If you happened to be into edgy theatre or This American Life last year around this time, the name Mike Daisey probably rings a controversial bell. If not, click here.
At that time, the Salt Lake Acting Company had just produced a reading of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and when Ira’s exposé hit, we were all pretty pissed. At least initially. The more I learned about this Daisey dude the less I wanted to be his buddy and the less I cared about his kind of theatre. (There are a lot of interesting reads surrounding this, if you care to explore. I particularly liked this very frank blog by Woolly Mammoth’s Marketing Director at the time, Alli Houseworth.)
So cut to last Thursday night. My financial management class is wrapping up and Jeff Herrmann (our way cool teacher and Woolly’s current Managing Director) lets us know that the following night is opening night of American Utopias – Mike Daisey’s newest work. I’m a little skeptical and a little intrigued and I decide to go. And I’m really glad I did.
It’s a testament to Daisey’s writing and charisma that I could sit there for two+ hours (with no intermission) and be totally captivated by a (pardon me, but) fat, middle-class, white guy who just one year earlier had whined his way onto my ‘do not care’ list.
American Utopias is sharp and smart. And Daisey can hold an audience right in the palm of his hand. Even an audience who hates him in the beginning will love to hate him by the end, and when he takes his bow, they heartily applaud because he’s earned it. He is a master storyteller. There were a few times throughout when I took myself out of it to evaluate how I was really feeling. I thought, “Well, I’m thinking. I’m challenged. I’m engaged. I’m laughing. FINE. He’s very good at what he does.” Though I also thought a few times, “How much of this is really true?” And then he’d say something hilarious or really provoking and I wouldn’t care because it was great theatre. A large part of my overall enjoyment of the night was that dichotomy of skepticism of his character and respect of his craft.
I’m still not convinced I’d want to get beers with him (other than to maybe have a really frank one-time discussion) and I don’t know that he’s totally earned back my respect as an artist of integrity, but he brought an audience together, took us on a journey, made us laugh, and made us think. He created a captivating night of theatre.
It’s a real pickle trying to reconcile supporting the art of an artist that ticks you off. A similar discussion was had after a production of Race by David Mamet. It’s tricky and political and everyone has varying opinions and degrees of flexibility. What I discovered about myself during American Utopias is that it’s pretty easy for me to look past the person in order to appreciate the art.
If I saw Mike Daisey in the street, I’d probably give him a fist bump. But I’d do it with squinted eyes.
Go see it for yourself. www.woollymammoth.net You’ll be glad you did.