Mike Daisey’s Final Roundtable: Ideology vs. Experience

I had the great opportunity to take Karen and some friends from the NYU Steinhardt Educational Theatre program to see Mike Daisey’s closing performance of How Theater Failed America. They loved it (as I knew they would) and the panel discussion afterwards brought up some interesting ideas.

Th topic of the panel was Theater in 2033. The first question asked was from an actress who claimed she couldn’t get cast in Equity EPAs when actresses like Katie Holmes are making Broadway appearances. It felt awkward as this actress would not let it go of her frustration of not being able to be seen by ADs like Oskar Eustis. Playwright Richard Nelson put the issue to rest by saying something to the regards of “Forget about that! What’s going on there, on Broadway, has nothing to do with the art you want to do!”. The play presented such bigger issues that I was frustrated with this actress being so narrow minded bringing the issue down to why she could not get a job.

Other topics discussed were the future of theater education and the need for “Children’s Theater” to be recognized more as legitimized professional theater and not the thing actors do to get their equity card as well as how long it took actress Jayne Houdyshell to buy a house, basically all of her 35 year career.

Out of all the highly experienced panel members I was drawn most to the ideas of Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public Theater. One idea mentioned was the fact that the American theater should go the way of the American public libraries. Free for all. As talked about all over the theater scene the budget to run the American theaters is a drop in the hat of the national budget. I appreciated that he made sure to say that this was not going to get any artists rich, but that it would be a healthy alternative to the capitalistic view that is running the current non-profit theater system.

Naturally he used the example of the Delacorte theater in Central Park. The current play Hamlet received bad reviews from the New York Times, but is still “selling out” shows because of the very fact the tickets are free and the production value is of quality. He presented to the Public’s board the idea of having free tickets for the shows in the downtown space. The board could not imagine such a thing. Which brought Eustis to the crux of his point. That ideology will always trump experience. Experience says that when tickets are free people will come to the Public’s productions, but the ideology says that theater can not be run on this model as it has to make money and there are no other options but to sell tickets. Eustis said the national ideology surrounding how theater is run in America must change. He has hope because the current administration in the big institutional theaters will soon be gone and the next generation can “take them over” and issue reform. He also wanted to make clear that the current state of American theater needs some respect. The current theaters were not there fifty-sixty years ago and therefore the current situation is better than the options back then. Eustis seems to have his feet in both worlds. He is one that has experience with the current institutional theater model but also realizes that change is needed and that change can only happen from the inside. He is an artist and an administrator in the best sense of each of the words. This balance of both minds is needed if there is hope in ushering a new ideology for the American theater.

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