News channeling: Actor assembles the story of digital media’s impact on national identity

Dan Hoyle has been crisscrossing the country, talking with reporters and news consumers, and looking at what happens when people only get the news they want to hear.

The San Francisco-based actor wants to find out if a fragmented digital culture, subcategorized into micro-niche chatrooms, is killing any kind of national conversation.

“How do we move forward as a country if we can’t agree on basic facts,” asked Hoyle. “We don’t have common ground to have a national conversation, like the Walter Cronkite era.”

First Person Arts in Philadelphia commissioned Hoyle to create “The News” — a working title — using a reportage approach similar to that of Anna Deveare Smith and “The Laramie Project.” Last year’s First Person Arts Festival featured Hoyle’s “The Real Americans.” He researched that piece by traveling the country talking to people purportedly on either side of the Red State/Blue State divide.

For his new piece, “The News,” Hoyle is compiling material about the news industry, and what effect digital media have on national identity. On Wednesday evening he performed what he has worked up so far — about a half-dozen characters — based on his recorded interviews.

It’s a one-man show, but Hoyle eschews the title “monologue.” True, he’s the only person on stage, but he channels an array of voices and perspectives.

He also eschews “theatrical journalism,” preferring “journalistic theater.” The distinction is slight, but, as it turns out, significant.

Hoyle cobbles together words and gestures he records from interview subjects, mixes in his own impressions, and invents character composites. What he performs is heavily researched fiction.

Mike Daisey wasn’t so careful. That performance artist created a nonfiction play about factories in China making products for Apple, which was the basis of a recent episode of the public radio program, “This American Life.” Since that broadcast, Daisey’s story was discovered to include many inaccuracies and apparently outright lies. “This American Life” retracted the program.

“The interesting thing about the whole Mike Daisey thing is that he had a message that really galvanized people,” said Hoyle, who regards Daisey as a friend and colleague. “It was dramatized in a way to do that. Audiences felt betrayed, and rightly so. I never want to tell people what to think. I just want to present people with contradictions.”

Hoyle’s research for his one-man play about journalism is not complete. He says he still has a lot more to do, including a trip to India, where print journalism is as robust as it used to be here. The final script likely will not be ready until 2013.

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