BY LINDSAY HARRIS-FRIEL Mike Daisey may be one of the great thinkers of our generation. He speaks truth to power, sometimes roaring, sometimes whispering, always entertaining. I can only add to the praise that’s already been heaped upon his shoulders. He’s saying what we already know, but are afraid to say publicly. In his show How Theater Failed America, he’s pointing out not so much that theater has failed America, but that America is failing theater. What makes this magical is not what he says, but how. Daisey’s relentless, nearly two-hour monologue holds two interwoven stories. One, with the stage lights exposing every nook and cranny of the bare stage at Philadelphia Theater Company, tells us about the business of theater. In his description, theaters have become massive machines, slouching forward churning out shows with no regard to community, artists, or social impact, and audiences are shrinking.
The other story, told in near-darkness, is his path through learning and creating theater, in the woods of Western Maine and the garages of Seattle. Daisey has been a theatre practitioner when the only profit in doing so was to stave off suicidal depression. He describes a summer of living off of two packets oframen a day and doing five shows a week as the best of his life. Theater, in Daisey’s description, is not something we need to experience because it’s important in and of itself. People are important, we are important, and participating in theatre heals, renews and surprises us.
To say that Daisey is an instigator is to trivialize his craft. While he does instigate, start dialogues, and ask questions, ultimately, Mr. Daisey is a performer. With director Jean-Michele Gregory, they have crafted a piece that can make you laugh till you have a head rush, cry out of fear, and in its closing moments, impart a deep sense of spiritual peace. He describes how he has been asked, “What are you going to do about the state of theater?” and turns the question to the audience. During the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, this isn’t a difficult question to answer (personally, I went and saw Armageddon at the Mushroom Village immediately afterwards, which was a great pairing). In the introduction to the 2001 paperback edition of the play Amadeus, playwright Peter Shaffer said that he became a playwright because he found himself “ill-suited for anything else.” This seems to overlap with Daisey’s notion that theatre is the shore upon which we find ourselves washed. Daisey’s tales and methodology are proof positive that we need to stop thinking about theatre as a process where something is watched by an audience, and more of a dialogue with community and artists both participating, for our common good.
Mr. Daisey will be premiering his new work, The Last Cargo Cult, as a co-production between The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philadelphia Theatre Company. With the raw vitality that Daisey brought to the business and social healing of theatre, it’ll be exciting to see what he has to say about his visit to an island in the South Seas and his education in Pacific mysticism.