[Interview] In Search of The Real Americans: An Interview with Actor Dan Hoyle

By Jeremy Helton

During the 2008 presidential election, Sarah Palin was quoted as saying, "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America."  That same year, journalist, playwright and actor Dan Hoyle went on a three-month road trip in search of those "wonderful little pockets" and the real Americans who populate them.  He traveled to Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas, not unlike this year's GOP hopefuls.  But Hoyle wasn't  stumping for votes; he was looking for inspiration and trying to better understand the divide between big city and small town America.

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The result is "The Real Americans," a 90-minute, one-man show in which the audience meets Reaganite union coal miners,  iPhone addicted hipsters, anti-war gun salesmen, and a slew of other not-so-stereotypical archetypes from all over the United States.  "The Real Americans" premiered at The Marsh theater in San Francisco in 2010 where it had a 10 month sold-out run. On February 17 the show returns to The Marsh through mid-March.

I caught up with Hoyle to talk about the show and the state of the "real America" three years after Hoyle's eye-opening journey.

Turnstyle: In 2009 you were quoted as saying, "Part of what made me begin this show was wanting to do political theater that had conservative characters."  Why do you think those conservative characters have been so scarce in political theater?

Dan Hoyle: My experience is that people who work in theater are majority liberal, so it's only theater's fringe place in American popular culture that shields it from the kind of commie-pinko slings that academia takes from the right. People write what they know, and the theater world leans left. I believe non-Broadway theater audiences also tilt left, so it's harder to make genuinely conservative characters sympathetic to a majority liberal audience. In creating The Real Americans, this was a challenge. And I take pride in making the characters in my show sympathetic despite having core beliefs that are very different from most of my audience. What I've sometimes seen is that playwrights write characters who seem conservative at first, and hard to like, and as the play progresses, they are essentially progressives with a southern accent and maybe a cowboy hat. Which is an easier story to tell, because it makes us feel that our differences are superficial, and we just need to talk to find enormous common ground. That's not as much the case as is often portrayed onstage.

Turnstyle: What prompted your interest in seeing those conservative characters brought to the stage?

Hoyle: I went in somewhat naively, thinking that all we had to do was talk and everything would be ok. I also wanted some tough country wisdom as I felt I was drowning in urban liberal righteousness and feel-good foodie politics. I had traveled through rural/small-town America before, but only quickly and briefly, and I wanted to take a long dip. I wanted to meet folks in their environments and contexts, as part of what the show is doing is showing audiences that, yeah, if the factory closed in your town, Walmart's the only place hiring; your uncle, brother and cousin are serving in the military overseas; you're not allowed to pray in school anymore; and main street in town is half boarded up. You're going to have a whole lot different view of things than if your living in a city where your local shopping street just opened a new vegan doughnut shop; you're going to attend the bicycle rights rally later tonight; and the community garden is really excited to have you as a volunteer.

Turnstyle: Your work is often compared to that of Danny Hoch and Anna Deveare Smith, but last summer, in a review of The Real Americans' first run at The Marsh, writer Barbara Koh compared your work to Studs Terkel and Charles Kuralt.  To what degree do you see your work as being documentarian in nature?

Hoyle: A lot of the characters in the show are composites, so I'm not just doing verbatim renderings. I do record audio or take notes; the characters I create are very closely observed, so there is a documentary aspect to it. But there is a point at which it moves from research to theater. Basically, I get to do my own first-hand research; I get to be the journalist, then the playwright, then the actor. They happen all at once, as they are all based on close observation and trying to get inside the mind of the people I'm meeting, writing, creating, performing.

Turnstyle: How do you approach the people upon whom you base your performances?  What is their awareness of the process?  How do you view them?

Hoyle: About the first six weeks of my trip I had set up meetings and interviews with cowboys, oilmen, farmers, union leaders; I spent five days observing Army basic training at Ft. Leonard-Wood in Missouri. The second half was largely meeting people at public events: ballgames, town parades, gunshows, rodeos. I tell people I'm a playwright working on a play about whatever topic it is (in this case small-town and rural America) so I'm upfront about what I'm doing. This helps, as people are more trusting of a playwright than a journalist, I've found, as I've worked as both. I also do a lot of the journalism of hanging out, which is just talking to people casually, or just observing. I have a great time, drinking moonshine in Alabama, going crabbing out in the bayou, stomping to church music in Appalachia, bouncing in the club in the Mississippi Delta, getting shaken by the power of 400 horsepower engines at off-road races in northern Wisconsin.

Turnstyle: When did you begin your road trip to meet the "real Americans" and what do you recall culturally and politically from that moment in the country's recent history?

Hoyle: I went in 2008, and that was before the Tea Party and the backlash to Obama was just brewing. But I felt it all. Lots of people saying Obama's a Muslim, a terrorist, a socialist, and the anti-Christ and harbinger that the end times are coming. Now people are pissed that they have to get health insurance. A lot of people know they should have it, but they feel it's their choice, and they feel they need to draw a line in the sand before they are forced to give up their guns and start practicing Sharia law. Really nice, hard-working people would say things like this, and I really think they have genuine fears about this stuff.  When I started doing workshops [for the play], some reactions at first were like, "Obama won, people like him." And I sort of had to bite my tongue and trust my experiences. Then when the honeymoon wore off, and it became clear that half the country was really upset by the direction of the country, it was sort of vindication. And that's when the play opened.

Turnstyle: What do think has changed in the time since your road trip?

Hoyle: Recently I traveled through the small-town South again for a new project, and if anything the rejection of the progressive vision for America has grown stronger in parts of the country. I think the country is more divided than ever, and I think books like Charles Murray's "Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010" are really important. I haven't read it, and I'd probably disagree with some of his prescriptions, but his diagnosis is right on, that there's been a serious decline in education and income levels in white working class America, which I think has gotten lost in our national debate, as race is a much more popular topic in liberal, urban circles. And many conservatives are still trying to deny that classes exist in America.

Turnstyle: Do you feel like being a white male allowed you easier entry into the lives of those white working class Americans?

Hoyle: Sure, being a clean-cut looking white guy helps in a lot of situations, and sometimes it hinders. A black woman would have a very different experience no doubt, as would an old person or a transgendered person. We are judged by how we look. But a lot of that is first blush stuff. People judged me a lot at first because I was from San Francisco, but often, after 2o minutes of talking, those prejudices and suspicions would dissolve and people would take you for who you are. I tell the story of my trip, but I don't mean it to be the definitive experience for people from cities taking a trip through small-town and rural America. In fact, I would hope the play would inspire people to take their own trips, have similar or different experiences, and create something to share with other people that makes us laugh, think, and thrill.

Turnstyle: The GOP primaries have been grabbing the headlines for the past few months, and during any primary race, Republican or Democratic, one always hears a lot about "Small Town U.S.A." and "The Heartland."  Considering that focus and based on your own experiences in "Small Town U.S.A." have you been surprised by the candidates, especially the ones who appear to be pulling ahead of the pack?

Hoyle: I was surprised that Rick Perry didn't do better, as he is a true small town, ((H))heartland son-of-the-soil. And the disconnect is startling. I was just in New Hampshire during the Republican primaries doing research for a new project on the press, and Mitt Romney is about as far removed from small town, hard times America as exists in this country. But he's got the big money and the top pros on his side, and I think that matters more in the end (as all the candidates hold their events in cute diners and rustic factories anyway).

Turnstyle: What has surprised you about the race so far?

Hoyle: Besides the Perry debacle, not much. I wasn't surprised by Herman Cain's quick flame-out, and he was never going to maintain that popularity. He was the black friend the Tea Party needed to show they weren't racist. But I miss him, and Michele Bachmann, who made the early debates riveting television.

Turnstyle: What do you think the people, upon whom the characters in The Real Americans are based, would think about the current Republican Presidential Candidates?

Hoyle: I think they distrust Romney, as he clearly was a moderate Republican who has had to tack right to satisfy today's right-wing Republican Party. Whether he can win over more of the base is a big issue for the general election, especially in swing states. In 2008, Obama got as many votes in Ohio as Kerry did in 2004, it's just that McCain got 100,000 less votes than Bush did. I think the anti-Obama ire on the right today is similar to the anti-Bush ire on the left in 2004. So the question is: can conservatives rally behind a French-speaking, flip-flopping, billionaire from Massachusetts in 2012 in Romney more than liberals could in 2004 with Kerry?

Turnstyle: How were your perceptions of people in both cities and small towns been challenged or confirmed since bringing The Real Americans to the stage?

Hoyle: I think we are talking past each other. I think the divides are deeper and more profound, and we are living in bubbles that rarely get penetrated. And people need to get outside of their bubbles and meet, and see each other's realities.  I had the time of my life meeting my fellow-countrymen from different walks of life, and I think more people should do that. There is hope and redemption and solidarity in meeting your fellow brothers and sisters even if you don't agree on a lot. And the hospitality is tremendous, overwhelming. I got endless free meals, was invited to park my van and crash in people's yards. It was wonderful. I try to bring those two worlds onstage every night, and my hope is that people try to do it in their real lives as well.

Dan Hoyle's The Real Americans returns to The Marsh in San Francisco for one month starting February 17.  For more information go to http://www.themarsh.org/dan_hoyle_real_americans.html

All photos by Dan Hoyle.

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