With Mercy Killers Tour, Michael Milligan Sidesteps Corporate Theater

Mercy Killers is a remarkable one hour, one man play written and performed by Michael Milligan.

It’s about a libertarian car mechanic whose wife gets sick and things quickly go downhill. Mercy Killers takes place in the interrogation room of a police station.

Milligan is taking Mercy Killers to community theaters and even smaller community spaces around the country.

The audiences are brought to tears. At the end of the play, Milligan engages with the audience and then passes the hat. He averages a couple of hundred dollars — enough to get him to the next town.

Last year, he took Mercy Killers to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland where it received a Fringe First Award for best new play.

Milligan is a professional actor based in New York City.

He is dedicated to showing Mercy Killers to as many Americans as possible.

But Mercy Killers is being kept out of mainstream theater spaces — mostly because of corporate influence.

Mercy Killers shows a regular guy driven to the edge by the current medical insurance industrial complex. But the unspoken message of the play is — we need to get rid of private for profit health insurance.

Thus the built in conflict with the big theater spaces.

Case in point — the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

“Before Mercy Killers, I was performing in another play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which is the flagship regional theater in the country,” Milligan told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “As an actor in drama school, you dream of performing there.”

“I was there at the Guthrie, in this play — Appomattox,” Milligan says. “I was performing on what was called the McGuire Proscenium Stage. It was named after Dr. William McGuire, the former head of UnitedHealthcare, the health insurance company. He was involved in the largest backdating of stock options scandal when he left the company.’

He had to repay millions to settle the case, right?

“But he still had a billion or so left after settling the case,” Milligan says.

“I asked myself — does my play fall outside the boundaries of a theater that receives so much sponsorship and patronage from an insurance executive?”

“There was another theater, where my play was being performed. And donors to this theater were these major health insurance companies. I was a blogger and I wrote an article about my thoughts about the Guthrie Theater, the fact that I felt ambivalent about performing on a stage named after the former head of UnitedHealthcare. And it made me question the boundaries about what could be presented in a large institutional theater like that. I mentioned his name in the blog post. And I got a call shortly after that. The artistic director at the theater where my play was being performed mentioned the concerns about getting money from these insurance companies. So, I changed the blog post.”

Most of the theaters you have taken Mercy Killers to have been very small community theaters in the United States?

“Well, not necessarily community theaters even,” he says. “It could be a community center, or a union hall, or a student union. There have been a lot of improvised theatrical spaces.”

Have you actively tried to get it into mainstream theater spaces?

“Yes. And I had a similar response from a number of artistic directors at theaters who clearly admire the piece and the performance. But they say — I just don’t see how this can be a part of our season.”

Do they give specific reasons?

“No. But the response I get from audiences is very compelling. I have performed for people who aren’t even regular theater goers. They see it and enjoy it very much.”

You are going around the country, with donation baskets at the back of the room.

How much do you make a night?

“It fluctuates widely from night to night,” Milligan says. “But I think it will average around $250 per performance. I’m not living like a fat cat. But if you perform off Broadway in a major theater, you will make between $350 and $600 a week. That’s living in New York City, one of the most expensive cities on the planet.”

How many performances a week off-Broadway?

“That’s doing eight performances a week. You can do the math there. It’s appalling. People do theater in New York because they love theater. Actors love to act. But it has become viewed as — this is your chance to be seen by the industry, so you can be discovered, so you can be seen on a television show. You will make your money by selling toothpaste in a television commercial. But actually earning a living by doing theater in New York is a precarious endeavor.”

“My model means I can circumvent the entire system in terms of having to wait for some literary manager or managing director of a theater to calculate and determine whether or not this piece is suitable for their subscribers, whether or not this piece will upset important members of the community. Many times, the development of a play can take many years and many developmental workshops and things like that. I don’t want to wait for all of that. I don’t want to wait and let somebody else who is not even necessarily an artist read and decide whether or not this piece deserves to be seen by the public. I think it does. So, I will just do it. I don’t need any of that apparatus. Well, it would be nice to have their marketing apparatus. But I can do the play in a room with some clip on lamps and get local people who are interested in the piece to host a performance. I actually feel like the actual way that I’m going about putting on the piece is a kind of a revolutionary way of doing theater. It’s very exciting and rewarding for me to be outside of the normal way of doing things. On a deeper level, it actually is my own individual quasi-solution to the problem of large arts institutions. I’m not looking for some big handout from the National Endowment for the Arts. I don’t want to spend my life writing grants, receiving money from the government.”

“That’s not what I’m arguing for. I also don’t want my art to be mediated and determined by a bureaucratic structure of these large arts institutions. All I need is some space. That’s all I want is a room. If I have a room, then I can get an audience, I can do my play and I can pass my hat around afterwards. And I will end up making more money that way than say an actor makes working off-Broadway in a week.”

“That’s my solution to the problem. But for me, it’s about space. When a producer wants to put on a play on Broadway, they have to pay the landlord. There are three organizations that own all the Broadway theaters — Schuberts, the Nederlanders, and Jujamcyn.”

“An enormous amount of the overhead for producing the play is the rental of the theater. The producers have to come up with this huge chunk of money to rent the theater. We think of Broadway being the apex of American theater. But there are some real jalopies over there. I’ll be performing at a state-of-the-art university theater that is much nicer than many of the Broadway theaters.”

“This is part of the larger problem of space. We as artists, we don’t want a handout from the government. We don’t want someone to write a grant and have somebody determine what is worthy and what isn’t. And we don’t want to be beholden to corporations who give handouts. We want some space.”

“I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me,” Milligan says. “I want to make that clear. I’m earning a living doing this. I’m in charge. I’m the decision maker. I enjoy this much more. I’m not going to auditions for other plays. I don’t want to. This is extraordinarily liberating for me. It tells me that there is actually a hunger out there for works of art that deal with things real people deal with.”

[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Michael Milligan, see 28 Corporate Crime Reporter 15(12), April 14, 2014, print edition only.]

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