If, like me, you’re a bright young idiot prone to moments of bombast, it’s good policy to build yourself rhetorical escape hatches. Bombast is useful when it causes folks to go “WHAT?! He’s OUT TO LUNCH!” and then try to articulate why, but it’s hard to stand behind in the long run.
A few days ago, I wrote that the one-person show (of which Theatre Passe Muraille is Toronto’s, perhaps Canada’s, leading institutional cultivator) is a form that’s ill-suited to respond to cultural and political complexity. Aware that I might get hungry and wish to eat these words, I mentioned — rhetorical escape hatch! — that of course there are exceptions.
Here’s one: last week I saw American monologuist Mike Daisey’s Dreaming of Rob Ford, a solo show presented as part of Crow’s Theatre’s East End Performance Crawl Festival (still running!), and loved it.
The point of this site is to spark public, meaty conversations about how the theatre and other art of our community (“community” defined as you like — nationally, transnationally and aesthetically, etc.) tackles or fails to tackle the central questions of our time, and a conversation implies an interlocutor whom you respect and who can, if he/she chooses to, respond, SO: instead of telling you, dear reader, why I thought Mike Daisey’s show was great, I’m going to tell you, dear Mike Daisey, why I thought it was great — and I invite the engaged artsfolk of Toronto and beyond to eavesdrop.
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I loved your show. I felt more implicated, more directly addressed by it than I’ve felt in the theatre in quite a while. Not only because your monologue took as its subject an issue that directly affects me and my Facebook newsfeed, our mayoral Falstaff, the riotous (though we don’t riot in Toronto, natch) Rob Ford; not just because you offered a reading of Torontonian and Canadian culture, which, no matter how accurate (very, I thought), was bound to appeal to my vanity; but also because of how broad the perspective of your performance was.
It could’ve been just about character, the foibles of an individual leader with unruly charisma. It could’ve been just about a sleepy city transfixed by a rare scandal. But what I loved about your show was that it felt informed by a huge intelligence that wouldn’t look at any element of the political reality in isolation, would find that boring; an intelligence that mined for connections — between citizenry and leader, self-perception and everybody else’s perception, a scandal and the moth-like behavior around it. I loved how you dug into the facts and myth of Ford to ask why Toronto would produce such a leader now, whether he might be a sort of corrective to the Anglo reserve that still inflects the way we treat each other in this city. What does the rise of a populist demagogue mean in a country and city where we pride ourselves on our big, educated, genteel-ish middle class? Are we who we say we are? If so, is our innocence tenable?
I appreciate your awareness that if you’re going to ask such questions, especially as a political outsider, you’d sure as hell better be funny. I thought your show was very funny, mostly because it was so accurate about bourgeois Toronto’s bewilderment in the face of Ford. There’s also a great pleasure in watching a performer who’s just so fucking on top of his technique, who’s got such impeccable control over his instrument. Your voice is a beautiful thing. Its brash enthusiasms in pursuit of the joke, its bluster of outrage curled by irony; the intimate rooms it reveals and, when you’ve got something private or difficult to say, draws us into. Your monologue, as I saw it (on opening night), risks the odd meander — I’d find it hard to say how some of its meta-moments, where you talk about how your appearance at the East End Festival was first negotiated, contribute to the whole — but your technical skill persuades us that the threads will come together if only we’re patient enough. Your monologue is unified by its themes but also, just as much, by the music of your voice.
I’ve spent some time trying to figure out why I was so into your performance when I usually have a lot of trouble with one-person shows. In fact, though I recognize that all of us who work with narrative are storytellers, I’ve often felt that storytelling as a pure form — the “gather round the campfire, kids” variety — is pretty limited. I’d usually rather watch drama, which strikes me as less overdetermined: a storyteller per se seems to me to know from the outset of his story where he’s headed, while the dramatist may know her destination but uses a form that’s liable to divert her, that’s built on volatile elements like conflict, dialogue. In general, I find drama more connected to the methods of democracy, where we’re asked as citizens not just to listen and accept but to reconcile a whole bunch of contradictory positions embodied in different people.
Dale Carnegie’s capitalist-optimist monologue How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936) — I’d call that storytelling. Henry Miller’s anti-establishment monologue Tropic of Capricorn (1939), with all its trenchant social critique — I’d call that storytelling too. An art that can negotiate their differences and explain how the same moment in American culture could produce these two radically opposed expressions of how the individual should be, an art that could help a person to chart a path between them (Death of a Salesman comes to mind) — I’d call that drama, and I find it more profound. With lots of respect for Carnegie and Miller (both Millers).
I think the reason I could buy into your brand of storytelling is that it feels so fueled by an inner drama. Your form’s specific kind of liveness — you up there on a stage, with notes, surfing on technique and the energy of the room to a conclusion you’ve only sketched the route to — is worlds away, to my mind, from the rehearsed, scripted monologue. Alongside your “storytelling,” where you as authority deliver a message to us as receptive group, there’s always, at every moment in your show, the drama of you trying to work out a problem.
Two problems, really, two sets of problems. First, we’re watching a live record of problems you’ve been tackling for weeks. What can I say that’ll engage this audience? Why me? Why now? What are the deeper currents at work in this material, the stuff my audience can’t get from the news? What is it about this subject matter that feels alive enough to me that it can activate my creative sources and I’ll feel like not an asshole when I stand behind it, bodily, in a city that’s not my own? I’m guessing; I’m projecting. These seem like the sorts of questions I’d ask myself if I were in your shoes.
There’s also the problem of idea-assembly, story-assembly, in the moment. How do I connect this material, now, in front of this audience, in a way that’ll feel natural and coherant? And man, that’s fucking exciting to watch. I was absorbed by that present-tense struggle, that tightrope act, full of decisions: your decision of how to string your narrative beads, and ours, the audience’s, of how to make sense of what you give us. Which is always the basic transaction between performer and audience, I guess, but the complexity of your material — its layered study of your political, our political, your personal, our personal, and where they overlap — grants the audience a lot more to work with than usual, a lot more to do. And so do the elisions and omissions of your extempore form.
I feel like it’s important to recognize how that form is pretty much your own. Your work isn’t really what we talk about when we talk about the one-person show. And I want to defend the drama, the scripted multi-character play or teleplay, against the vogue in forms that look and sound like yours. Because I’m still convinced that drama offers a way into emotional and intellectual possibilities that storytelling as such can’t quite touch. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a place for both. But even with all the room you leave for your audience, you do hand us a message more tidily than the best plays do. Like the great political stand-ups like Bill Maher, you can’t escape taking a position. The comedy demands it; the form, i.e. the fact that you’re just one guy up there, demands it. You can’t put yourself in quotes, as it were. And I think that’s a shortcoming of the form. That you can’t be both Othello and Iago is a shortcoming of the form. But, you know, grain of salt, since I’m a playwright myself, and my kind know what to do when we see a hydrant or lamppost, so.
I keep faith with drama, but I wish more dramas, in Canada and beyond, were animated by as much inner tension and conflict as your storytelling is. I hope you’ve had a lovely time in Canada and return to America sore from politeness and itching for a fight, and I hope none finds you, and so I remain,
Your friend in a glass house,