Mike Daisey’s “How Theater Failed America”

Posted: September 7, 2009 in Braak, reviews, theater
Tags: , ,

It is now Philadelphia Fringe Festival time, my friends, and that means lots and lots of all kinds of theater.  I am going to try and do at least one of these a day over the next week, even in addition to Holland’s days, so that we will be flush with reviews.

First on the docket:  Mike Daisey’s “How Theater Failed America.”  Mike Daisey, as you may remember, was a fan of the hilarious flow-chart I wrote about writing for the theater in America, so it stands to reason that I would like his work..


I say this, also, as a person who is generally contemptuous of monologists and solo performance artists.  Daisey is great.  Masterful comic timing, and astonishing breadth and variety from a man who spends the entire time sitting in a chair, brilliantly interweaving hilarious theatrical misadventures with acerbic social commentary and a pervasive, ominous sense of doom.

Because doom is really what he’s talking about right now, and he’s mashed up the unalloyed joy of panic-stricken, seat-of-the-pants shit theater that anyone who’s ever worked in the field knows–full well and by heart.  There are no memories among actors or writers or directors more treasured than the shows that almost didn’t work, the plays that held together by spit and bailing wire and increasingly desperate prayers to St. Genesius.  And that adrenal terror, that limbic euphoria is mashed up directly, both starkly and still cleanly, with the deep despair of a man who is watching his art form suffering a malaise of disinterest.  There’s no middle ground in a performance like this–it was humor and misery and nothing in between, because fuck you.  If you wanted to be bored, you should have stayed at home.

Interestingly, there was a guy in the audience behind me (as there almost always must be–I sit right in the front row always, usually center, so that I can see up the actor’s noses), and I eavesdropped on his conversation before the show started.  He was doing the Fringe Festival survey that asked if he felt that Fringe shows “Pushed Cultural Boundaries.”  His sarcastic response to his girlfriend was that he wished Fringe shows did push cultural boundaries, but the only comments the shows ever made were about free love or anarchism.  “Just because you smoke a lot of pot,” he said, ” doesn’t mean you’re pushing cultural boundaries.”

He was, of course, absolutely right.  This terrible irony, which was itself part of the subject on which the monologue treated, is that those breed of artists who are given the most license to ignore the rules, who most insistently declaim that they are running off into the woods of their intuition, that they are daring, fearless, challenging, &c.–that is, theater artists–are the ones that seem to have the least to say about anything.

Mike Daisey points out that if you’re in the theater, you’re almost certainly a liberal.  In fact, if you’re in the theater, you’re practically an inch away from being a Communist.  He’s not altogether wrong (though, Jim Rutter, if you’re reading this, I suspect I can sense your strenuous objection); I don’t know precisely what it is, whether it’s a feature of liberalism, or a feature of the mind that draws some people to liberalism and likewise draws them to theater, or what.  But there is a synergy here that Daisey illuminates brilliantly.

It’s the same reason that we want to invest in schools, and we don’t care that schools don’t make any money.  It’s the same reason that the idea that we might withhold healthcare from American citizens because it’s too expensive is such an appalling concept that any liberal would be unable to but splutter in response to the suggestion.  It’s the same reason that we do the work in the theater even though there’s no fucking money for anyone, even though some of us (ESPECIALLY ME) see our work CRIMINALLY NEGLECTED AT EVERY TURN, the same reason why we would do (and have done) a show for one old man in the audience. Why we do a thing despite not gaining anything from it that the economists tell us we should be striving for.

There is an idea here that is more important than liberalism or conservatism, more important than politics or economics, more important than America and patriotism:

Some things matter more than they’re worth.

Go see Daisey’s show.  If you’ve missed it, then see his new one:  The Last Cargo Cult.  It’s worth it, he’s brilliant.

  1. Hsiang says:

    That Pushing Cultural Boundaries crack rings very true. When I stopped smoking pot I realized what utter bullshit most of my “artist” friends were spewing. Now they’re all at Burning Man forming creative communities, whacked out on goofballs, and staring at the Sun. Me? Drinking steadily and pretending to be a writer. I’ve even stitched tweed patches on my leather jacket. Pulitzer Prize, here I come!

  2. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Wow, oh my…intense, passionate—YES! I’m on board for blood and life pumping through the shriveled veins of our culture! Expose the nooks and crannies of society and throw them onstage uncensored, unprimped, unpolished! I already lament having to miss this.

    Consider writing for dissonant, revolutionary uprisings, Braak. You’ve missed your “calling”…

  3. V.I.P. Referee says:

    …and the tweed patches will, no doubt, add just the right amount of gritty authenticity to your persona, Hsiang. Very “academ-artsy”.

  4. Hsiang says:

    I’m just looking for the right pipe.

  5. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Heh. Bad, Hsiang! Bad!

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