Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Exit David Mamet, Stage FAR Right

Remember David Mamet, America's greatest playwright? The guy who dominated the stages of the 1980s with plays like "American Buffalo," "Glengarry Glen Ross," and "A Life in the Theatre" and who wrote such wonderfully intricate screenplays as "House of Games" and "The Spanish Prisoner?"

Of course I'm really not talking about the man who wrote the largely unfunny satire "November," the oh-for-cripes-sake-stop-being-so-obvious social screed "Race," or the mediocre films "State and Main" and "Redbelt."
That guy is clearly just trying to ape the brilliant dialogue and dramatic construction of the younger, more talented and much more subtle playwright who shares his name.

Great playwrights write bad plays. Every would-be Shakespeare has a "Two Noble Kinsmen" or "Henry VIII" in his past or in his future. And while the decline of a brilliant talent is a sad thing, it's the way the world often works. Success breeds success, but it also breeds complacency and intellectual arrogance.

But the saddest thing about David Mamet is that it's also bred intellectual vacuity.

If you doubt me, check out this article in
The Weekly Standard subtitled "A Playwright's Progress."

that Weekly Standard. The Conservative mainstay who's calling the lackluster Republican presidential field "formidable" and continues to champion the Paul Ryan "Kill Medicare" Budget even as every Republican up for reelection flees from a vote on it.

And the "progress" they celebrate is the descent of a once whip-smart social critic and superbly gifted artist into the sort of conservative bobble-head who says things like this:

“...I saw the liberals hated George Bush. It was vicious. And I thought about it, and I didn’t get it. He was no worse than the others, was he? And I’d ask my liberal friends, ‘Well, why do you hate him?’ They’d all say: ‘He lied about WMD.’ Okay. You love Kennedy. Kennedy didn’t write Profiles in Courage—he lied about that. ‘Bush is in bed with the Saudis!’ Okay, Kennedy was in bed with the mafia.”

Or on where he gets his political opinions: '“I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,” he said. 'Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved."'

Like many
overprivileged Republican white guys, the roots of Mamet's conversion are apparently a strange mix of fuzzily-perceived larger social issues (the 2007 Writer's Strike) and the petty and personal (an ordinance in his privileged Santa Monica neighborhood to keep hedges trimmed low enough so that neighbors could see each other's properties). Somehow this all has been brewed into the sort of potent conservative elixir that turns a man's mind to mush.

When I read this article (and depressing as it is, it's worth the read), I remembered an American Theatre profile of Mamet in the '80s, around the time of "Glengarry Glen Ross." The interviewer's question was something like "why do you just write about white men?" To me Mamet's answer was brilliant. He said that he found the American white male fascinating because he was going insane. He'd gone from this position of unthinking power and prestige into a tailspin because it was all going away, and the more he realized this, the crazier he got.

Poor David Mamet. How ironic that he should age into the same crazy white guy syndrome that as a younger, more talented and thoughtful man, he was so astute at portraying on stage.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

4 Culture: Positively Final Appearance?

So I’m having coffee this morning with Jim Kelly, the head of King County’s 4 Culture, on the eve of what may very well be the vote that sinks the organization. He’s filling me in on the complicated politics that have resulted in this state when he stops, laughs, and runs his hands through his hair. “I didn’t start this year with this much gray hair, did I? I swear this is turning me gray.”

You know, he may be right. And if you care about the arts in Seattle, 4 Culture’s current dilemma will probably give you some gray hairs too.

As Kelly outlines it, the political fate of 4 Culture, King County’s arts funding agency, has always navigated around some fairly treacherous shoals from both Republicans and Democrats. The current crop of Republicans, emboldened by the neo-libertarian codswollop of the Tea Party, repeat the old trope that the government has no business funding the arts—or health care, food safety, transportation or any other “non-essentials.” Though they’re not the majority in our state legislature they’ve done an admirable job in voting as a block—which is where our Democratic legislators inevitably fail. It’s far too easy to peel off a few Democratic votes on any issue, even one like arts funding, where they’ve long been the standard bearers.

In this case, one of the greatest obstacles to arts funding has been caused by a Democrat, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp. Though on paper Chopp’s a good liberal, like many long-time politicians (he was first elected back in 1994 and has been Speaker since 2002) he’s got some strange and immovable ideas about how things should be funded. Specifically, he’s made it clear that he’ll have nothing to do with arts funding that isn’t linked to funding low-income housing.

While both issues are good liberal causes, it’s baffling why they should be linked, but there you go: politicians don’t necessarily think like you or me. The result of this odd tic is that funding for 4 Culture has to be wrapped around a package of legislation that has little to do with it. In fact the most recent bill for funding 4 Culture, SB 5958, was described as “providing local government funding of tourism promotion, workforce housing, art and heritage programs, and community development.” Funding improvements for the Convention Center and low-cost housing might be necessary, but danged if I can see why the hell they have anything to do with funding what’s probably the most efficient and effective arts funding source in Washington.

SB 5958 missed by one vote last week. Here’s our best chance of getting SB 5961, the replacement bill that dropped on Saturday, to make it through the session TOMORROW (which is set as the last day of the session):

You can go here: and e-mail ALL of the folks in the Legislature.

Or you can e-mail and call the following three key Senators.

Phil Rockefeller (D, Bainbridge): he’s been on the fence and needs to hop off.

(360) 786-7644
Fax: (360) 786-1999

Same goes for:

Jim Kastama (D, Puyallup)

Olympia Office: (360) 786-7648
District Office: (253) 840-4701

And here’s another strategic thought:

Pam Roach, Republican (Auburn), has shown independence and a willingness to vote against her fellow Republicans often enough to really annoy them. Contact her at:

Office Phone: (360) 786-7660

Toll-Free: 1 (800) 562-6000

Fax: (360) 786-7819

All of this will take 10 minutes—and it’s really easy. No salesman will call, no one will yell at you, you don’t even have to mail in anything. And it just might save one of the best arts organizations in Washington.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Is Failure an Option?

On Wednesday night I saw Mike Daisey’s How Theatre Failed America at the Seattle Rep, a delight on several different levels. I’d seen Mike deliver it about three years ago at the CHAC (which itself "failed" a year or so later), and at that point I’d found its thesis a bit simplistic and the various story threads straining to achieve inner coherence. No wonder: as Mike told me afterwards, that performance at the CHAC was the second, third and fourth times he’d ever said the work out loud. (A couple years prior to this, I was honored to have been one of five people in the room when he performed the first draft of The Ugly American to its first audience in a hotel room across from Intiman.) Since then, he’s performed this piece many times, and it’s a lovely work now—funny, provocative, moving and ultimately very honest about the strange state of the modern American regional theatre, which does indeed seem to be either very sick or in its death throes.

Mike did the show as a benefit for the artists of Intiman who had their jobs disappear when the theatre was recently forced to close its doors. That was a classy move, and he (and the Rep staff who helped him put it up and publicize it) managed to raise almost $10,000 in a night where there was a healthy turnout from the Seattle theatre community. This was another part of my delight, watching actors and artists who were with us in the trenches of this town’s fringe scene with Mike laugh, applaud and ask questions at the roundtable afterwards.

Talking with Mike afterwards over drinks at Solo, I told him that for me the power of his piece is in focusing on a particular sort of theatre that is suffering, the regional theatre model that really only got started in this country after World War II. While it’s easy to conflate this model with all theatre, this is a mistake. I’ll bet in the late 1700s you could find sad companies of commedia dell’arte players sitting around bars saying to each other, “No one comes to our shows anymore, no one understands the great traditions of our craft—the theatre is dead.” And for them it was.

But really, this is self-defeating nonsense. Yes, the regional theatre may indeed headed for extinction. But theatre? Stand-up comedy, improv, poetry slams and literary readings—these are all doing very well for themselves. The effort to again redefine what is or isn’t theatre creates endless schisms—improv, musicals, sketch comedy OUT, Shakespeare, multiculturalism, performance art IN—of no interest except to the artists who make it. Sometimes I think we artists are so full of self-importance about what we do that we purposefully de-legitimize any theatre that isn’t the sort we produce. (Mike admitted that there are various critics and commentators who repeatedly tell him that what he's doing--unscripted monologues from behind a big desk--isn't really theatre either.)

A side effect of this—and it’s a very Seattle attitude—is that as soon as something begins to become popular with audiences, the suggestion arises that it’s not real theatre. Hell, I know plenty of actors who turn up their noses at musicals, and I suspect it's principally because their singing and dancing skills are not at a level where it’s possible for them to perform in them.

I often enjoy shows at The Rep, ACT, The 5th, and other large Equity houses. I appreciate the sheen that a dedicated crew of career artists can bring to a show, even when for various reasons it’s not art of the highest order. And I’ll try to support these companies with my art, my time and my (paltry) income. But whether they stand or fall in my lifetime, theatre will continue. It’ll be dying long after I’m dead.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lies, Damned Lies and Theatre Criticism

I almost never comment publicly on another reviewer’s criticism. Yes, I’ve sent the occasional snarky note to a critic about a negative review, but having been a critic myself for five years, I know that it’s all just opinion. And arguing with someone about their opinion rarely accomplishes much.

(“I like Earl Gray!”

“Earl Gray sucks! I like Lapsang Souchong!”

“Well clearly, we both can’t be right!”)

But while I dislike arguments about opinion, I was always happy to get factual corrections. Misspelled names, misattributed quotes, wrong dates and places—while a theatre review is an aesthetic reaction to a work, and therefore personal opinion, it still has the fundamental journalistic requirement of getting its facts right.

This Saturday I was finally able to make it over to The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the most recent of Mike Daisey’s monologues, now playing at The Seattle Rep. I’ve been fortunate enough to see most of Mike’s pieces over the years; in fact, I was in the opening night crowd at Wasting Your Breath, his first-ever monologue, back in the old Open Circle Space on Boren. (Fun fact: as part of the show he gave me a lap dance. I still gave him a great review.)

Agony combines a hilarious overview of the career of Steve Jobs, Mike’s own tech-geek fascination for all things Apple, and the story of his trip to the Chinese factory city of Shenzen, where all things Apple are made. This portion includes details gathered from multiple interviews that he did with workers at the factories, many of whom are as young as 12 or 13, and all of whom work in conditions that are frankly appalling and inhuman. I loved the show, and not just because of the content. In the last decade Mike’s abilities as a performer have grown exponentially. To see him hold 900 people as skillfully in his hand as he once did a dozen or so in a black box theatre is personally inspiring.

After the show, I saw him and his wife and director Jean-Michele briefly. I congratulated him, and he thanked me, then said it’d been a tough week. Though I asked what he meant, I knew straightaway: Brendan Kiley’s review in The Stranger.

Now, Brendan says a lot of nice things about Mike in this review. He calls him a “master storyteller” with “a comic precision and conversational eloquence that should be universally envied.” But in the midst of all this, he also essentially calls out Mike for being a liar.

Here’s the passage.

“…Daisey alone knows this truth; Daisey alone has emerged from the heart of darkness of Asian industrialization to bring us the horror. In Shenzhen, he says several times, "there's no journalism." The "BBC fixer" who was supposed to help him out? Useless. The New York Times? It merely reprints press releases from Shenzhen boardrooms. Thank god Mike Daisey has crawled from the maw of capitalism to tell us the truth.

“Except that he's not telling us the truth. After getting home from the show, opening up my MacBook, and wiping the blood off the keyboard, I did a little Googling. In under a minute, I learned some things: The New York Times that Daisey derides as being nothing more than a mouthpiece for Shenzhen corporate interests? It's been writing about labor abuses in the city—child labor, days-long shifts, etc.—for at least five years. The BBC has written several stories about Shenzhen, including the suicides that Daisey talks about. Looks like there's journalism about Shenzhen after all.

“That wouldn't be damning—every good storyteller builds on the foundation of forebears—except that Daisey is extremely disingenuous about the story, his relationship to it, and what his forebears have said about it. And if he's disingenuous with the most basic, verifiable facts, why should we trust him with the complicated, Linkunverifiable facts—like those of his trip to Shenzhen, for instance?”

(a link to the whole piece is here.)

Now, Brendan is entirely welcome to his opinion—in fact, as a critic his opinion is requested. But he’s not welcome to his own facts.

I saw the show on Saturday night. Having read his review, I was listening for the section that Brendan refers to. It doesn’t, in the form that he criticizes, exist. When Mike says there’s “no journalism” in China, he’s referring specifically to a crackdown on Chinese-run media regarding the suicides in Shenzen, not a complete absence whatsoever of journalism. He does have harsh words about a Wired article, written by a “blogger journalist” who conducted some PR-assisted tours of the Foxconn factories and did absolutely no interviews with any of the workers. But to say that Daisey ever gives the impression that he “alone knows this truth” is a grievous and frankly slanderous misinterpretation of what he says.

As Mike said to me in an interview for my Seattle Weekly profile, he assumes that the basic facts about Chinese sweatshops aren’t a complete surprise to anybody. “I don’t think anyone leaves the show saying ‘and here I thought that China was a Worker’s Paradise!’” he said. “Everyone knows this on some level. But we’ve all kept ourselves from thinking about the details.”

While it is true that Mike does extemporize his text each evening, and therefore there may have been slight textual changes between the show Kiley saw and the one I did a week later, according to Daisey himself the script that I heard was the exact same one, regarding this issue anyway, that Kiley refers to. (It's also telling that not one of the commentators on The Stranger website agrees with Kiley's version of events.)

It’s tempting to speculate on Brendan’s motivations. Certainly it’s common for The Stranger to attack an artist that they themselves have helped turn into a star, particularly once they’ve achieved some measure of fame. Daisey’s been a darling of The Stranger for years; hell, they actually supported his recent show How Theatre Failed America by publishing an article by him on the same topic! Or perhaps Kiley’s own recent forays into investigative journalism have made him suspicious of the “professional blundering” that characterizes Daisey’s own work—showing up at the gates of the factory complex with an interpreter and wearing a Hawaiian shirt smacks of a Michael Moore stunt, even if he (as Moore routinely does) mined serious journalistic dirt in doing so. Or maybe he’s jealous. Or a closet Apple fanboy. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter is that in the middle of a review he makes a serious allegation about a performer’s veracity, and as near as I can determine, he’s 100% factually wrong.

But why does this matter? Again, let me pull a quote from my interview with Daisey, which didn’t make it into the Weekly article—but at least I can guarantee that it’s an accurate quote. Mike at this point was drawing a distinction between the people who’ve come to the show, and those who’ve just read about it in media. “To be clear, this is theatre. If they actually come to the show and I get them into the room, then almost invariably what I hear from them is positive. There’s the war in the room, and the war in the media that speaks about what’s in the room. The war in the room is largely lost or won based on my ability to create and who’s there. The war outside is about how I’m perceived and in sound bites.”

Kiley, knowingly or not, has just provided ammunition to the war outside the room. Not only is he helping the wrong side, but he’s doing so with a review that is factually incorrect. As a result, the person who should be concerned about their professional career here isn’t Mike Daisey. It’s Brendan Kiley.