The Mysterious Middle | Dan Hoyle's new one-man show on flyover-state America.
From a bicoastal, urban perspective, America’s heartland may seem like a treacherous amalgam of Bible-toting gun nuts and Dallas Cowboy fans. It’s a consensus easily arrived at by those who only ever fly over the flyover states. But that’s just not San Francisco actor/writer Dan Hoyle’s style—he takes a more hands-on approach to forming an opinion. A practitioner of his own form of “journalistic theater,” Hoyle set out to get a better handle on the mysterious middle of the country by traversing America’s small towns in a van. Hanging out in Walmart parking lots and anywhere else he could get people to talk, he soaked up their stories. The result of these conversations is the basis for the characters Hoyle plays in his one-man show, The Real Americans, now at the Berkeley Marsh. I checked in with Hoyle recently for an earful of straight talk about this great country we call America.
Paul Kilduff: Do you think the closed-mindedness that you ran into is just a function of the fact that people don’t have to be accepting of other cultures and ways of living because they’re not around any of that?
Dan Hoyle: Yeah, and I think it works both ways. I mean, the big bubble in the Bay Area of people who would say they’re wildly tolerant basically have little or no experience with working-class rural people, and so they can’t fathom—and choose not to fathom—why people are like this, in the same way that people can’t fathom why the Bay Area is as it is.
If you’re living in a town that lost its factory and is losing its folks that are highly skilled, you’re going to have a different perspective on things. And if your only view of what’s going on in the city is through MTV, then you’re going to kind of think it’s Sodom and Gomorrah and vice versa. If your only understanding of small-town America is clips on YouTube you’re going to have a weird sense of what that is, and not get [their] hospitality.
PK: You broke bread with complete strangers out on the road in your van. Was it a lot of Golden Corral? Where were you eating?
DH: There’s the classic thing where I’m at a restaurant and I’m like, “Do you have any vegetables?” and they’re like, “We have fried squash, fried that, fried this,” and I was like, “Can I just get it steamed?” and she comes back and says, “Everything’s fried.” But you know I had a little camp stove. I ate out of Walmart grocery stores.
DH: I know there’s this huge thing about “food deserts” but they had four different types of kale greens and mustard greens.
PK: You brought people into your van to have a campfire meal, is that it?
DH: Well, no, it’s funny. I bought this Ford E-150 camper van. And I thought it was like cool and Americana, and they’d go like, “Oh yeah, you got that hippie van.” I was like, hippie van!? No, it’s a Ford.” I made a conscious decision to not get a VW. Whatever. I was this dude going out with his van. In some parts of the world I guess it’s just the hippie van.
PK: You didn’t score any points by not getting the VW van?
DH: That is a big symbol and I didn’t want to be that guy. I also didn’t want it to break down every 500 miles like everyone I’ve talked to say they do.
PK: Well, at least you didn’t get a Subaru wagon.
DH: There you go.
PK: You would’ve been killed, right?
DH: You don’t even have to put the bumper stickers on the car. The car is the bumper sticker.
PK: You’re just the enviro-nutcase in your Subaru from the city. Isn’t that how you identify people in the Northwest at the lumber towns? The locals drive trucks and the city interloper environmentalist wackos drive Subarus?
DH: I think we’re at a point with brands where you don’t actually have to ever talk to someone. You can just look at their labels and decide whether you have a low or high compatibility. “Oh, they have a BMW? I’d better not talk to them.”
PK: What do you think the reaction to The Real Americans would be, say, in Little Rock, Ark.?
DH: I think Little Rock would probably self-select to a certain extent but you know it would be interesting. When [one of my characters] is talking about deep creation theory science, that’s basically what somebody [told] me. People would tell me that and I totally respect them but it’s just funny when you hear it [in the theater.] When that was happening, no one was laughing.
Recently, somebody came to the show who’s like, “That’s my family.” He wasn’t pissed off. He was like, “Yes, that is what we’ve talked about and it’s dead serious.” So I think it would be like when I did the show Tings Dey Happen [based on Hoyle’s year as a Fulbright scholar in Nigeria]. All the white guys got laughs and all the Nigerian characters, people were like, “Hmm, what are these people about?” And then when I did the show in Nigeria all the Nigerian characters got a laugh and then the white characters, they’re like, “Hmm, what are these people about?”
PK: People really can laugh at themselves, laugh at the familiar.
DH: I think so, if you do it with honesty.
PK: If you look at a map of how the Congressional districts voted in the last presidential election, this country really is a mosaic of red and blue. Did you find that?
DH: I totally agree with you. It pretty much breaks down like metropolitan areas are blue and rural areas are red, and then suburbs are kind of split. There are wild liberals in Madison, Wis., and California has some of the most conservative folks. I’m really making a distinction [between] metro areas and non-metro areas. I was talking to an itinerant preacher in Texas and he said, “I play shows [in the Valley] all the time. They’re the same people.”
That’s the sad thing. We’re really not that far geographically from each other, but there’s still not that much hanging out. And I’m not dewy-eyed. It’s not like all you have to do is talk to one another and it’ll all make sense. No, there are very serious divides in the country, but if you have no experience and exposure to each other, it does get worse.
Birthplace: Malta, grew up in San Francisco.
Astrological sign: Hardcore Aries.