in fact, about what you may have in your piece.

OK, back to the third person.

As a critic, I engage daily with works whose philosophies, construction, and/or aesthetic I may or may not cotton to. By opting to perform in nonprofits, Daisey may or may not be undermining his greater argument. If he's a monologuist, he could certainly perform anywhere, couldn't he?

Yet Daisey doesn't like it when I accuse him of swatting with his "all-seeing, all-knowing, all-generalizing hand the efforts of thousands of people who I think frankly do terrific work in regional theatre more often than not." Well, this is NOT an "I Hate People charge," as he puts it. I'm suggesting that it's unfair and a little bit nasty and hasty to take down an entire group of people because he doesn't like the fact that they're not producing enough new work to satisfy him; or because, in his view, nonprofit theatres are top-heavy with administrators (most people believe nonprofit theatres are grotesquely understaffed). In his original essay, Daisey said that he hopes, regarding the play Nickel and Dimed, that

the irony will reach up and bitch-slap the staff members as they put actors, the working poor they're directly responsible for creating, in an agitprop shuck-and-jive dance about that very problem.
Wow. He does everything but use the phrase "coon show," doesn't he? All actors feel this way about this play -- or about regional theatre? You mean to tell me that the hundreds of actors who have been interviewed -- or have written in the first-person about regional theatre -- have been lying to Back Stage?

Near the end of his response, Daisey writes:

....I wouldn't presume to preach to my peers
And I'm sloppy? Oh, come on. Sure he would. Sure he would. Just practice whatever it is you preach. Just practice whatever it is you preach.

Last note, directly for Mr. Daisey: I would join you anytime, anywhere, in pursuit of effecting real and positive change in the American theatre. You write, "Mr. Jacobs, I know you are passionate about such matters—let me know if you're interested in participating." My thought is: I am already participating. But if you wanted to work with me, or to have me work with you, I'd jump at the chance. Because that's dialogue, too.

And regardless of whether you think I'm a total jerk for calling you on some stuff, at least you are indeed well off your duff and really doing something. That's 10,000% more than most people babbling on like brooks in the bibbity blogosphere. And believe it or not, I really do respect you deeply for what you do. I stopped doing theatre in 1999 for reasons not unlike your friend in Seattle -- after directing 40 plays in New York, running two nonprofit theatres (I hated to fundraise and sucked at it), and writing about 10 plays. I still consider myself one of you, not one of them. I felt for you in your essay and I felt for your friend. If nothing else, I hope you know that.

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Mike Daisey said...


Thanks for the quick response. It would have been nice if you hadn't called my response a "whine", as it undercuts the generally civil tone of your writing, but c'est la vie.

I did in fact read the Norman essay--I thought that it was a bit misguided in the sense that Ms. Norman really should be advocating for regional theaters to follow their original visions and have resident ensembles in the first place, as there won't be all that many playwright residencies for the playwrights as things currently stand. In that sense I found her essay to be well-intentioned, but a non-starter.

I also agree that the current disconnect between critics and the theater is unfortunate--you're totally right that the traditional role of the critic (from the first half of the 20th century) is sorely needed now.

As to your points about the lack of unanimity, I feel that's true--but I'm not convinced that things were always this way, and I believe it is actually emblematic of a sickness at the heart of the American theater related to the failure of the regional theater movement to fulfill the core promises it made in its inception.

You then go on to cite at length your credentials, which I hope you know have not been in doubt, certainly not by me--I know your writing, and know that you're well informed.

You then ask,

"But if it's a monologue, where is the dialogue?"

and go on to question whether a monologue is the best form for this material.

I could be wrong, but I suspect you may not be directly familiar with my work--this feature goes at some length about how it's created:

The long and the short is that I work scriptlessly, the words shifting and changing from night to night, developed from an outline that is continuously adjusted. The effort is to dissolve as many boundaries as possible between myself and the audience by telling the story anew for them each and every time.

In such a format dialogue is impossible unless I found someone else who works this way, and even then it would start moving away from art and toward debate--which is laudable, but I think a better goal would be to have a debate separately. I'm also not comfortable playing "roles" and "characters"--the whole of my efforts has been to try and dissolve those barriers for years, so adding artifice in that way isn't really my bag.

My work is always deliberately left with unfinished edges, areas where the audience can insert themselves and carry the piece out of the room. I feel strongly that all good art should do this--strive to exist outside of the theater, so that the discussions engendered grow out of the piece itself. Created as a traditional play I suspect HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA would be really bad.

You then take issue with whether I actually do object to non-profit theaters. Certainly there are many theaters who have non-profit status who have many of the issues I describe; I simply wanted to make clear that my issues do not grow out of their choice of business model, but their embrace of corporatization and their betrayal of the ideals that founded the regional theater movement. I think I was clear about that in the essay, the monologue and my response.

Next you talk about Mrs. Fiske, whom I am familiar with. I think it's a bit naive to think that her marriage didn't help her ends--it definitely did, and good for her. An artist should fight with whatever tools are at hand, which is exactly what I'm doing. You'll also note that her husband directed nearly all of her plays, as my own personal model for a very tiny ensemble is not even remotely unique. ;)

I don't live under Mrs. Fiske's particular set of conditions--live theater isn't controlled by a monopoly under one fist, which is fantastic. The existence of Actor's Equity has helped ensure that some of the worst excesses have been curtailed, and even in her time Mrs. Fiske performed regularly on Broadway and off--she certainly did her time in yurts (as it were) but that wasn't the end of her career, which is great. Her story certainly is inspiring, and I hadn't thought of her in some time, so it's nice to be reminded.

You bring her up because you believe it is unrealistic for me to work toward change inside of these institutions. I think you're wrong--the very forces that created regional theaters (like their non-profit status and governance by a board) makes them vulnerable to change: if ideas are communicated with clarity, if people are willing to work for it, and if there's a healthy dose of luck. I do not want to speak out of school, but I have already had board members from major regional theaters see the monologue, and we've had very interesting and productive conversations. Artistic directors have been coming, and they tell me that they see a mirror of what they experience. A good acquaintance who is up to be an AD at a mid-size regional saw the show and is talking to me about what he may be able to actually implement if he gets the position. You do not have to believe me, but I know that change is not impossible.

I will make one concession--you're right that I preach to my peers. I hope they know it's from a place of love, and that I keep my eye on higher goals as much as possible, but one can't do a show like HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA without holding an industry to account. At the same time, I hope I hold myself to account, because by working within these institutions I am part and parcel of this system--that's why it is incumbent on me to work for real change. I am part of its failures, and that's why I'm deadly serious about this work.

Finally, you say that you're up for discussion, which is great--I hope that we can make that happen. And I really appreciate the acknowledgment that what I am doing constitutes doing something.

Then, right at the end, you turn personal and reveal your own history in the theater. Thank you for that. I would gently suggest that the first impulse that made you pissed at my essay (which is admittedly vinegary) is related to this history. There are few things more impossible than a life in the arts, and we develop thick skins and calluses from years and years of fighting for it, time and time again. Fundamentally we stand for the same things, and I am confident when we meet in person we will share a drink and even if we banter, we'll know that at the end of the day we want theater in America, and the artists within it, to thrive as the vibrant, relevant art it should always be.


Leonard Jacobs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Art said...

Hi Leonard,

Sorry, I didn�t get to respond to your first post. I had to quickly file my grant application for my new theatre piece. It will be performed in a yurt in North Adams, MA. I�ll send you a release and comps. What size do you take your cornhusk mask?

Do you really believe that many of the bloggers are working within the system against which we are writing?

Do you think Don Hall, George Hunka, Nick, Tony are railing against the system at night, but then punching the clock at the regional theatre during the day? Or that they are not creating or engaging with theatre at all?

I have produced theatre in small 40 seat theatres, converted conference rooms, basements, apartments, etc.

I guess I just disagree with you.

John Clancy represents the NORM in the theatrical blogoshpere, not the exception. What I have found refreshing about the blogosphere is that it is a place to talk, and yes, occasionally bitch, about the state of theatre. And BEST of all, the people talking ARE actually doing something about it. (Even better, you don�t have to read it!)

To conflate Marsha Norman's post, (about which you bring out some good points,) with Don Hall, Tony, George, Nick, James Comtois, Mike Daisy and Isaac Butler is really stretching things, no? These are people who are out there doing it. (Which you seem to admit and admire.) And you wish that when they come home at night, that they should just, what, shut up?

What are you, the theatrical answer to John Bolton?: �If we removed 500 rants off of the theatrical blogosphere nobody would notice!� ;)

I guess I am intrigued by your question:

"You mean to tell me that the hundreds of actors who have been interviewed -- or have written in the first-person about regional theatre -- have been lying to Back Stage?"

Come on, Leonard, that's not fair!

Oh, yes, I know, we ALWAYS read the unvarnished feelings a local actor has when a production was cancelled because the lead got another film role and everybody else was cut loose. And then, (as Mike points out in his show,) in comes Mr. Daisey and his stories to replace the production. From what I have read on Mike�s site and in other accounts of his monologue, this is his starting point for the discussion.

Ed Siegel, (our former lead critic here at the Globe,) in his final piece before his retirement said that one of the things he wished for the future of the theatre scene is that the regional houses would not be so quick to cancel productions because the lead celebrity suddenly had a change in plan.

And that is just one, very minor example.

How about some more:

The Citi Center in Boston, (which kicked out the Nutcracker to bring in the Rockettes, )cut the Public Shakespeare performances in half, while at the same time gave its CEO a 1.2 Million Dollar Bonus. And this organization is getting some of the largest grants imaginable in our city. (I'm whining again, I know.)

Oh and this: One of the largest consolidators of grant money here in Boston recently wrote a report suggesting how smaller arts organizations should die off. Thomas Garvey has an excellent dissection here:

A bunch of smaller arts groups cleverly staged a die-in where they drank kool aid and eulogized themselves in ritual sacrifice to The Boston Foundation. I could go on, but I guess I'd be whining, right?

What about this post of mine:

Whining? Jealousy? Pettiness? I should DO something about it? What, put on a ski mask and break into the Mass Cultural Councial and demand they give more money to Company One!? (Note to self: Possible performing arts grant opportunity.) It�s like trying to blame solar companies for not being able to establish a foothold against the enormously bloated subsidy systems of Oil, Coal, and Gas.

And as far as Board Members influencing artistic decisions : The ART board ousted the uber-experimental Bob Woodruff, (And I think I would have agreed with them but that didn�t make it right!) and I am sure I can think of more examples if I had to. But there I go again, crying.

But then, I know from reading your blog that you know all of this.

I guess should just go to my own yurt, (my studio in Davis Square,) make my art and hope that profile pieces of artists who are understandably uncomfortable with rocking the boat will keep the discussion going.

Long live Mike Daisey and the Theatre Blogoshpere!

Ladies and Gentlemen... TO THE YURTS!

Leonard Jacobs said...

Oh, this is all pissy and unfortunate. I'll respond tomorrow.