Monologist Mike Daisey Presents 'How Theater Failed America' at Woolly Mammoth
Friday, January 2, 2009
For the better part of 12 years, Mike Daisey has been touring American theaters, often being called in when companies have stretched their budgets so thin they can't afford to stage a full production.
And the master storyteller thinks that's a sorry state of affairs.
"The American theater as an institution is an institution," he says. "And it's lost track of the human element that makes theater successful."
Daisey, one of the most compelling monologists working today, addresses what he sees as a dire situation in his one-man show "How Theater Failed America," which opens Wednesday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
The problem, he says, is this: When times got tough, local troupes and companies made the wrong cuts. Repertory theaters stopped employing their own actors and developing distinctive productions. They gave up trying to sustain themselves with ticket sales and grew ever more dependent on corporate donors and wealthy benefactors. They bought real estate and built bigger, glitzier houses while community artists increasingly starved.
"This has been a very insidious process that's poisoned a large amount of American theater and has huge ramifications," says Daisey, who has been performing the show for a year now, to a loud and inharmonious response from the theater community.
Daisey, last seen in Washington with the enthusiastically received production "If You See Something, Say Something," says his intention is to sound "a wake-up call."
He'd been grappling with the topic for several years, resistant to develop it into a full-length monologue. "I knew it would have ramifications for my career, and I knew it would be controversial, and I knew it would be difficult."
He also knew that struggling actors, technicians and regional theatergoers were not in a position to spark a serious dialogue about the situation. Daisey, meanwhile, is something of an independent contractor with outsider status and a well-established following. (The New York Times called him one of the finest solo performers of his generation.)
So, he recalls, "when I couldn't resist it anymore, I started doing it."
Like his other shows, this one weaves two strains, the societal and the personal. The show could have two names, he says: "How Theater Failed America" and "How Theater Saved Mike Daisey."
Daisey started acting in high school and later established an ill-fated theater company in western Massachusetts. He no longer acts but remains "deeply obsessed with live performance."
"The act of theater is the act of communion between someone in a living space with other people in that space," he says. "What's important about theater is actually its scarcity. As you enter the digital age and everything can be digitized, a live event where someone is physically present cannot actually be commodified.
"The core experience cannot be reproduced, and that's incredibly precious."
How Theater Failed America Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. http:/