Mike Daisey on theatrical discourse

“I also have a vested interest in lowering the politeness level in theatrical discourse—which, I hasten to add, is not the same as throwing away civility. I’ve just seen far too many ‘discussions’ that should have been full-voiced arguments, too many passions squelched in the face of institutionalized hopelessness, and just too much damn silence, especially from the artists who live and work within the system. I’d rather see some feelings get hurt, and then people have to make up later and grow closer than the palpable quiet and passive-aggressive silence that I feel is too often the stock and trade of our theater.”

18 thoughts on “Mike Daisey on theatrical discourse

  1. Amen! One of the biggest problems in theatre in my experience is the unwillingness of people to offer criticism (hopefully constructive!) when that’s EXACTLY what the theatre industry needs. This being nice to everyone isn’t working — something needs to give!

  2. If you (blogmaster) want to make this a forum for theatrical fisticuffs, I am SO up for it.

    Let the brawling begin! Someone, please start an argument.

  3. Hi Anon,

    I am not advocating fighting for fighting’s sake. But I do think Daisey articulates a common problem in the theatre community I’m part of.

    Are we a community – a group of people with like interests that counts among its assets the ability to criticise itself.

    Or are we competing business ventures, with no right or dominion to demand accountability from our peer companies and colleagues?

    Back in my art school days, criticism was cultural. I think we all benefited from it.

    There’s a place for cheerleading. There’s also a place for criticism. Has Toronto’s independent theatre drifted too far to the side of the cheerleaders?

    I don’t know. What do you think?

  4. “Cheerleading” is too active a term for what goes on in Toronto’s sleepy theatre community.

    A little provocation would be good for everyone.

    “Criticism” IMO is strictly the domain of critics. Artistic peers should question, challenge, compete, deride and (occasionally) antagonize – all in good fellowship, of course.

    A blog like this can be a great forum for some real frankness. But of course civility and respect should remain part of the picture.

  5. I’m all for passion, of course, but I also would like to raise the level of critical thinking. When the theatre blogosphere has, in the past, gotten heated, all to often the level of discourse went down the toilet. There is a difference between a passionate exchange of ideas and a defensive exchange of personal insults. I also think that people need to step up and be identified and learn to take responsibility for their opinions. Anonymous commenters or commenters who hide behind screen names shouldn’t be encouraged, in my opinion.

  6. Hi, Scott! Agreed, pro-passion, anti-insult for sure. But the model of conversation you are suggesting sounds a bit over-regulated to me.

    Theatre after all is a volatile art form and “critical thinking” is only one way of looking at it.

    And what is the mask of anonymity, but a theatrical device?

    They’re called “plays” for a reason, Scott.

  7. The art form is volatile, and theatre involved assuming roles. But blogging is not theatre, and talking about theatre is not theatre, either. There is a difference between art and criticism, and we would do well to recognize this. “Overly regulated”? Yes, the theatre blog police force that I operate will pull you over and tell you to step away from the personal insult. Sheesh.

  8. Hey Scott,

    You recently hosted a good discussion over at Theatre Ideas about anonymity: What Do You Think About Anonymous Reviews?

    I think I’d rather someone put forward an opinion anonymously than not at all, though I liked Chicago theatrist Don Hall’s characteristically bristly take on the subject:

    “If the anonymous post reads like a legit comment then it doesn’t matter who said it. If it reads like a kid poking at a caged animal, then they deserve to be punched in the taint.”

    And your “. . . blogging is not theatre” statement made me laugh out loud.


    “pro-passion, anti-insult” – I agree!

    “Artistic peers should question, challenge, compete, deride and (occasionally) antagonize – all in good fellowship, of course.”

  9. i think it was a matter of time before we got to this point.
    the major problem here is that offending (intentionally or not) your peers is a bad way to compliment a career. this is why i’m way more likely to disagree on the blog with scott walters an academic in another country, than a fellow toronto-based artist.

    i guess posting anonymously is one way around this, but i would also like to speak with my own voice. it’s tricky. it makes it possible to discuss issues and ideas, but not perhaps specific artists or productions…that and i don’t want scott’s theatre police to work me over again, those guys are lethal.

  10. Oh, let me ask this: is it really doing your peers a favor to fail to challenge them to live up to their potential? Does a failure to acknowledge that not everything is perfect create an artistic Lake Wobegone where everyone is above average?

  11. Is it really doing your peers a favor to fail to challenge them to live up to their potential?

    No. We should all be challenging each other. It’s vital. The trick is in figuring out how.

    Our community has been living under the tyranny of the mainstream media review system for so long, we have forgotten how to criticize each other. It’s criticism by proxy: “I can’t risk standing up and calling bullshit on a peer because it’ll hurt my career. So I’ll just wait until the newspapers cut them down.”

    Is this our model? How is our industry supposed to prosper under conditions that forbid peer review? It’s insane!

    It doesn’t mean we should be “reviewing” each other’s work. That’s probably a bad idea. Many critics already do a fine job of that. But surely there’s a way to talk openly and critically about each other’s work without it being the career suicide Mike has suggested it is.

    Maybe instead of “How’s my driving?” bumper stickers, we could have, “How’s my acting?” or “How’s my directing?” bumper stickers (on our bicycles).


    I think blogging has a role in the democratization of media, and represents a partial re-calibrating of, and counterpoint to, the review system. It’s a new opportunity, at the very least.

  12. look, i totally agree with you guys, but ian, you’re misquoting me. i never said “career suicide” i just said, “a bad way to compliment a career”.

    by this i mean it would be less helpful than the alternative of simply commenting when I LIKE something. this whole having a career making indie theatre thing is extremely tenuous and difficult. if you’re burning bridges faster than building them, things just get that much harder.

    look at it through the other side of the looking glass: how much goodwill has praxis generated through this very blog by being perceived as outward looking and an asset to the community? the reverse would be true with an individual who was perceived as providing commentary that was perceived as critical.

    i know the response to this, “people have to be thicker skinned and accept all kinds of feedback in an effort to improve”. i’m not sure if i wanna be the guy that helps folks come around that way. i may leave it to academics and marketing gurus….

  13. Hey Ian! Tell us when your next show is! We’ll all come out and criticize your work. Respectfully, of course.

    But seriously. At some point, every real artist must learn to depend on his/her own wisdom.

    Agreed, Ian, re blogging and democratization.

  14. “How much goodwill has praxis generated through this very blog by being perceived as outward looking and an asset to the community?”

    I think the key here is “perception.” This blog does not represent a neutral position. I think it’s supportive, but It’s also critical – that is: it is involved in critical thinking beyond the borders of the company.

    Criticism does not equal standing on a soapbox slagging people’s work. Critical participation can be simply asking questions. Or participating in discussion. Or putting forward a point of view. These are all things that our community is already doing to some degree.

    Harbourfront Centre and The Theatre Centre, for example, recently put on that “What is your relevance?” conference in Toronto – a focused and concerted effort to raise the bar on critical discourse.

    So the question is not, “To criticize or not to criticize.” The question is “How do we criticize?”

  15. Hey Anon,

    I work on the marketing side of the business. So I can’t say I know what it feels like to read a bad review of my performance in a mainstream newspaper. (Theatre critics rarely mention marketing – good or bad – in their reviews!)

    There is, however, ample opportunity to criticize the work I do at this venue (see comments above).


  16. i don’t like the word “criticise” (“criticize”?) very much. mostly because we automatically mix its two meanings when it’s used in the context of theatre. yes, it means pointing out faults or flaws, but it also means expressing a sophisticated and informed judgment. criticism and words of praise are not mutually exclusive.

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