Say what you will about Mike Daisey (and I think we’ve said it all at this point, yes?), he did get legitimate theater into the national news cycle. It’s been pretty exciting. I feel so relevant. So in honor of him and his duplicitous double chin, today we will look at 5 things more important to theater than the truth:
I’ve said before that the future of theater isn’t in the plays themselves, it’s in the experience of going to see a play. That’s what we have to sell. The experience of going out to see a play, of putting on pants and driving somewhere and sharing something with complete strangers is both our biggest obstacle and our biggest strength. It’s an obstacle because there are infinitely easier and cheaper ways to get your storytelling fix. And it’s a strength because it’s different and exciting and maybe even a little scary. Once again, we could take a page from the sports world. When the perception emerged that watching an NFL game from the comfort of your living room couch, what with the instant replays and close-ups and your own bathroom and much cheaper beer, might be a little more desirable than actually going to the game, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones countered by making that live experience unique. He built a stadium with a historically large TV screen hanging from the ceiling. He made his players essentially run through a crowded bar on their way from the locker room to the field. He made going to a Cowboys game an event. Going to theater can and should be an event. And we’d be wise not to forget that.
The bulk of the aspiring writers out there don’t have the benefit of graduate playwriting programs or exposure to the coolest work that our coolest cities offer. They don’t have agents. They don’t have careers. They just want their voices heard. Hence, they rarely have the trappings of what we mean when we say “smart theater.” There’s none of that deliberate ambiguity and opacity, none of the constructed complexity. Instead, these writers say what they mean and make damn sure you understand what they say. I have a lot of sympathy for these kinds of plays. I still dislike them but I also kinda love them, if that makes any sense. Yes, these plays are frequently clumsy and artless and obvious. But it’s important that they exist because they remind us that the primary goal of theater is not to make you think. It is to make you feel. The clear channel these plays build through which emotions flow comes from an urgency; a desperate need to share in their feelings with others. Regardless of how they get there, this intent, this drive, is absolutely essential.
If I have to hear someone say that Los Angeles is an underappreciated theater town one more time, I’m going to go Berserker Dramaturg on their asses. I’m looking at you, Finlayson. If we continue to perpetuate this idea, if we walk around with our heads hung low, pleading to be taken seriously, then we might get people into the theaters. But they’re going to be there out of pity. And if that’s the case, then we’ve set the bar really low. You know why Chicago and D.C. and wherever else get more love as theater towns than we do? It’s not because their theater is any better. It’s because they don’t treat themselves like victims. They know that what they do is good and important. They don’t beg for validation.
For the non-Yiddish speakers in the house, having chutzpah essentially translates into having balls, guts, moxie. Look, Daisey shouldn’t have lied to This American Life and he shouldn’t have allowed other people to lie for him by insisting that his work be billed as non-fiction. But as I read everyone’s frothy-mouthed condemnations of the man, I found myself thinking about how much The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs affected me the first time I heard it (like many, I’ve only ever experienced it through This American Life) and how those initial ideas and emotions and questions were joined by a whole new set of equally compelling ideas and emotions and questions after the recent brouhaha. Maybe the man is a narcissistic, attention-hungry whore. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never met him. I suppose it might be true. It might also be true that he had the best intentions at heart and he got in way over his head. But regardless of his reasons, I think we can agree that Daisey is a very smart guy. He knew he was making things up. He knew he was pretending not to. He knew he could get caught. And he did it anyway. That takes chutzpah. And now we have something that has generated a ton of interesting conversations. Something we’ll never forget.
The Stage Manager
I know this is a little off-theme but I’ve been looking for an excuse to talk about the fact that, a few weeks ago, I went to a taping of “American Idol.” I’m not going to pretend this was part of some lofty, sociological experiment. I went mainly to confirm that Steven Tyler has become a withered, old witch and that Ryan Seacrest is an automaton. But having been in the trenches of putting on a live event before, I was also fascinated by the machinery that gets this huge behemoth of a television show, starring a bunch of total amateurs so terrified and wide-eyed you could literally see the adrenalin coursing through their veins from fifty yards out, off the ground and running like clockwork several times a week. And you know who is steering this ship? One, semi-frumpy women wearing baggy clothes and a stopwatch around her neck, guiding the wee Seacrest around the stage like he was a chihuahua, alternately exhorting the audience to cheer or shut up and going nose-to-nose with executive producer and super rich guy Nigel Lythgoe in a very heated argument that occurred too far away for me to actually hear what was being said but which was easily the most compelling moment of the entire night. This woman was a supremely bad-ass stage manager and she reminded me of all the stage managers I’ve ever worked with, similarly hard-nosed, steely-eyed and completely void of bullshit in a business that, as Daisey proved, is made up almost exclusively of bullshit.
About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of needtheater and previously served as their resident dramaturg and literary manager. Production dramaturgy credits for needtheater include: Fatboy, Mercury Fur, Scarcity, tempOdyssey, and The Web. He also directed needtheater's world premiere production of Guided Consideration of a Lamentable Deed. He is the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where he runs the advanced playwrights lab and helps to oversee new play development. He is also an associate artist with the international, new script development group LoNyLa, and works as a script consultant for theaters, including The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, and Native Voices at the Autry. He trained for two years under a dramaturgy fellowship at Centerstage in Baltimore and is a graduate of Wesleyan University.