What's Wrong With Theater?

In the offices of arts and theater administrators, acclaimed monologist Mike Daisey is not a popular man these days. His latest performance piece, How Theater Failed America, is a sharp poke in the eye to the current theater establishment -- questioning its priorities and critiquing the insidious influence of naked corporatization on U.S. theater.

Speaking at a simple desk under the lights, Daisey wipes away buckets of sweat as he argues that the regional stages in most American cities have become "machines that make theater." The need to recoup huge capital outlays for impressive -- even gaudy -- new buildings compel artistic directors to flee from innovative works into the cozy embrace of "risk averse" and "bullet proof" programming.

Worst of all, says Daisey, the frenzied scramble to lure younger theater-goers with cut-rate tickets to replace an audience that is "drying up and dying out" has left stage companies haunted by a blunt and foreboding thought: "What if we gave all the tickets away and no one came?"

For the past two weeks, Daisey's stinging critique has played in one of America's leading theater scenes and the belly of the arts-funding beast: Washington, D.C. His appearance at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company comes at a bleak -- and auspicious -- moment. Talk of severe recessions and slashed budgets hovers in the air, along with some important questions for the arts: What will lean times mean for the government and philanthropic funding? Will any of that promised bevy of government stimulus end up in the hands of theaters and other arts organizations via the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other federal agencies?

For all its power, it's important to be clear about what Daisey's piece is -- and is not. While it is a startling and impassioned attack, How Theater Failed America provokes without pausing for footnotes or citation or statistical arrays. You have to take Daisey's argument on faith -- and a healthy heaping of sharply etched and often-hilarious anecdotes about the joys and despairs in his own lived experience of the arts.

Yet the opening-night audience for Daisey's D.C. run -- much of it consisting of working professionals in the city's theater scene -- largely nodded in agreement with Daisey when they were not laughing. He is clearly onto something, even as his indictment veered past the familiar bugaboos of Disney, iPods, and the pernicious effect of the culture wars on government support for the arts to place blame on the audience itself.

"It wasn't the NEA or Reagan or Bush" that has left American theatre in such a parlous state," says Daisey. "You did it. I did it. We did it."

And did we do it? Daisey argues that America's theatrical leaders have placed ambitious capital campaigns and the spiffy new stages that they have bought at the center of the theatrical enterprise -- displacing the carefully nurtured ensembles of actors, directors, and technical crews that should be at the heart of it. America's theaters need to stop hiring mercenaries -- who jet into town, put up shows, and then leave again -- and begin to think more like sports franchises who create teams of talented professionals that audiences can discover, grow to love, and ultimately root for in their efforts.

Daisey leaves unspoken the nasty particulars of an American theater in a slow and spiraling deflation of esteem: Broadway lures Hollywood stars (Katie Holmes, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe) for a brief turn on Broadway to boost ticket sales. Then regional theaters follow suit -- pulling in what star power they can get from New York -- often from the ranks of working actors with recognizable television credits -- to attract attention and fill seats. (He even points the finger at himself and his wife -- director Jean-Michele Gregory -- as "the carrion birds of American theatre" -- providing a low-budget but profitable monologue alternative to fill schedules in the place of more expensive productions.)

But Daisey’s general thrust is clear: theaters would do better forming a "home team." For instance, he insists that sports franchises would never, as its teams take the field, introduce them as a sterling cast of skilled mercenary acquisitions. But by eschewing a team concept for hired guns from out of town, he continues, American theaters might as well announce to audiences: "Taking the field, a random bunch of motherfuckers. You've never met any of them before, but get excited because some of them have been in Law & Order!"

Sports ain't what it used to be in the team concept, either, thanks to free agency and ruthless ownership. And near the end of the piece, Daisey observes that the relentless commercialization of theater mirrors similar trends in every other area of American society. When theaters act like corporations, they take on the aspects of that culture -- undercutting their unique claims on our attention. He even observes that one artistic director waggishly suggested that he retitle his piece: How Theater Became America.

If we really need to change America to change its theater, this country’s stage companies (and its dwindling audiences) are in for a bumpy and perhaps fatal ride. But can we imagine a world in which the theater helps change America?

Daisey explicitly rejects the notion that money -- and especially government money -- is a panacea, despite the looming savagery of more budget cuts and the alluring promise of stimulus. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to look back fondly to Depression-era solutions such as the Federal Theatre Project, or to gaze longingly at European-style infusions of cash into elite cultural institutions.

Early on in How Theater Failed America, Daisey draws immense guffaws by bellowing about the allegedly magical qualities of that European direct action for culture: "In Sweden, the government shits money into your mouth!"

But if we reject the notion that money can fix theater (or even America), what role is available to government to nurture the sort of people-centered stage companies that Daisey believes can save the theatrical enterprise?

A first step is making the money that is given to theaters and other arts work toward the aim of allowing financially strapped theaters -- especially those who boast spiffy new spaces -- to put actors, directors, and other professional theater workers first.

Government at all levels could attach strings to grants to compel the largest recipients of its arts largesse to help smaller companies by sharing space and logistical support. Pushing public universities to open up their stage -- often fallow during breaks between semesters -- to smaller companies might also pay dividends. And government could help all arts organizations to pool resources so that one of the largest costs of hiring and maintaining an ensemble of actors -- health insurance -- becomes affordable for artists at all stages of their career.

Daisey suggests that magnificent new stages -- funded by taxpayers and capital campaigns -- have not solved the American theatre’s problems. "Theatre is not a building," he observes. "It’s the people." Shifting the resources that government does make available to theaters and other arts organizations to emphasize an investment in those people is the best first step toward moving them from failures to success.