My Response To Mike Daisy

Let me begin by saying, in no uncertain terms, that Mike Daisy is the real deal. I happen to love a good rant, and my favorite kind of solo performance is done by The Tutor rather than The Actor, by an advocate rather than a solopsist. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good navel gazing tale, but I am more thrilled with a soloist who shows up with more answers than questions.

I’ve heard him, of course, on my headphones, and I’ve read him and read of him a number of times, but the actual presence is far greater than what I’d been led to believe. He leans forward on the lectern, learing out at us and sonorizing his way through a web of ideas, all of which are important although none, at first glance, seem so. His performance feels like the smartest friend you know suddenly flying off the handle because of a stupid comment some asshole just made. When he talks, it’s as if he’s not yet at the table, he’s walking up with the beers he just bought you, and he can’t wait to drop some knowledge… it’s only a half hour later that you realize he never quite sat down.

I couldn’t help but compare him to Wallace Shawn in The Designated Mourner (its own sort of solo performance). I guess the comparison works because the two men look vaguely amphibian, slits for eyes and wide mouths, almost froglike. And once the show started… I mean, if Mike Daisy was a frog, then I was just a tiny insect, riveted and paying close attention lest I be eaten. The man’s mind seems to be moving a thousand miles an hour, and his language choice throughout does as much to disarm as it does to dissect. He’s a wickedly precise storyteller, and I walked away from the show utterly inspired.

Not that I think he’s right about *everything*. I do think he’s right about a lot of things, and I don’t think there are actually *holes* in what he’s saying… I just think that he’s made some logical leaps that aren’t exactly useful.

There were many things that were just downright awe-inspiring in their insight. His comparison of Ronin to solo-performance was brilliant. Samurai are trained soldiers who, when they no longer are needed by their masters, are supposed to commit suicide. Ronin are samurai who lost their jobs and decided *not* to commit suicide, they just figured they’d find their own way. In the same vein, solo performers are largely the cast-offs from multi-cast theater, who decided they weren’t going to work in that capacity any more, for whatever reason. So they have become “masterless”, they get to create, publicize and perform their own work without any concern for the industry that has no support for them.

A different brilliant idea is the pervasiveness of solo performance. If one thinks about it, every class room is led by a solo performer, ever parent at home alone with their children, every cable TV news host, in fact every blogger! We are all solo performers in one way or the other. He even said that he would, that night, have a late dinner and then go home and watch on TV one solo performer (Jon Stewart) and then another (Stephen Colbert) give their opinion of the day’s news.

The problem is really semantic. If you are going to extend this hero status to the solo performer, because they are nimble and cost effective and exist outside the industry that shuns them, then it’s hard to include someone like Jon Stewart. It’s really pushing it to include teachers. Yes, the same talents are required, but teachers are really the *opposite* of masterless men, as most of them are chained to a curriculum, teaching to the tests, and they have unions fighting for tenure and the like. Teachers are not Ronin, and neither are stand up comics.

I don’t disagree with either point, a) solo performers have reinvented the rules for the theater industry and b) the talents that are required to be a good solo performer are necessary in any situation where one person has to tell stories to many. But once you make the term “solo performer” that broad, it has almost lost meaning.

One of the most moving parts of Daisy’s performance was his section on numbers. We have become a culture that doesn’t understand math, we only understand that one number is higher than the other, and that higher number will make us do things we would find unthinkable at a lower number. I loved this part, especially when he argued that there is a special number that makes an audience. He was adamant that an audience is NOT magical, it doesn’t have an energy or some other weird metaphysical thing, an audience’s effect on a performance is anthropological, it is scientific and it is part of our humanity. We all know this is true, we all know that there is a number, usually a percentage of total seats filled, that can change the tenor of a performance.

My tiny quibble is that this is true of all theater. If you have seven people in a play, or even just *two*, it doesn’t change the fact that a story is being told and that the story will be affected by the power of those being spoken to.

He said only one thing all night that I find dubious. He said that solo performance is the most reviled form of theater, and I just don’t buy that. Chazz Palminteri, John Leguizamo, Jerry Seinfeld, Nia Vardalos, every fat comic who got his own sitcom in the 90s, plus anyone who’s ever hosted a late night TV talk show or ever been on one of those VH1 shows would probably disagree with it as well.

Now, he might be right that among the theater snobbery, a large chunk of snobbery is saved for snobbing on solo performers. But I think there’s a healthy chunk of this snobbery reserved for musicals as well. And when’s the last time a musical broke out from the theater world into the larger world. No, I’m not gonna count jukebox musicals (it’s a bit of a stretch to make a claim that Abba’s success in the 70s, and the subsequent film made from the the musical, is somehow an indication that musicals are celebrated), so it’d have to be Rent, right? I wonder how many people recognize Jessie L. Martin from Rent as opposed to Law And Order…

These are quibbles, the truth is that my one problem with the piece is that it was dizzyingly meta. I have always had a problem with the preacher who was saved by Jesus, and now feels he must preach. Or the physical therapist, who was injured and their life was saved by a physical therapist. I have friends involved with things like The Landmark Forum, where they move up in the ranks until they become full time employees and teachers… or even more specific to the downtown theater crowd – the number of people who start taking improv classes and end up teaching them.

Daisy is a masterful story teller, and as powerful a presence as I’ve ever seen on stage or film. He is a laser pointer of a performer, able to delineate and explain, digest and refine or simply create out of whole-cloth some truly mind-swimming ideas, and I would be thrilled to take any journey with him. I just hope that he continues and moves away from taking us on the journey of how important the journey is.

I loved it, I really did. But with “Why Solo Performance Matters” sitting next to “How Theater Failed America” on the shelf, I just want so badly for him to move on to “The Eight Things You Need To Know About The Human Soul” or something. My God, if Mike Daisy wrote that show, I’d pay a big ass chunk of change to watch it. I guess I’m saying, I’m teetering on the edge of becoming a devotee, and if I can watch him talk about something other than live theater, I will dive into the deep end.