Theater on the Edge

How did theater fail America? In his incisive, entertaining, and often poignant monologue, acclaimed writer and performer Mike Daisey’s answer might surprise you. A pungent mix of raw personal experience and savvy cultural critique, How Theater Failed America is both a sensitive self-reflection and an emphatic call to arms. And, however you think you might answer the central question right now, Daisey will challenge your ideas about what theater is, what it has become, and what it could be. Seated behind a table on a bare stage, with only a stack of notes and a glass of water for company, Daisey admits right away that the title of his show is all wrong. “You should not have come here,” he declares, since most likely we already know (or think we know) what the show will be about: Disney’s homogenization of theater into a gooey tourist commodity; the distractions of iPods and other technology; the ever-dwindling state of arts funding; and the debilitating taste pronouncements of all-powerful theater critics at the New York Times.

But, instead of pointing a finger at those shadowy outside forces, Daisey implicates himself and us, the audience stuck in the “stifling dark”: “You did it, I did it, we did it.” The problem is not so much how theater failed America, he says, but how theater became America (the alternate title an artistic director friend proffered for the show).

This all probably sounds very Michael Moore, and in some ways the similarities are there—like the controversial documentary auteur, Daisey is also a larger-than-life force working to upend and revolutionize his art form. However, Daisey’s approach, although it can be in-your-face and demanding, is gentler. Although he is sharply critical of how theater is breaking down, he holds up and reveres those moments when it has worked and when it has made a difference; in short, why we will always so desperately need it in our culture. He’s from the theater and for the theater, and his project draws on personal anecdotes to create a reverent, yet cautionary, love letter.

Flashing back to his youth in a sparsely populated region of western Maine, Daisey offers vibrant anecdotes about the people and places that enchanted him with the theater: his “madman” college theater director Dick Sewell, who bounded over theater seats to give his cast inspired notes; the summer Daisey and five friends ran their own small theater company at a small resort, playing all of the roles, doing all of the technical work, and subsisting on Ramen; and directing a scrappy group of high-school students in a one-act play competition.

As a teenager, watching plays rotating in repertory one summer, Daisey became obsessed with “the space between the plays,” cherishing the opportunity to see actors change roles and change missions, all within “a small world, constantly transforming.” With his wide eyes, wild gestures, and dramatic intonation, Daisey’s enthusiasm is infectious, but so is his despair; he brackets joyful memories with the deep chasms he has discovered dotting the larger theater scene.

Instead of a vibrant community, Daisey finds a regional landscape peppered with “glorified roadhouses,” where actors are flown in for compact, three-and-a-half-week rehearsal periods. Theater, he discovers, has become something of a machine, more of a corporation than a group of plucky, hard-working people.

I won’t give away much more, even though it’s tempting—indeed, I found myself taking more notes here than at almost any other production I’ve attended. But Daisey’s devotion to theater is never more apparent than when he reveals how theater brought him out of a depressive, suicidal year of his life. And his epiphany while performing at a small theater in Seattle—as an unlikely character doing an unspeakable deed—makes for both sidesplitting comedy and searing commentary.

Daisey made big theater news in April 2007 when, during a performance of his monologue Invincible Summer at the American Repertory Theater, 78 audience members walked out in protest, one of them unceremoniously upturning Daisey's ever-present water glass, soaking his notes. Ostensibly, the conservative school group was offended by the show’s profanity, and while Daisey does throw in the occasional F-bomb, he artfully balances shock value with sincere testimonial.

In How Theater Failed America, Daisey shapes personal experience into a stirring action plan. Theater is about creation, and as he outlines his perspective on the state of the art, Daisey leaves it to us to take the next step. A single ghost light on the stage fades as Daisey begins his monologue, as if his bright, energized voice were poised to beam out for all of us. It glows again as Daisey concludes—a reminder to keep the stage illuminated whenever, wherever, and however we can.

Check out for information on post-show roundtables with theater professionals that will take place throughout the month of June.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post