How Theater Failed America
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 14, 2008
How Theater Failed America: a very attention-getting sort of title. But monologist Mike Daisey means everything that it implies—that theatre in this country has somehow broken down, or broken; that theatre (and the arts more generally) actually owes something to America (or to any culture); and that, yes, he really wants to get our attention about all of this.
Having won it, by disarming us right away with some performative tricks that make us take note immediately, he then goes on to offer a modest proposal that, if people actually listen to it and take heart, may well go a ways toward solving this problem about theatre and America that he's postulated. Also—for the greater part of the nearly two hours of this show—he relates a number of interconnected anecdotes about his own life in the theater, that explain why it matters so much to him.
Daisey's reputation as perhaps the finest monologist of his post-Spalding Gray generation (he is just 35 years old) precedes this piece; seeing Daisey on stage for the first time in How Theater Failed America, I now understand how he's attained that reputation and glowingly endorse it. Even though the only instruments he really uses here are his voice and his expressive hands and face, this is acting, not public speaking; Daisey's is a rare talent, able to plant vivid pictures of places, people, and events that we've never seen before squarely within our mind's eye, so that we aren't just hearing narrated stories but are experiencing them as near to first-hand as it's possible to do without leaving our seats.
And the stories are fascinating, funny, illuminating! The centerpiece of the play is about his first post-college job, running a summer theatre in western Maine with a small group of friends. He's unabashed in describing how disastrous it all was, but he concludes by saying it was the best summer of his life...and we believe him.
Then there's the story about the group of high school kids that he brought to the state drama finals with a commedia dell'arte piece fueled by sheer size and gutsiness....And the one about his role in a production of Genet's The Balcony where he was supposed to masturbate on stage....And the one about his visit to an opulent new venue opened by a regional theatre....And, bringing us up short, the one about his battle with depression after he finished school.
The cumulative effect of all of these tales is to remind us of the powers of theatre: transformative, redemptive, and otherwise. Daisey is deeply concerned that theatre and its inherent powers are being squandered by a culture that values money and things more than art and principles. He sees, in the corporatization of theatre (especially large regional theatres), a reflection of a general trend in America away from the energetic individualism that characterizes our idealized vision of who we are and why we're great and toward a passive consumerism that's antithetical to that vision. He sees not just the distressing surface of facts and figures indicating diminished attendance and rising costs, but the more disturbing anomie below. The artistic and managing directors who can't find their way out of the capitalist grind their mired in are the very same citizens who can't seem to elect a government to get them out of a war they don't support.
Which is why Daisey's call to action, no matter how naive you might judge it to be, is vitally important. One of the things he urges in How Theater Failed America is to reverse the failure through individual action, i.e., at the indie theater level. He knows that the impulse to make theatre will no more die than our innate need for freedom.
So I suggest that you hear him out. Not only will you be engaged and entertained by a performer of consummate skill, but if your mind and heart are open, you might remember why the problem posed by the title of this show matters so much to you. And you may be inspired to do what you can, as Daisey is doing, to fix it.