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How We Failed Theater

by Jerome Weeks 23 Mar 2010 5:05 PM

When he was at the Water Tower Theatre, monologist Mike Daisey moderated a panel on “How Theater Failed America” — and with the recent announcement of the Brierleys’ $1 million gift to the Dallas Theater Center, the debate goes on: Is there some other financial path theaters can follow?


2839319470_27e47e3534Mike Daisey’s recent appearance continues to reverberate in the local theater scene and our commentariat. He’s a big guy — naturally,  he’d leave some ripples. To catch you up: During the Out of the Loop Festival at Water Tower Theatre, Mike Daisey performed his controversial one-man show, How Theater Failed America (watch the Think TV interview with him here)And to oversimplify things: Much of Daisey’s argument is that the leading American theater companies have effectively sold out their artists (and lost their audiences) by building big culture palaces for themselves.

When the Front Row blog reported the Brierleys’ gift of $1 million to the Dallas Theater Center (getting the acting company named in their honor), editor Peter Simek said, in effect, see, theaters can invest in artists, not just in buildings.

Daisey wasn’t that impressed; at best, a million-dollar endowment would give an annual return of $50,000 — enough to keep one actor fed. Turns out, though, that the Brierleys’ gift is not even designed to underwrite actors, not directly, at any rate.  It’s meant, as the DTC’s press release said, to ” support DTC’s artistic programming, which includes its commitment to productions of classics, new plays and musicals of the highest caliber, meaningful community partnerships, and a resident company of professional actors.”

But let’s back up. Objecting to Mike Daisey’s arguments about theaters can put one in the awkward position of seeming to defend buildings over people. In fact, that kind of either/or thinking is one of my reservations about his otherwise rousing solo show.

After his performance at WaterTower — in a format Daisey often arranges when he performs How Theater Failed America —  a foursome of theater professionals was empaneled with the monologist as moderator to discuss the indictments that Daisey issued against resident theaters. They’ve sold out their artists to build architectural baubles for the bragging rights and the big-buck donors, and they’ve abandoned their acting communities for a more corporate style of theater-making (with “freeze-dried” actors shot in from New York to present the same-old stuff and leave the locals in the lurch). The inevitable results: dwindling, aging audiences, decreasing numbers of artists, increasingly empty palaces.

denise leeWe four panelists were: longtime area performer Denise Lee, Terry Martin, the artistic director of Water Tower — who brought Daisey to the OOTL, all praise and kudos to him — Kevin Moriarty, the artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center — a brave soul considering Daisey’s attacks and the recent opening of the Wyly Theatre — and me, longtime area arts journalist and apprentice human.

The audience itself included a fair number of stage professionals (and committed theatergoers). You could tell from the knowing laughter that greeted large parts of Daisey’s story — as when he recounted  how he equipped his first little summer stage (“Theater on the Pond”) with ordinary kitchen-track lighting. It’s the kind of lighting that, when fixed up with colored gels, will give your stage about seven minutes of an attractive glow before bursting into flames. Lots of theater folk have been there, survived that.

Back to our conversation.  Daisey began by asking each panelist about the ‘gap’ between the resident theater movement’s initial ideals and where we are now. What did each of us think, he wanted to know, was the most serious shortcoming? Terry Martin chose the difference between the theaters’ need to be more daring vs. the economic fears and ticket-selling constraints that cause them to play it safe.

Terry Martin, Water towerI nominated theater education — partly because my wife actually teaches theater in a public school, a relatively rare gig these days, but one that lets me hear weekly horror stories about the lack of support, the lack of money, the frightened, sclerotic bureaucracy, the overwhelmed teachers, the absent and/or impoverished parents and so on. Everything you’ve probably heard, only worse. Now imagine a typical public school that has no full-time drama or arts teacher like my wife, and that’s the case with the great majority of American students.

What has this failure got to do with the resident theaters? Funny you should ask. An audience member in his twenties defended his generation’s lack of interest in drama precisely because of such a paltry education. Growing up, most of the theater they’ve seen has been, at best, well-intentioned, deadly school pageants and the like. So when they finally become adults, earning their own cash, why should they spend $40 on an art form that has consistently disappointed them?

That’s one reason Adrian Hall, when he was artistic director of the DTC, insisted that school kids be bused to the theater. No shortened, condescending, in-classroom performances. The students need to experience going to the theater as part of the whole experience of live drama, and they needed to be exposed to full, professional productions.

This way, if they still end up hating theater, at least we gave them a taste of the real stuff.

A South Irving teacher in the audience promptly pointed out the big drawback here: Busing for any field trip can involve a huge, additional, complicated, permission-getting burden on schools and schoolteachers, not to mention the extra money involved for the buses.

And there is, of course, no money.

[UPDATE: This shouldn’t imply that Project Discovery — the Theater Center’s outreach program — doesn’t continue. Thousands of schoolkids do still attend shows though the 23-year-old program. More power to it. But the South Irving teacher’s point also stands: This isn’t a cheap and easy solution. It’s a costlier approach than simply bringing a handful of actors into a classroom.]

The discussion that followed these responses loosely revolved around Daisey’s essential argument — which is more or less outlined above. Great theater doesn’t need cultural palaces; the buildings are black holes that suck up both money and effort that would be better focused on the artists and the audiences inside those buildings.

Daisey advanced this argument over the course of his show — which, as he said, is as much about how theater saved him personally as it is about how theater failed most of the rest of us.  It should be clear: It’s not some unhappy, uncast-able actor’s rant.

But his charges are premised on a couple of assumptions that I used to share but no longer do. The first is that ‘poor theater’ — garage theater, fringe theater — is, by its financial and artistic nature, more honest, morally and aesthetically better for us than what we might term “big theater.” Poor theaters don’t  partake of the institutional and artistic compromises that rich theaters face. Poor theaters don’t exploit actors the way big theaters do. Poor theater is better intentioned.

This, of course, is overstating the case for moral purity. In fact, during How Theater Failed America, Daisey himself humorously recounted his own early efforts with the tiny Theater on the Pond — which partly entailed exploiting his friend Brett’s three ex-girlfriends and a sad case named Zach.

But here’s my point about the either / or thinking involved (and this is pure l’esprit d’escalier or in my case, l’esprit de driving home — those inspirations you get only after it’s too late. I didn’t make this argument onstage). The Water Tower Theatre — which Daisey praised but also gently mocked — is a perfect demonstration of the big vs. the fringe or the exploitative vs. the supportive issue. The Water Tower started in the tiny Stone Cottage that still exists near the bigger, newer space. When the theater outgrew the Cottage and decided to build a new home, there really wasn’t the option, ‘No, let’s not build a big new home, let’s stay in the Cottage and instead give the actors regular jobs and health insurance.’

The fact is, the Cottage cannot draw a sizable audience, it could not afford any such option. Staying small and poor and nimble and under-the-radar has its very real advantages. But providing financial security for the artists is usually not one of them.

It’s also true, as I did point out onstage, that there are plenty of people who simply will not go to see theater in what Daisey called “the warehouse down by the river.” Yes, if the warehouse puts on great shows, shows that connect with the community, many people will come — many who might not otherwise attend. But many won’t, and if the aim is to get beyond the theater fans, beyond those of us who love edgy, fringe theater, who don’t mind cramped, out-of-the-way, unheated or un-air-conditioned spaces — well then, providing creature comforts and physical safety are not small issues we can be smug about. We want theatergoing to become an enlightening, engaging habit for many people, not a major safety risk or a form of physical and cultural penance.

So anyway, I asked Daisey, what’s wrong with a pleasant facility? What’s more, there are kinds of theater — Robert Wilson’s stage productions are a chief example — that require big, technically advanced spaces and extensive financial support systems, not the kinds of thing you necessarily get in a warehouse down by the river. Which is why Wilson (right) mostly works in European opera houses these days.  The frustrating failure to get his show CIVIL warS funded and on stage — a failure that happened twice — brought this home painfully to him. America really didn’t have a system that supports such things.

Daisey rightly said something to the effect that this is a dangerous path to go down. That is, my questions, “What’s wrong with a pleasant facility? And what’s wrong with doing shows like Robert Wilson’s?” soon become “What’s wrong with a great new lounge and more offices for the administration and why don’t we just import big, splashy Broadway tours?” And Daisey doesn’t buy the argument, often heard, that the only way to get big donations is to build the big palaces. I happen to think there’s some truth to that, and pointed out that when the Dallas Museum of Art raised the money for its extension, it wisely raised more than it needed — so it could fund a few curatorial positions in the bargain.

At any rate, I acknowledge the danger of slippage into palace-envy. But I maintain that a) the theater in the warehouse has little real moral claim to condemn the theater in the Big House (unless, of course, the Big House is doing absolute junk or really exploiting its artists). The choice between the two is a matter of aesthetic choices and (sometimes admirable) commitments. Sometimes, only the Big House can afford to do a full-cast Shakespeare and do it right and pay its actors. And b) the theater in the warehouse doesn’t necessarily draw enough of an audience (because of location, because of seating size, because of the nature of the shows) that it usually can’t pay its artists some livable salaries. So who’s the moral one now?

Mind you, I’m all for livable salaries for artists. Boy, am I. My wife is an actress — the reason she’s a public-school teacher right now is we  have a daughter in college. Acting never paid enough, plain and simple.  Not even close.

All of this is actually why some of the most interesting, most thought-provoking things Daisey had to say were not in his show, they were with our panel discussion afterwards. They escaped the either / or problem. They concerned finding alternative economic models than the one the resident theaters have followed for 50 years, the one that, in part, is bringing them declining audiences.

For instance, why not subsidize artists directly with endowments — as the DMA did? (Once again,  the Brierleys’ $1 million donation does not do this directly.) Daisey likes the idea but doesn’t think you can underwrite people — donors don’t like it as much as putting their names on bricks and glass. But the Brierleys put their name on an ensemble. That’s only one or two steps away from, say, the Allison McGeehee Endowed Senior Acting Position or the Endowed Staff Set Designer or Apprentice Ingenue or Third  Character Actor.

wk0124_rBut Daisey also reported that Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theatre — coincidentally, he’s profiled in the most recent issue of The New Yorker (subscription required for the full story) — Oskar Eustis has come very close to making all the Public’s offerings free of charge, not just Shakespeare in the Park. He believes he could get a swanky donor to pony up the full ticket price because, actually, the money raised from admissions isn’t a huge percentage of the Public’s income.

That would entail a wholesale re-think of most theater’s financial basis. But Moriarty (above) picked up on this very quickly because it’s not simply a crowd-pleasing bit of charity. Potentially, it’s a game-changer. If we remove the ticket price as an obstacle to attending, then there should really be very little to hinder people from coming to the theater. That means, if people still stay away in droves, we have no excuse. We’re either a) not offering the kind of stage art they want to see or b) we’re not reaching them somehow.

Or c), my additional claim: We’ve exposed them to enough inept theater while they were young that, rightfully, they never want to come back.

  • What a great response to the roundtable.

    I agree with a lot of this, though I will say that I’m not nearly as enamored with “poor theater” as this response makes me sound–often I comment in the section about Seattle garage theater how unrelentingly terrible much of it was. What it does often achieve is that when it is terrible, it is legitimately bad and not tasteless pap, but that doesn’t make it a desirable end in its own right. I left it out in the performance in question, and it sounds like I should have struck that note. If I thought poor theater was the answer, I wouldn’t be at Alliance right now in Atlanta.

    As for the idea of either/or thinking–I suspect that’s more the product of the cultural/political environment than the monologue. The truth is that things have been tilted so severely toward the building for so long that a strong corrective is needed. Of course ignoring place in the theatrical equation is ridiculous…but it is equally absurd how we have decided to support our workers, and that isn’t a hypothetical situation in America, but realized fact.

    Pleasure having you on the roundtable, and all the best to everyone in Dallas,



  • Zach

    Mike lies. I was not a sad case.

  • Most of the time, Mike Daisey is a fat foul fool, who spends his free time jacking off in front of a paying audience. But this time he hit the nail on the head. I guess that’s what eventually happens when an infinite number of monkeys jack off on an infinite number of dirty sheets.

    How theatre has failed America. Hmmm. The first clue is when I go to a play, I’m usually the youngest person there. The American audience is old and dying off, disappearing. No one young goes to a play anymore.

    The young don’t go, because they’ve stopped teaching theatre and drama in public schools. That’s one reason. The second reason is that plays don’t say anything to the young.

    Plays don’t say anything. Hmmmm. No one listens. Drama is supposed to celebrate the hero’s journey. But somewhere in the 60’s, we got stuck on giving voices to the voiceless and to the marginalized. So we have all these crap plays and musicals about being gay or being disabled or being wracked with a deadly disease. Makes one puke just thinking on it.

    Add to that the fact that the crop of playwrights (think of Bute, Durang and Kane, as examples) we’ve had over the past fifty years haven’t been the sharpest knives in the drawer and you have a sure recipe for failure.

    Maybe it’s freedom. Maybe freedom’s to blame. Remember this. The really good plays came about duting absolute monarchies, tyrannies and the like. Maybe there’s a lesson there.

  • For the record, I didn’t think Zach was a “sad case” either, and I wouldn’t agree with that interpretation of his character. Instead, as I say in the piece, I think he was a bit wiser than the rest of us.

  • For the record: Daisey jokes in the show that quite often during the one summer’s existence of Theater on the Pond, Zach — who was older and certainly wiser because he knew the theater wasn’t going to work out — would simply quit. And the others would track him down, generally finding him in his car in the Wal-Mart parking lot — if I remember correctly, Daisey describes him as weeping — and they would coax him back.

    I was the one who called this being a ‘sad case.’ Daisey never uses the term.

  • Sara Weeks


    Thanks for starting a conversation about the need for Theater Education –beyond being a gig that can help pay for our daughter’s higher learning. (Unless public sharing of my carping endlessly about my job costs me my job.) Yes, you do hear horror stories. You also hear heart-breaking stories, heart-warming stories and humorous stories. Teaching Theater is teaching Life. Teaching kids who watch Saw XVII, The Wire and Dance Your Ass Off while carrying books in a Dora the Explorer backback is a challenge!

    The spectrum of their life experience and arts experience is wide and narrow at the same time. My frustrations are often with my own sense of failure… I can never do enough to bridge this gap. In my heart I know Theater saves people. On good days, it saves me and my little Thespians, Drama Queens and aspiring Techies.

    It is Theater that pulls us together, eventually. Theater that demands so much discipline, dedication and determination it drives us crazy at times. Speaking of crazy, I hear students coming. I have to go make good on a bet I lost. Kids get cupcakes, teacher gets to watch their tongues turn neon colors from the icing. Priceless. Hey, don’t judge my writing, I’m just the Theater teacher.

  • Pingback: Theater Education Failed America « TheaterEducates()

  • Jerome, I think you make a great point about the role of education in the decline of American theater. I liked your article so much I linked to it over on our blog –

    Sara – don’t be defensive about your words. I loved them! You succinctly articulated the drive that keeps so many of us theater educators going. Keep up the good work!

  • Mr. Anderson:

    Your theater history is a little faulty, to say the least. Athens at the time of the golden age of Greek drama was a republic — on and off at any rate (it was, after all, often at war with Sparta and Persia). Terence and Plautus, the great Roman comic playwrights, wrote when Rome, also, was a republic. Julius Caesar didn’t turn it into Imperial Rome until more than a century later. When Ibsen and Strindberg were alive, both Norway and Sweden were constitutional democracies. Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw wrote under a constitutional monarchy, hardly a tyranny. And then we have O’Neill, Williams, Miller — all the American greats from the first half of the 20th century when, last I checked, the United States was not an absolute monarchy.

    As for the claim that LaBute, Durang and Kane aren’t “the sharpest of knives” and therefore their plays have contributed to a declining theater audience: Whether one enjoys their plays or not is irrelevant to the fact that they are hardly dominant presences, certainly not in North Texas theater, and I’d bet, not anywhere else, either. Only two professional theater companies have ever staged LaBute here — Kitchen Dog and the DTC. I can’t remember the last time Durang was ever produced in the area, and only one theater has presented Sarah Kane that I’ve ever seen — the Undermain, with “Blasted.”

    If they have significantly contributed to (supposedly) driving away theatergoers, it was a remarkable achievement, done with barely a handful of appearances on local stages.