As I mentioned in the preceding post two days ago, the solo performance form often includes a rant. So, of course, my blog about solo performances has to include at least one rant of its own. So here we go in the key of What is Wrong with Theater (capital T) Today:
MY RANT number 1: Critics getting it wrong!
While there are many examples of critics getting it right, there are also too many examples of critics getting it wrong. I’ll just go to one of the most recent and most egregious examples because it is emblematic of how vulnerable the solo performance is to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Between August and October 2017, Michael Moore of Roger and Me fame brought his one-man show The Terms of My Surrender to Broadway. The ambitious aim of Mr. Moore’s solo performance was to bring a president down. In the course of his two-hour plus intermissionless performance, night after night Mr. Moore tells the kind of stories that remind his audiences that they do in fact have the power to bring a president down. Regardless of what one thinks of Mr. Moore as a speaker or filmmaker or performer, one has to acknowledge that it makes a kind of sense that Mr. Moore and the solo performance form go together: it lets him incorporate personal stories of which he has many, it allows him to directly address his audience sometimes berating them, sometimes cajoling them and sometimes inspiring them, and it allows him to incorporate media in various ways such as when, after looking at the stage-size screen serving as a backdrop behind him which has an enormous image of Trump on it, he says “Don’t worry, he won’t be there the whole show because we’re going to bring him down.”
If one only had a certain significant theater review to go by, however, one would think that Mr. Moore’s solo performance was an unequivocal flop. The review makes my head EXPLODE because it willfully obfuscates what Mr. Moore is doing on stage and is an outright attack asserting that the performance is more about Moore’s ego than it is about theater.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!! This is what gets to pass as a review these days? This so-called review undermines the value of autobiography as a form of truth telling. It undermines the value of history, both personal and public. Finally, it undermines the audience and its capacity to think and make judgments.
Here’s what the review didn’t address. All solo performances include autobiographical material to generate the performance. To tell a story involving one’s self does indeed involve the ego, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the performance is only about ego. In Mr. Moore’s performance, one story he tells is the story of what happened in the aftermath of 9/11 when his publisher tried to stop the publication of his book Stupid White Men unless he redacted significant sections. He tells the story in order to make the larger point that one ordinary person can make a difference. In Mr. Moore’s telling that one ordinary person is not himself, but a New Jersey librarian who, after hearing Mr. Moore mention that his book was not going to be published after all, got on a listserv and alerted librarians to the potential for censorship underway. The end result? Stupid White Men did get published.
Moore also tells the story of what happened to the water in his hometown of Flint, Michigan in order to make us see the larger point which is not that Mr. Moore grew up there, but that when a country lets a CEO run a city (or a nation) like a business which means putting profit ahead of people, then water gets poisoned and children suffer irreparable brain damage from lead poisoning. And because the majority of the people living in Flint are people of color, then it is also the case that racism is alive and well.
The review also suggested that perhaps two of the stories were dated for a 2017 performance. Mr. Moore shouldn’t bring up the 1985 moment when Ronald Reagan decorated a Nazi cemetery or talk about Glenn Beck’s hideous calls for Michael Moore’s death on the radio because today’s problems are more pressing?! Seriously??!! Death threats and Nazi sympathizers are so yesterday?! Give me a break. The point in telling these stories is to remind audiences of personal and public past histories. We do not live in the current moment alone. We are a culmination of many moments from many pasts and it behooves us to remember those pasts as we live in our present and move towards our futures.
But perhaps what angered me most of all about the review, and what inspired this rant, was the way it discounted the audience’s response. What is with reviewers that have such disdain for their audiences?! I have been battling this disdain for the audience, and this insistence that they are more often than not, unthinking, since the days of my dissertation when I addressed the cliché assumptions surrounding early modern audiences attending Shakespeare’s plays as tomato-throwing dolts or, equally egregious, as privileged playgoers only, with nary a working-class man or woman among them. Audiences get no respect I tell you.