How Theatre Failed/Saved America

How Theatre Failed/Saved America

UPDATE: Teresa Eyring’s From the Executive Director column is now online at the American Theatre site. Mike Daisey has responded with a rebuttal at his blog site. As one of his points, he scrutinizes Ms. Eyring’s unfortunate title, the same item that had struck me as the most egregious in her piece.

Ms. Eyring’s title takes one’s breath away. If it were called HOW THEATRE WILL SAVE AMERICA it would still be defensible, if a bit sweeping—it could fantasize about a nearly unimaginable future when theater will reach out from the stage and save all of America from corporate greed, the military-industrial complex, racism, sexism, and human nature itself by reshaping America.

That’s bold. But Ms. Eyring takes it a step further and uses the past tense—HOW THEATRE SAVED AMERICA—informing us that the work is done, the wars have been fought and that we actually live in a glorious utopia right now, one that has been created by the American theater. If one didn’t know better, one might think it is an attempt at wit—a shallow attempt to play off of my title for comic effect, ignoring the actual meaning implicit in the words I’d chosen.

It is a shockingly poor idea to make such an assertion in the title, unless the essay that follows brings some serious arguments to bear, and this is the third problem with the piece. HOW THEATRE SAVED AMERICA, PART ONE chooses to accomplish this goal not by grappling with any of the arguments in my monologue, but instead displaying examples of theaters that are working within their communities as a kind of proof positive that theater has saved America. It specifically cites one example at length, describing the work of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.

I find it reaching to claim that one company from a town of 12,000 in Pennsylvania, however wonderful they might be, contraindicates the larger story of the arts infrastructure in a country of 300 million….

Ms. Eyring ends her piece saying, “And this is just the beginning of how theatre saved America.” The implication is that we will see a great deal more of her argument in Part Two. I do hope that this response will make her think more judiciously about the title for the second half of this article, and I hope some of the criticisms I’ve raised may be addressed in its contents.

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In the July/August issue of American Theatre, executive director of TCG, Teresa Eyring, has written a counter argument to Mike Daisey’s monologue How Theater Failed America. Her Pollyannaism about the state of regional theatre is probably a major part of her job description but the title of her piece, How Theatre Saved America, Part 1, rings almost as parody answer to the serious failures of regional theatre that Daisey’s monologue brings into discussion. And she probably wishes she had heard the news of Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s closing before the magazine went to print. On that point, I’ll be interested if she edits this opening paragraph to her argument in the online version of the “From The Executive Director” page when it’s posted tomorrow.

“While permanent acting ensembles are indeed a rare commodity at major U. S. theatres, typically ignored—even by the popular monologist Mike Daisey in How Theatre Failed America, which ran Off Broadway through June 22—is the array of ensemble companies working across the country. What about, for instance, the long standing acting collaborations of Minneapolis’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune…”

For more discussion about Teresa Eyring’s column see Scott’s and Dennis’ Letters to the Editor.

3 thoughts on “How Theatre Failed/Saved America

  1. I just gotta say that the sad part of this “From the Executive Director” statement is that it points up what a loss Ben Cameron’s departure was. I do not recall Ben ever shying away from RAT or any other counterpoint. He always seemed to understand the inherent flawed-ness of theatermaking and embraced debate as an opportunity to call for better artworking from everyone. Peace be with him.

    And well, the other sad part of this debate is that many people seem to have an opinion about Daisy’s show without ever having seen it. While the show sites some worthwhile obsurdities (common to almost every business), I found it to be a patriotic love letter to the theater, and a chance for me to laugh at myself (we’ve all been there) and the f’ed up community I lovingly call home. The title of the show is so misleading, but that makes its ending matter. We need a film version of this piece right away – theater people love to go see films. ugh.

  2. Ralph–
    Ben Cameron was smart with how he dealt with RAT. Attending the conferences, listening more than speaking. When the concurrent tcg and rat conference was scheduled in Philly, he allowed all small theatres in Philadelphia into the tcg conference for free. In many ways Ben tamed rat, by actively listening as he also offered the wannabe part of all alternative theatres many new small openings into tcg such as this one in Philly.

    And I fully agree with your assessment of Daisey’s show being a love letter to theatre. That’s why I came out so strongly against his essay of the same title. It falsely advertised the content and nature of his monologue and threw the debate off course into the Us/Them poles.

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