Wednesday, May 18, 2011

theatre notes. mike daisey.

Intiman Theatre closed its doors for the rest of this year's season just after the first play ended its run. The staff were laid off and the actors who were either contracted or had hoped to perform this year were left without roles to fill. I felt guilty for not having supported them lately. I had not been pleased by the casting of actors from New York in some of their productions. Seattle is full of great actors who would have made fine Othellos and Desdemonas, and I really didn't give a shit that some "well-known New York actress" (as described by the woman who called to convince me to subscribe for that season) was coming to perform the one-woman play The Year of Magical Thinking. While I loved other recent performances, I did not like another play that was so new that it seemed unfinished. It was so much a work-in-progress that a character who was mentioned in the review and in the program did not actually appear onstage. I lost faith, and there were other theaters eager to fill the void.

Then I heard Mike Daisey was going to give a benefit performance of his monologue How Theater Failed America at the Seattle Rep. Proceeds would go to Artist Trust, which would administer grants to artists who had not received any kind of severance from the closure of Intiman. There would be a round-table discussion afterwards, with various theater actors, directors, administrators, and writers. I walked in not knowing what to expect. The theater was packed. I spotted Jerry Manning, the artistic director at Seattle Rep, and Michael Patten, most recently seen in O Lovely Glowworm. There were people of all ages, but mostly young, which is encouraging. And then Mike Daisey took the stage.

He was funny, as I expected. I laughed until I was wiping tears away. And then I cried, because it was heartbreaking to confront the reality that it is impossible to make theater and make money at the same time. You have to do it out of love, and that has to be enough. How Theatre Failed America is a story about how Mike Daisey fell in love with theater, and how it saved him when he was overcome with a dark, suicidal depression. At the same time it is a battle cry, or perhaps a wail of despair. "There's never been any money!" he says in the beginning. Not five years ago, not twenty. Theaters come and go all the time. But he is heartbroken, he tells us, that the theater next door (Intiman) is closed. Intiman is where I saw him in his career-making performance of 21 Dog Years, several years ago. This place is important to him. It was ruined, he says, by the Tony award for best regional theater which it was awarded five years ago. He called the award "The One Ring,"* which brought glory and then downfall on those who possessed it.

The round table, later, is angry. There is hope, too, but mostly there is anger. The actors and writers are angry that they can't make a living in the theater. Hans Altwies (who I loved in This last week and who is co-artistic-director of NCTC) tells us, furiously, that he makes a living as a cabinetmaker, and has to make enough so that he can "lose money" by acting. The younger audience is angry because they are not seeing themselves represented onstage. Allison Narver is angry because she is still reeling from the closure of the Empty Space Theater in 2006, a decision made too hastily by its board members after a huge fundraising effort to save it. It's still clearly a raw wound for her, one that may never go away. Later I am too shy to walk up and tell her that Three Tall Women, which she directed at Seattle Rep last fall, was one of the best productions I'd ever seen. I wish I had.

Ultimately, even with all the anger pulsing in the room, we have to remember why we are here: because we love the theater, and as long as we love it, it will go on. It will. It must.

A quote by Tom Stoppard comes to mind: "I shall have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love, love, love, above all. Love as there has never been in a play. Unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture."

*obviously a reference to J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series.

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