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.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, John. I wish I'd seen this particular Mike Daisey show as well as The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I'm a little late to the Daisey party, but I for one think it's not only theatre--it's pretty great theatre. But still, I like batting the question around of what truly makes for theatre in a given space and culture. But like you say, not many folks but us are interested. I'll bet it was a great evening, and hats off to those who put it together.