In Ukraine, bombs are falling, civilians and soldiers are dying, and talk of nuclear war sizzles. Meanwhile, in San Francisco three nights a week actor, Dan Hoyle, performs his latest production, “Talk to Your People,” on the stage of the Marsh Theater. He has performed there many times before over the past decade and it feels like home. What appeals to Hoyle, as an observer, writer and actor, he explains, is “the conjunction between global events and everyday lived experiences.” There’s plenty of that to go around.
These days, when Hoyle isn’t at the Marsh, or in his studio—a converted garage behind his house in ungentrified Oakland—he’s out and about talking with and listening to people. Call it “deep hanging out” and “deep listening.” The anthropologist, Clifford Geetz, coined the term, “deep hanging out” which he practiced with gangs and tribes around the world. The Bay Area author, Malcolm Margolin, who founded Heyday Press and who has published a great deal about California Indians, is a master of deep hanging out. His new book is titled Deep Hanging Out: Wanderings and Wonderment in Native California (2021). Like Margolin, Hoyle knows the thrill of wonderment.
“It’s an extraordinary time for cross-cultural connections,” Hoyle tells me on St. Patrick’s Day, which has made converts to the Irish and their causes around the globe for more than 100 years. Sometimes, the words and expressions that Hoyle hears on the streets of his own neighborhood, and in “old school working class bars,” as he calls them, make their way through the creative process to the monologues he delivers to audiences who come, he says, for “comedy and catharsis.” An habitual traveler, Dan has left comfortable niches and wandered far afield—to Canada, Mexico, Nigeria and the South Bronx— his ears to the ground, his eyes searching for the telling detail.
On stage, his characters include a biracial working class kid, a neo-hippie, a disillusioned academic, a CEO who wants to do social justice work, an Argentinian-born Marxist techie and more. Listen to them and you feel you hear America talking. The actor’s facial expressions, body language and tone of voice animate the characters he plays.
Hoyle’s fans have been coming to the Marsh year after year, beginning nearly two decades ago when he went on stage with “Florida 2004: The Big Bummer.” After that production, Hoyle delivered again and again, big time with “Tings Dey Happen” (2007), “The Real Americans” (2010), “Each and Every Thing” (2014) and most recently “Border People” (2019). One might say incisively that all of the characters that Hoyle creates are based on or inspired by real Americans from various social classes, ethnic groups and genders.
They are also based on and inspired by people who have escaped from boxes, transcended walls and broken out of what the poet anarchist William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles.” Internal boundaries are as much Hoyle’s concern as external boundaries. Sometimes, Hoyle’s fictional characters seem to leave the stage at the Marsh, sit in the audience and watch a performance. In fact, some of the people who have told Hoyle their stories, see themselves transformed and then depicted on stage. In turn, they’ve been inspired to do their own creative work.
Ukraine, Kyiv and Odyesa have not yet made their way into Hoyle’s monologues, either directly or indirectly, but you can be sure they will, much as George Floyd and Black Lives Matter have already infused his art.
In 2020, the Black theater director, Tamilla Woodard, who signed “We See You White America”— a document that condemned racism past and present—approached Hoyle and said, “Why don’t you do a show about liberal white people who are dealing with race, power, privilege and masculinity.”
At first, he didn’t like the idea, perhaps because liberal white people didn’t seem to deserve that much attention. Hoyle would rather give voice to those whose voices are rarely if ever heard, not members of the white middle class. “I’m 100% in support of hearing stories from people of color and from marginalized communities,” he says. “And I’ve always been welcomed in communities of color. It’s a two-way street. I learn from them and they learn from me.”
Dan Hoyle learned a great deal from his mother, Mary Winegarden, who was a longtime teacher and an activist, and also from his father, Geoff, a veteran actor on stage and in film. Mary Winegarden gave birth to Dan on the island of Malta where her husband had a part in Robert Altman’s Popeye. Born in 1980, and a Reagan baby, Dan absorbed Marxism from his father.
“It’s impossible to see the world without the lens of Marxism,” he says, though he satirizes the son of a Marxist in “Talk to Your People.” Audiences are appreciative of the fact that he can laugh at himself, or rather his many selves.
From George Orwell, he says, he learned the power of “incisiveness, fearlessness and close observation.” At Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, Dan studied with the ethnographer Dwight Conquergood who enjoyed deep hanging among the Hmong, later with refugees from Southeast Asia, and also members of Chicago gangs. Dan found Evanston, Illinois boring. He would take the train to Chicago and play basketball with a bunch of Black guys. Usually, he was the only white guy on the court. He was teased, called names like “Dan Aykroyd,” but he passed the rites of initiation and was accepted into the group.
Some of Dan’s fans would like him to go beyond the boundaries of empathy and encourage audiences to take action. Right now he’s not ready to do that. Agit-prop isn’t his thing.
He and his father, Geoff, are working on a show they plan to do together, titled “Dads.” With a wife and two children of his own, Dan can draw on his own experiences as a husband and a parent, and also look back at his childhood and youth with his mother and father. Dan and Geoff might tip the comedy meter, boost the applause level and persuade audiences to practice deep hanging out and deep listening, which can be as radical as walking a picket line or staging a sit-down.
Dan Hoyle, “Talk to Your People.” The Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco, until April 16, 2022. Tickets $15-$100. 415. 282. 30565; themarsh.org