Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Returning Power To The People

Over the years I've learned to savor my journeys through improbable dreamscapes -- visions that make no dramatic sense, lack any kind of physical restraints, and have no respect for boundaries of any kind. Shortly after awakening, the flagrant real-life barriers to duplicating anything that happened in my dream become painfully obvious.

Let me give you an example (and I'm not talking about the time Whoopi Goldberg and I went bicycling down a steep hill to see who could cross a highway and enter Safeway's parking lot first without getting creamed by an approaching car).

The other night I dreamed that I was in an office in mid-Manhattan when someone came into the room and announced that the conductor for that evening's performance of La Traviata was indisposed. Could I step in and take over?

Having no experience leading an orchestra in real life, the idea is downright laughable. Decades have passed since I studied piano or was able to sight read music. And yet, there I was, alone in a studio, running through Verdi's score by heart on a grand piano.

Renee Fleming as Violetta in Act I of La Traviata

In my mind, the dynamics of Violetta's Act I party scene were totally accurate. A neighbor who is a major opera fan even stopped by to agree with the tempi I had chosen. As I waited to make my entrance into the orchestra pit at City Center, I thought back to the time (in my dreams) when I had conducted a performance of Lohengrin in my underwear following an urgent request from Kurt Herbert Adler.

And then I woke up.

In the hazy aftermath of that dream, some ideas which had been eluding a solution finally coalesced into a workable format that I could use in an upcoming column. As the wild creativity of my dream life faded into the background, I quickly saw how what was possible in my sleep was impossible in reality.

For many artists, the ability to see what others don't -- or can't see -- is what adds an element of humanity or depth to their work. For most people, 2 + 2 may equal 4. But for an artist, the result may be 4 plus a pink rhinoceros. Or a cupcake with day-glo icing. I can't explain the process; that's simply how it happens.

Those off-balance observations and perspectives are what frequently make one person's art stand out from another's. Consider two short plays that were part of the Best of Playground 18 Festival.

In The Broken-Tooth Comb, by William Bivins, a young Chinese math whiz gets an opportunity to leave China and study in America. As the years progress (and he is separated from his beloved Yaling Sun (Rinabeth Apostol), he struggles to find a relationship between two prime numbers -- P (Howard Swain) and Q (Teddy Spencer). As directed by Katia Rivera, Jomar Tagatac gave a poignant portrayal of a mathematics professor chasing after the seemingly undecipherable answer to his theory until, late in life, he finds the solution he has always sought.

Tagatac also appeared as a Kevin, the delivery boy, in Ruben Grijalva's political farce entitled Mr. Wong’s Goes to Washington (which was crisply directed by M. Graham Smith). The setup is simple: Denise (Stacy Ross) is a White House aide locking horns during a meeting with a wingnut conservative member of Congress (Howard Swain).

When Kevin arrives with the food that was ordered by Ben (Adam Roy) and approved by Kim (Rinabeth Apostol) and Denise, Mick's two congressional aides are hungry for lunch. Kim is starving and ready to kill anyone who gets between her and the food. Ben is the very model of a research assistant, ready to quote statistics that will allow the Congressman to pay for and eat the food Kevin has delivered.

Mick, however, is having none of it. Not only does he resent the fact that someone ordered Chinese food when there is a good American delicatessen just down the street, he refuses to spend taxpayer money on a decision in which he was not involved. When Kevin (whose arms are getting tired from holding all the food) insists that someone is going to pay for their order, it only serves to further aggravate the belligerent Congressman who is, above all else, in love with the sound of his own voice.

Grijalva's tidy little farce did a surprisingly effect job of underscoring the sheer lunacy of the ideological extremes which have led to so much gridlock in Washington. But when it comes to dissecting sociological and ideological extremes, there is really only one person whose combination of forensic insight and artistic acuity is up to the task. That man is Mike Daisey.

* * * * * * * * *
Daisey returned to the Bay area for the first time in three years for a two-night engagement at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where he performed his stunning monologue entitled American Utopias. It requires an extremely skilled artist to take three seemingly disparate and uniquely American microcosms and tie them together using the complex common bond of how American culture can use (and abuse) the concept of an ongoing, carefully defined niche partnership between the public and private sectors.

Poster art for American Utopias
The three objects of Daisey's fascination are:
  • Burning Man: Daisey and his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, had never been to the annual gathering in Black Rock Desert. As they drove down from Seattle, they were terrified by thoughts of the unknown. Watching Daisey describe what it's like for a marginally defensive New Yorker to be hugged by strange men wearing little, if any clothing, is a moment of priceless hilarity built on the shattering of assumed physical boundaries. While his critical eye takes in the art cars and other sculptures to be found on the Playa, Daisey's acute sensitivity to money and how it affects cultural systems is blindsided when he encounter Burning Man's gifting economy. His discovery that the ritual of "burning the man" at the end of each year's festivities has less to do with the actual conflagration than with the way it impacts those in attendance is one of many presumptions about Burning Man that, quite literally, went up in smoke.
  • Walt Disney World: For years, Daisey had resisted going to Orlando's theme parks. However, his relatives in New Jersey regard a trip to Walt Disney World the same way that many Muslims regard the Hajj. While Daisey's description of his painful misadventures in "the happiest place on earth" will have some people doubled over in laughter, there is also a childlike moment of awe as he first glimpses Sleeping Beauty's Castle and feels the same thrill he felt as a child watching television. His expectation of spending many hours waiting on lines for various attractions is undermined by a cousin's paramilitary approach to efficiently touring the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps the biggest irony of his family's Disney obsession comes when his cousin, Chris, asks Daisey what he liked the most about the whole experience and Mike confesses that, even more than the trip to Orlando, he really enjoyed attending one of his family's annual picnics in which they created their own Disney-inspired theme park experience.
  • Zuccotti Park: Feeling guilty that he was not on hand for the Occupy Wall Street event when it took over Zuccotti Park, Daisey describes his experience on the day that he finally made a trip to Wall Street to see what the park (another public-private partnership) was like. Astounded by the intense police presence, after leaving the area and heading toward the subway, he asked a lone policeman how he felt about the whole phenomenon. The man replied "Well, you know, we've got to keep this place safe for the right people."
Monologist Mike Daisey

Those who attended some of Daisey's previous performances might have been surprised by the different tone of American Utopias. For one thing, Daisey seemed more emotionally vulnerable in his descriptions of feeling like an outsider at Burning Man and Walt Disney World. His ability to weave three separate narratives into a cultural tapestry hit a critical turning point at which the audience suddenly became much quieter and settled in for less comedy and more social criticism about the dominant influence of corporatism in our lives.

In American Utopias, Daisey seemed less combative and more willing to take his time as a master storyteller (had he been a camp counselor telling ghost stories, you can be sure every one of his camper's sleeping bags would have been soaked in urine by the time the sun came up). Not too many people can hold an audience in rapt attention for more than 2-1/2 hours before asking the stage manager to bring up the house lights so he can see the audience.

At that point, Daisey did something quite remarkable. He thanked the audience for letting him see them, explaining that at most performances he's usually speaking into a darkened space. Then, to make his point about why theatre is really about the exchange of energy between the audience and the performers, he invited everyone to join him outside the Novellus Theatre for the final segment of his performance. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Daisey then left the stage, walked through the auditorium and was followed outdoors by hundreds of loyal fans.

As I noted above, American Utopias presents a mellower and more personal side of Mike Daisey than audiences might be used to. For those who have never seen Daisey performing at full throttle, the following clip was recorded on December 2, 2011, in the plaza at Broadway and West 50th Street (directly across the street from the Winter Garden Theatre) as part of an Occupy Broadway event. As Benjamin Shepard, co-author of The Beach Beneath the Streets explained:
"The city created privately owned public spaces for the people, in exchange for bonus height and bulk in these spaces. In recent weeks, there has been a push to tramp on our rights to public assembly, public space and, by extension, democracy itself. In response, Occupy Broadway joins a global struggle using occupation as a form of creative resistance. Occupations are spreading around the world and around New York City, even uptown.

Bloomberg beware: As State Judge Stallman made clear last week, the people have a right to be in these spaces 24 hours a day. You take our park, now Liberty Park is everywhere! In a time when downtown theaters are rapidly losing their spaces, being turned into high-end fashion stores, Occupy Broadway is a symbolic attempt to regain the space of theatre as an accessible, popular art form, bringing it back to where it all started -- in a public space, for the common citizen."
Watch Mike Daisey address the crowd in a highly impassioned, uniquely confrontational speech. His action is a fine example of artists working to bring power back to the people.

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