Mike Daisey Responds to Tampa Bay Artistic Director Todd Olson

Mike Daisey puts his writing skills to work again and pens an intelligent response to a letter he received from Producing Artistic Director Todd Olson from Tampa Bay’s American Stage Theatre Company. The long post is a MUST read. Daisey breaks down Olson’s letter in a way that shows Olson’s ignorance about Daisey’s show How Theater Failed America (HTFA) and highlights how the Artistic Director does not seem to very artist friendly.

A main point in the letter that I want to highlight is the us vs. them mentality Olson has set-up between the staff and the artists. Olson states:

… we have had to work harder (and by “we” I mean all staff members not protected by a union; AEA actors have continued to get 3% raises annually despite decreases in all of our staff salaries, including my own).

Because of the blood, sweat and tears of my staff (again read, “not actors”) we have nearly doubled our subscriptions and our overall attendance has increased 42%, in large part from young and diverse audiences.

Why can’t a theater hire someone to fill a staff position and an acting role? Why can’t a theater hire a web designer who is also an actor? They can be contracted for one or two shows in the season and also work in one of the departments? Due to the actor needing to find other jobs to supplement their acting career, I am sure there is no shortage of actors who could also work is most office jobs within the theater.

Many theaters with education departments hire teaching artists. Why don’t they offer them a contract in a show as well to help supplement the little money they are paid as teachers? No one is arguing that a theater does not need a staff, but why continue to separate staff members and artists? If a theater has a couple of actors within their staff, then in theory, they also have a resident acting company. The theater can build seasons around those actors to ensure that they have an acting job year after year and a marketing pitch for audiences to come back and see their favorite actors in different roles. This might not be as sexy as bringing in a company of actors from New York, but I know many talented actors who would love to work consistently in a theater and would be willing to do both staff and artistic jobs. I hope it would be an honor for an artistic director to give an artist health benefits, a consistent paycheck, and a deeper connection to the theater, other staff members and its audience by also having them work in other positions.

I think a major point in HTFA is that people should come first before any theater building. I think this includes the staff. To sustain a theater as artistic director the real job is the care of the people. In this hard economic time budgets are being cut, so how can one look to sustain both staff and artists, by bringing both to the table in multi-faceted roles.

As Daisey points out, it is about the team, so bring the artists into the staff positions to create that unified team.

I never accused anyone of “supplanting” the actor. There have always been people doing marketing and PR—and in the best worlds I believe it is when the artists themselves are involved in that process, in an ongoing collaboration, and are interwoven with what is traditionally thought of as “staff” jobs.

Instead what has happened is that roles have been assigned, and the performer has been walled off from other areas, cut down from connecting with the rest of the theater and neutered. This compartamentalization is the currency of the corporatization that has infected most American theater.

There are so many more points touched on in the Daisey’s response including creating local work about the racial fault line in St. Petersburg instead of doing an August Wilson play, Theatre Communications Group not stepping up to do critical writing about regional theater because TCG exists because of the membership and advertising of regional theaters and the complete lack of Olson knowing anything about HFTA. This is why in my letter to American Theater Magazine I asked them to consider publishing HFTA so people who hear about it, and don’t have the opportunity to see it, could read the details.

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    3 thoughts on “Mike Daisey Responds to Tampa Bay Artistic Director Todd Olson

    1. Mick Montgomery

      I actually worked for a theater company in San Diego called Lamb’s Players where about half the admin staff were actors and performers for the company. And the model works, and has worked for about 30 years.

    2. Scott Walters

      Specialization is at the root of this malfunctioning system. The idea that each person does only one thing and one thing only. That, and the lack of commitment to a place and to people. And that applies equally to staff and artists. Stay put.

    3. Thomas Folair

      Mr. Olson and Mr. Daisey appear to agree that the regional theaters’ ADs all appear to be dyed-in-the-wool liberals but neither of them point out that most of the same preside over their organizations like typical Republican CEOs.

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