In 2007, I stumbled upon a one-man show at The Marsh, a small theatre in San Francisco. What I experienced in the next 90 minutes was a feat of theatre: Dan Hoyle, a San Francisco actor and writer, magically transformed himself into a dizzying number of characters all while humorously and accurately telling the story of the Nigerian oil crisis. The show was Tings Dey Happen, and it won the 2007 Will Glickman Award for Best New Play before running five months Off-Broadway in New York at The Culture Project, where it was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show. Being from the Bay Area myself, I feel a strong sense of pride over our amazing local artists—so naturally, once I heard Dan was at it again with a new show, I wanted to talk to him about it.
Your new show is called The Real Americans (Sarah Palin, anyone?), and to gather material you spent 100 days in your van traveling through small-town America. What compelled you to want to make this trek?
I was drowning in the hipster/yuppie righteousness of brunch culture in my hometown of San Francisco. I wanted to collect the tough country wisdom of small-town and rural America, and bring it back to theater audiences in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, etc. and burst the liberal bubble.
On your trip you were immersed in a culture where people had drastically different views from what you’re used to, but what was the most surprising thing you found?
How overwhelmingly kind and hospitable people were. And also how angry people were. How many everyday, hard-working folks believed Obama is a Muslim, and/or wasn’t born in America. And how a lot of people in the urban, liberal enclaves of this country don’t realize how polarized the country has become.
Do you have any favorite memorable moments from the road?
So many. Drinking moonshine in Alabama and admiring semi-automatic weapons, 4th of July bar-b-ques in Texas with the best fireworks show I’ve ever seen, every house competing against one another, off-road dirt truck races in northern Wisconsin, driving around small-town Nebraska at 5am in the morning listening to some of the most intense stories I’ve ever heard and the singing-stomping church services in backwoods Appalachia.
Once you finished your journey and sat down with everything you had gathered, what were the pitfalls you were most concerned with avoiding while writing the piece?
You have to walk the line between respect for people’s views while not glossing over the very different vision for our country that people have. And people walk into the theater with a lot of charge on these issues already. Some folks have written off the middle of the country, others cling to the romantic view I initially had when I started the trip that small town middle America is a sort of fountain of truth and real America. My hope is that people will check their preconceptions at the door and join me on the journey for 90 minutes, and be open to seeing their country in a new way.
And how do you think your own preconceptions and views of middle America or America as a whole have changed?
I think we ignore the anger and economic decline of middle America at our peril. This recession is not anything new to these folks. Manufacturing and agriculture were their backbone, and they’ve been losing jobs and resources for more than thirty years. And yet most middle class urban white people have no connection or even interest in white working class middle America. Why is that? Middle class black folks talk about needing to help out their brothers and sisters in the projects, about helping out the black community. But urban middle class white folks never talk about trying to help out their brothers and sisters struggling in Alabama and Michigan. It’s not considered cool.
So, besides picking up and moving to Alabama, what do you see as the best way for Americans to face or overcome this intense political-polarization?
Even though we often had very different views, my conversations while traveling across the country were almost always civil, enjoyable, and friendly. Just talking to each other is not going to solve our problem. The differences are real. But it’s important for folks in the liberal urban bubbles to get to know their country. One, to show folks in other parts of the country that we aren’t all pinko nutjobs, we are decent, thoughtful people too. And two, so that instead of complaining that Obama isn’t being progressive enough, city people realize that America is a conservative country, the most conservative developed country in the world. In a lot of places, Democrats are only slightly less conservative than Republicans. And it’s not just people being influenced by Fox News. People really have conservative world views, and they have deep historical, cultural, and sociological roots in this country.
Getting back to the theatre: you are known for your extremely colorful and fully-realized characters—how long does it take you to perfect a character, physically and vocally?
Well I don’t know that I’ve ever reached perfect. And I work on all the characters together, usually somewhere close to twenty. But I think to make a whole cast of characters stage-worthy it takes a year or more. And I continue to refine and hone every night onstage.
What do you hope the audience walks away thinking or doing after seeing The Real Americans?
I hope people walk away looking at our country in a new way. And asking themselves what is our country becoming, and what stake and role do I have in that?
The Real Americans runs at The Marsh Theatre in San Francisco through September 25, but is most likely to extend.
You can also catch Dan around the country:
Oct. 15, 16 The Lensic Center, Santa Fe, NM
Nov. 11-13 Painted Bride Theater, Philadelphia, PA
Nov. 17 Joe’s Pub, NY
And for a sneak peek of the show, watch the trailer.
Lauren Rosenfield is the American Theatre magazine intern. She is about to enter her senior year at Pomona College to finish off her English and philosophy degrees. Hailing from Northern California, she has thoroughly enjoyed being in New York for the summer writing for American Theatre magazine and attempting to see as many shows as she possibly can.