How Theater Failed America

How Theater Failed America
Written and Performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor

I have no idea how theater failed America. Neither does anyone else I know, including Mike Daisey.  He does have a clear-eyed view of the scope of the problem: brilliant performers forced to sell office furniture to make ends meet; diminishing and increasingly geriatric audiences; huge schlocky productions featuring Actors Who Have Been on TV. The stabs he makes at identifying the problem’s source, however, fall short. He suggests that corporations have commodified theater and have sacrificed artistic vision for growth and self-preservation. But anyone – individual or corporation – can produce theater, and self-preservation is an imperative of far broader range than theater. In fact, we seldom see companies unconcerned with self-preservation because such companies are generally, um, not preserved.

Daisey believes that the gorgeous new buildings American theaters are constructing have trapped them into uninspired, ultraconservative productions. He takes us on an amusing tour of some magnificent new theatrical edifice in an unnamed city. The main stage is hosting a big American musical, featuring an actor who had lasted half a season on a now-cancelled reality TV show. But in the building’s sub-sub-basement, the company’s Literary Manager shows Daisey the company’s pride and joy: a 150-seat black box, over which, the Literary Manager solemnly assures Daisey, the company would have complete control.

That’s crazy, Daisey thinks. Why not just build a black box, at a fraction of the cost? But the more important question is why Daisey, or anyone, would think that the theater produced in that black box would be any better than the reality TV star’s production upstairs. Freedom from expensive surroundings is no guarantee of theatrical quality. Daisey describes some work he did in a 49-seat Seattle grunge theater called The Boiler Room (so named because it was in…a boiler room).  It was a disastrous production of Genet’s The Balcony, featuring an albino, a dwarf, and a mud pit. The director was perpetually drunk. Daisey played the Bishop in kabuki makeup. At one point he…well, really, you should hear it from Daisey himself. The upshot is that Daisey vowed never to work in a production he couldn’t support 100%. From that point on, he confined himself to his monologues.

Well, all right, Daisey’s arguments don’t convince me, but so what? I didn’t go to Woolly for a lecture, I went for a show and a performance…and I got one. Imagine the late Chris Farley, if he had played smart and honest characters, instead of the oafish blackguards and moronic cretins he was cast as, and you have Daisey to the letter. He is full of passion and rage; sweat runs down his ample face in rivulets; his voice crackles with energy and the words tumble out like ice in the rivers of his native Maine. Notwithstanding the fierce energy which animates his storytelling there is a great deal of subtle humor. Before the magnificent new edifice, Daisey reveals, our Literary Manager had formerly worked in an office the size of a broom closet. After the company received its new digs, Daisey observes, the Literary Manager’s office is now the size “of three broom closets.”

Like all good monologists, Daisey is both the subject and the object of his stories, and he lays himself bare in them.  Once diverted from his theorizing on theater’s failures, Daisey treats us to vignettes of his own life in theater – his undergraduate days under the tutelage of crazy Dick Sproul; his fabulously unsuccessful attempt to start a theater in the wilds of Western Maine; the bleak aftermath of his academic failures; his efforts to teach theater to high schoolers; his trudge through the Seattle grunge theater scene. Some of these stories are funny and some of them are sad and some of them are both, but they are all honest – that is to say, they resonate with an emotional truth which you will instantly and unmistakably recognize as authentic.

This may be, in a roundabout way, the answer to the question Daisey poses: theater fails America – and the world – when it is inauthentic, which is another way of saying when it is bad.  The solution is to produce good theater, which is a success whether it is produced in a spare room behind a bar or in a 750-seat amphitheater, or on Woolly Mammoth’s main stage.

Running time: 1:50 (no intermission)

When: Wednesdays through Sundays until January 18. Sundays are at 2 and 7; all other days at 8.

Where: 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC

Tickets: $25. Call 202 393-3939 or visit the website.

Tim Treanor About Tim Treanor

Tim Treanor is a senior writer for DC Theatre Scene. He is a 2011 Fellow of the National Critics Institute and has written over 600 reviews for DCTS. His novel, "Capital City," with Lee Hurwitz, is scheduled for publication by Astor + Blue in November of 2016. He lives in a log home in the woods of Southern Maryland with his dear bride, DCTS Editor Lorraine Treanor. For more Tim Treanor, go to


  1. Steven, well put! Janet, I didn’t see either Daisey or McKnight as snobbish in referencing L&O.

    I do think it’s tough for local performing artists everywhere that audiences seem to think that television appearances are a sign of a more worthwhile stage artist — like, why should I waste my time going to see a show where I might not know who anybody on stage is since they’ve never been on a major TV show, when I can see someone who was on Law & Order? Celebrity sometimes seems like a collective, communicable, cultural disease.

  2. Steve, Your reaction ” When Daisey refers to a production starring actors who have once been on “Law and Order” you can’t help but smile. ” is definitely different than mine would have been. I would have frowned with disgust at the misplaced snobbery. The Law & Order shows are prestigious and employ many stage actors. I’m always delighted to see performances in Law & Order referenced.

  3. Steven McKnight says:

    I agree with Tim’s overall sentiments completely. Among the other straw men that Mike Daisey knocks down are artistic directors who are concerned with filling slots (so what’s wrong with a diverse yet balanced season) and actors who fly in to perform and play and then leave (as if that can’t be artistically invigorating).
    Nonetheless, as Tim indicates, the performance is so worth attending. When Daisey refers to a production starring actors who have once been on “Law and Order” you can’t help but smile. When he describes a primitive lighting system but then adds “we did have gels – we weren’t ANIMALS” I let out a good belly laugh.
    Daisey talks about how those of us who love theatre would like to view it as something nobel and pure. On the other hand, even when you see the flaws in a loved one and still love that person, I think it’s a sign of maturity.
    Daisey is short on solutions other than to challenge the young people in the audience to carry forward with passion and intelligence to overcome how our generation has failed by selling out. If that call to arms energizes younger theatregoers, terrific. When I look at contemporary theatre, though, I still see much worthy of admiration and pride, including this show.

  4. On a somewhat separate issue, why on earth do a show that’s nearly two hours long with NO INTERMISSION? I saw Daisey’s last show here in DC — “If You See Something Say Something” — which was also an intermissionless performance.

    Kudos to Daisey for having the stamina, but as an audience member I need a break after an hour and ten, seriously.



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