Mike Daisey's "How Theater Failed America'

Is there an economist in the house?

Daisey: Shouting at the sun on a hot day.
Daisey: Shouting at the sun on a hot day.

During the audience discussion following Mike Daisey's monologue about the market forces that have ruined regional theater in America, a young woman asked Daisey how he could reach more young people with his message about theater and hope.

"Lower the ticket prices," Daisey replied. To which Nick Stuccio, director of the Live Arts festival, shouted back from his seat: "They're 15 dollars!"

So much for Daisey's understanding of the simple economic concept of price elasticity.

To be sure, the title of his show— How Theater Failed America— is really a red herring, designed to hook theatergoers and then expose them to a litany of economic fallacies woven into self-indulgent tales of emotional (and actual) masturbation. In the course of 100 minutes the audience learned of Daisey's multiple suicide attempts, his long-term depression and his sudden "will to live again," inspired by the misfortune of a student he openly derides as a "loser."

Most of Daisey's actual discussion of the arts economy matches the metaphorical content of his stories, and he infuses an insider's humor throughout. But these engaging moments competed with pseudo-deep insights ("Depression isn't darkness, but the absence of light") and more use of "so" and "-ly" adverbs than a pre-teen girl on her cell phone.

As for economics, Daisey bemoans the theater as a slaughterhouse rather than a workplace, where few artists can make a sufficiently decent living to settle down and raise a family. He condemns regional theaters that abandoned local artists in favor of New York actors, a practice that, he argues, resulted in a massive disconnect between actors and communities, and an unsustainable situation where audiences "are drying up and dying off." Mostly, Daisey laments that America's theaters have become corporations packaging and commodifying their art.

Imagine Jesus without Saint Paul

How would Daisey solve this problem? He wants to lower ticket prices to create greater accessibility for audiences, while at the same time producing compelling art and paying actors a living wage— a strategy that, as I recall, was a resounding success in Soviet Russia.

Daisey further laments that theater companies pay more to development and marketing professionals than to artists. But how else are theater troupes supposed to raise funds? Even Jesus lacked much of a following until the Apostle Paul revved up his PR machine.

The kids on Broad Street

I walked out of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre into a sea of coeds on Broad Street sporting short skirts and baggy pants— young, full of life, and bursting with the confident knowledge that the world is still waiting to open up to them. No doubt they had just emerged from watching Transformers in a movie theater before heading for a pitcher of beer at a bar. Not a bad way for kids to spend 15 measly bucks.

What, by contrast, would compel any mentally healthy 20-year-old to attend a highly acclaimed (albeit depressing) American classic like, say, The Glass Menagerie— even if admission was free?

Watching Daisey's rant against economic reality felt like being in the land of the blind with an even blinder man as my guide. Daisey reminds me of a sweaty man screaming at the sun on a hot day.

Daisey announced that his next world premiere —The Last Cargo Cult, opening September 10—concerns the global financial meltdown and seeks to ask "what is the value of money and if it even has any value at all." It's a good question. Why do I doubt that an actor can supply the answer?

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