Friday, September 18, 2009

In Philadelphia I had the interesting opportunity to find out what would happen if HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA was reviewed by an avowed Libertarian.

What I learned is an old lesson: good criticism relies on rigor, analysis, reporting, and an awareness of ideological blind spots.
This review by Jim Rutter has none of these qualities.

As is my usual technique when I do these infrequent responses, I will refrain from commenting on the aesthetic assessment of the work, and simply address the portions of the review that pertain to the arguments of the piece.

The review starts, strangely, with a review of the post-show discussion:

“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.”

I am well aware of price elasticity, but the simple fact is that the tickets are not 15 dollars: they were $25 and $30 for each night of the show. Elemental fact-checking on Rutter’s part should have discovered that. Discounts may be available, but I address the weakness of discounting in the piece itself, and I won’t repeat myself here. I stand by the answer that within the context of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and its collision of a curated festival with a traditional fringe, that ticket price is a roadblock.

Rutter will however go on to distort this comment I made in an aftershow discussion, in response to a specific question from a student, as a basis for dismissing my understanding of my workplace wholesale.

To base the show’s assessment on a post-show discussion indicates, at best, a confusion about basic protocol about art and framing. At worst it’s simply unethical, as it indicates a desire to twist the art until it can be quickly dismissed on an ideological basis.

Rutter summarizes my assessment of the economic situation in the American theater as follows:

“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.”

This is largely accurate, and he appears to take no issue with this assessment. He continues:

“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.”

This would be damning, if in fact I said anything resembling this in the monologue. I do not posit some magical solution to an incredibly complex and difficult economic issues that afflicts my field.

The question of ticket prices is a complex one, and I talk at some length about the complexities of it in the piece—from ever-increasing discounts based on age, to the fact that theaters crave new audiences but are terrified by the change that will bring.

I do point out that our current emphasis is in the pouring of resources into buildings in terms of capital development, and we do not invest in people or art to any degree—and the brain drain that results from this is choking off the theater, and stifling our ability to make a thriving future.

“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.”

This is reductive and untrue. I do lament that we pay theater workers far below a living wage…but the answer is not to turn on each other and try to strip other workers in the theater of THEIR sub-market wages.

It’s not as though ANYONE is getting rich working in the non-profit theater, and the piece is exceedingly clear about this, and about my respect and admiration for everyone who dedicates themselves to the theater in all ways. Only someone who is not aggressively not listening, and interesting in portraying my position as divisive would believe I said anything like this.

“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?”

This disconnect is featured in the monologue prominently—the idea that the work can adapt to change without fundamentally examining the assumptions of our theater, and that change is inevitable and must be confronted. I wouldn’t put it with the same degree of cynicism that Mr. Rutter uses, but fundamentally he is not at all wrong that the American theater fails to make itself relevant to the culture at large.

Finally, there is a virulent anti-actor bigotry in the writing—his writing is laced with expressions like:

“He succeeds in demonstrating only that actors know nothing about economics.”

“Why do I doubt that an actor can supply the answer?”

It is as familiar as it is tired—I’m sure Mr. Rutter loves watching actors on stage, so long as they know their place and keep their mouths shut. The problem isn't the bias—we all have bias—but his inability to recognize or address it in the writing.

Mr. Rutter has chosen in this review not to engage in critical discourse, but to indulge his biases. He was predisposed by his political beliefs, and used whatever tools were available, including reaching outside the art itself, to find copy that could be distorted until it made his thesis stick. I suspect his motivations are connected to his ideology, and tied to his pride in his training in economics, which he is not shy about sharing in his writing.

Why would someone so well educated engage in such a sloppy indictment?

Because it is a theater review. It is writing utterly without consequences or conversation. There is no healthy discourse in our theatrical culture. Healthier art forms engage in actual dialogue—critical assessments are more than the final word, but the beginning of a true conversation. Critics can expect responses.

In the theater, bound by space and time specificness, criticism is often the final word—and with a lack of discourse, it pales and withers. Most disappointingly we teach our critics that there is no need for rigor, because there are no consequences or feedback. Crushed between the twin rocks of grim journalism and the grim theater, they are under tremendous pressure, and the field is responding by flattening, emptying out and vanishing.

Mr. Rutter seems like he could be an intelligent writer, and we need every sharp writer we can get in the theater. One can hope that his criticism in the future will rise above what he turned in on this occasion.