September 9th, 2011 | by PENELOPE BASS Arts & Books | Posted In: Theater

Deep in the Heart of ’Merica

Conversations across a divided country with Dan Hoyle

dan hoyle the real americansPhoto: Patrick Weishampel
Dan Hoyle says his epiphany came the day the journalist and playwright found himself sitting in a little garage cafe in San Francisco being offered sensitively prepared food crafted from morally conscious ingredients to help benefit the children of the Taliban, or "something to that effect."

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what is America coming to?" recalls Hoyle. "I need to find the real America. I need to go to small-town, rural America to find it." And thus began a project that would lead to Hoyle’s critically acclaimed new solo show The Real Americans, which opens this week at Portland Center Stage.

Hoyle spent 100 days traveling across the country in a van, taking the small back roads and visiting with the people of what Sarah Palin had infamously dubbed “the real America.” His resulting one-man show depicts the conversations he had along way, engagingly told through the accents of mannerisms of the people themselves via Hoyle’s innate talent for mimicry. WW sat down with Hoyle to talk about angry small towns and meat sandwiches.

Penelope Bass: Being from San Francisco, do you find people automatically label you as a liberal?

Dan Hoyle: Oh sure—a liberal, a communist, whatever else you want. One time I was at a bar and a guy asked where I was from and I said San Francisco, and he was kind of stunned for a second and then just kind of moved to another seat at the bar. But those are first impressions. And most of the time, once people would get talking, even though we were from, I think, two different cultures of America, we would have a good time hanging out. I would be drinking moonshine in back-road Alabama, or hanging out on street corners in Mississippi with guys telling me their life story, and I didn’t fit right in, but we definitely enjoyed each other’s company. 

When you were traveling across the country, how did you decide where you wanted to go, and what kinds of things would you ask people? 

I stayed off the interstates and I wanted to get as far from urban, metropolitan-area America as I could. For my previous show, Tings Dey Happen, I lived in Nigeria studying oil politics for about 10 months. When I got back a friend of mine took me on a tour of ballparks and I met this guy from Wisconsin and he was asking me about New York saying, “You ever been to New York? That place is crazy. They got those meat sandwiches right there on the sidewalk, carving the meat right there on the sidewalk. Prostitutes all over. Every day, eatin’ the meat sandwiches, chasin’ girls …only problem? Traffic.” And I was just like, wow, I need to get to know more about the other side of America. So that was part of the inspiration too. 

In terms of how I met people, I set stuff up for like the first six weeks. So I went and hung out with oil hands in Texas and farmers in Alabama. I did five days doing basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri. I went to union halls in Michigan. And after that, I would just show up to the rodeo or a gun show, or go to a fireman softball game, or a town Fourth of July parade and start talking to people, telling them I was making a play.  

When you started talking with people, did you hear a lot of what you expected to hear, or did people surprise you with what they had to say? 

I was taken aback by—there is a lot of anger, I felt. It was a lot of the stuff that I think coalesced into that tea party, populist, conservative uprising that we’ve seen. And this was before that when I was traveling around. So when I came back and initially started working on the show, people were like, “What are you doing? Obama won. It’s a new, liberal-age America.” I was like, “Uh, I’m not so sure.” 

Of the characters you portray in the show, how much of the dialogue is verbatim from what people actually told you? 

Well, I don’t do just recorded transcripts. A lot of the characters are composites. And yet everything that’s happened and a lot of what is in the show is real. What happens is that, as I start to create these characters, I take on these voices that are inspired or studied from these different people. And sometimes I’ll have a story of one person with the voice of another person. Or a couple of different people whose stories are similar, I’ll put them into one character, and then maybe grab a walk from someone else. And then they take on a life of their own as these characters. It’s all based on what I saw and heard and experienced. But there is a moment when I have to start to channel these voices and characters and take that artistic license to make that into a play and give the audience 90 minutes of what I think best serves the show and also best serves my experience within a theatrical format. 

Does your work as a journalist influence you as a performer, or vice versa, particularly for a show like this? 

Definitely. I think the skills and practices of journalism and acting are quite similar. It’s all about observation. And you’re trying to understand not just what somebody is saying, but how they’re feeling, how they think, what their world view is. And you’re trying to express that more fully. And I feel like I have the privilege of having 90 minutes with a captive audience—and really good lighting—so I can tell my stories that way. 

Do you feel like the time you spent talking to people for The Real Americans led you to any kind of grand conclusion? Are we really as polarized as we’re portrayed? 

I think that there are some very, very different and strong ideas about the way that people want the country to move in, and even, to a certain extent, what our country is founded on. And for a lot of people, things are not as good for them as they were a generation ago. And then you compound that with the changes in American policy regarding abortion rights, gay rights, end of prayer in school; there are a lot of culture issues that fire people up as well where people feel like the country is drifting left. And it’s so funny because you walk around Manhattan or San Francisco or Portland, you often hear people saying, “Oh my gosh, the country is being hijacked by a right-wing lurch.” And when I was going around small-town, rural America, a lot of what I was hearing was that the country is being taken over by socialist-minded liberals. 

Do you go into this project with a particular mindset as to who these people were, and did you experience anything that changed your mind or convinced you of their perspective?

My goal was to go out and find a bridge and find harmony and to break down all the barriers. And on a personal level that’s really easy. The issues remain. I met people that I had really profound interactions with. There was a vet who fought in Vietnam and is really opposed to the Iraq war and he comes to life in the show and talks about trying to help out new vets. And even when I’m hanging out with the evangelical Christians in Texas and they’re talking about how, because giraffes have really long necks and when they go down and eat the grass and then pull their head back up they don’t pass out, that that’s evidence of a master plan. But at the same time, they’re showing me incredible hospitality and their son is going off to Afghanistan. There’s no point in the show where I think the characters don’t come off as sympathetic. 

I think the challenge we find ourselves in as a country, and what I try to show in the play, is that we shouldn’t view people as our enemies—they’re our brothers and sisters. It’s really easy I think for people in the liberal bubbles to either write these people off completely or have a sort of rose-colored view of “can’t we just get along?” And I think neither one is correct. You have to acknowledge the differences and at the same time you can’t write people off. I try to show people’s lives in their homes so you get the same feeling I got when I was traveling around of “Wow, I feel a real kinship with my fellow Americans,” but at the same time there is a big divide here. 

So do you hope that what people take away from the show is a willingness to engage with one another? 

Definitely. And if I can inspire people to go out and buy vans and travel around the country that would be wonderful. You’re only gonna gain things by talking to people. And most of the time when people talk to each other along these lines, it’s at some kind of war rally and people are screaming at each other from other sides of the fence. And it’s a totally different experience when you’re arriving in somebody’s town and they’re like, “Yeah, you can crash in our yard tonight; you want lunch? You want dinner? You need a shower?” The first two weeks of my trip I got seven free meals, and people were praying for me every day. And that changes how you view your country. It’s your country; you should take ownership of it and engage with people in a way that’s not just screaming across a fence. It’s a much more fulfilling way to start.

See it: The Real Americans at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, alternating Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances. Closes Nov. 6. $26-$46. All Ages.

 
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