Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 7: Meet Mike Wiley

In many ways, North Carolina playwright and actor Mike Wiley is a good example of somebody who started with Peter Brook’s definition of the minimum elements needed for an act of theater to occur and turned it into a fulfilling and sustainable career. “If you have an audience that’s open to the message, a 10 x 10 space, and the fee,” Wiley says, “I'm your man.” I wrote about him about ten years ago for American Theatre Magazine.

An artist like Mike Wiley offers an effective model of production that stands outside the traditional institutional approach. As a playwright and performer telling stories of African-American history in towns small and large throughout the South, Wiley embodies a commitment to diversity in all aspects of his work. As an artist-entrepreneur in control of the means of production, he demonstrates the sustainability and creativity that comes from artistic independence.

Versatility has been the hallmark of Wiley’s career. “As a performer, I’ve always thought of myself as a Swiss army knife,” he told me. “If there was a production that required someone who could play a bunch of different characters, I was the guy who got the call.” Over time, that versatility spilled into every aspect of theater, until Wiley began to write and perform his own solo plays, while also starting up and running his own successful eponymous production company.

Wiley’s niche has been creating performances that bring to life key events and figures in African-American history, including Brown vs the Board of Education, the Emmett Till lynching, the Montgomery bus boycott, the life of Henry “Box” Brown, as well as a dramatization of Timothy Tyson’s award-winning book Blood Done Sign My Name. In these solo pieces, he often plays as many as several dozen characters, shifting between them with an ease, clarity, and rapidity that is truly astonishing.

Wiley didn’t start out as a solo performer. His early career included acting in touring Shakespeare companies and children’s theater troupes, using his physical and vocal versatility to create distinctive characters. The experiences of touring gave him a behind-the-scenes education in what’s involved in running a production company: booking performances, arranging housing, writing riders, working with presenters—all the myriad details that go into a career on the road. At the same time, he was feeling frustrated at the lack of opportunities to tell important stories from African-American history. Then one day, inspiration arrived—and it was literally gift-wrapped.

“I was performing in a children’s production of Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus in which the title character received an enormous gift box. When she opened it, I popped out as her gift!” Wiley remembers, grinning. “I was a black-in-a-box!” As an opening night present, one of his fellow actors gave Wiley a postcard with a picture of Henry “Box” Brown on it, and Wiley learned the amazing true story of Brown, a Virginia slave who in 1849 mailed himself to freedom in Philadelphia. “I knew right then that this was a story I needed to tell,” Wiley said.

While he had never written a play before, he began to research Brown’s story. “I wanted to write a play for myself to perform, one that would use all my skills,” he says. “I wanted to play many characters, and I wanted to use my comedy talents.” The result was the play One Noble Journey, which he submitted to the National Black Theatre Festival’s Frank Sylvra Writer’s Workshop, co-founded by Morgan Freeman, in Winston-Salem, NC.

Soon he got a call saying that, while they had never before included a solo play in the New Playwright Festival, the selection panel was so impressed that they wanted to accept it for production. There were many well-known actors who would be available to perform the piece at the festival, he was told. Who would he like to do it?

“I thought about it,” Wiley says, “and I told them I wanted to perform it myself!” The gamble paid off, as Wiley soon found himself in demand to perform the piece in schools and communities throughout the region.

His solo success became a problem for him, though, when was accepted into the Professional Actors Training Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He tried to juggle the demands of an MFA program with the requests for his solo work, but his professors pressured him to give up the outside work entirely. “It was understandable,” admits Wiley. “They wanted me to focus. But at the same time, these performances were important to me.” Wiley told them he’d stop—but then, well, he just didn’t. He felt positively driven to tell his stories.

“I do these plays because I believe stereotypes and racism and things of that nature arise from fear—because we are scared of the unknown,” Wiley says, warming to the topic. “When we were children, we were scared of the dark, because we didn’t know what was in the dark. We thought that box in the corner was a monster because we didn’t have the lights on to tell us that it was just a box. But when the lights came on and we saw it was just a box, the fear disappeared. The same logic can be applied to our perceptions of other cultures or religions or races. We turn the light on. We figure out who they are. We learn about them. Then we’re not afraid of them anymore.”

His original plan was that, when he finished his MFA, the solo pieces would provide him with income so that he would have time to audition for films and plays. In other words, the performances would serve as his day job. It didn’t quite work out that way. “Pretty soon, the solo work was all I was doing,” he recalls. So he began writing new plays: A Game Apart, about baseball player Jackie Robinson; Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till (which he later made into a film in which, like the stage production, he played all the roles); Tired Souls: King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott; and Life Is So Good, about a slave’s grandson who learned to read at the age of 98. As a result, Wiley had become an actor-manager.

“Everything I learned by paying attention during my touring days came into play,” Wiley explained. He created professional marketing materials and a website, contacted schools, communities, and regional theaters, and handled every detail of productions. He has performed in places and spaces large and small, from New York City to West Jefferson NC, from the Majestic Theatre in Dallas to a backyard barbecue. By 2010, Mike Wiley Productions had grown to the point where it was grossing over $120,000 annually. This allowed Wiley to start a family and “employ my artist friends, so that we all have the opportunity to live our art.”

But Wiley is not just a businessman; he’s also an expert showman. His shows are sophisticated blends of narrative, audience participation and wit. For instance, in Brown vs the Board of Education: Over Fifty Years Later, Wiley invites audience members onstage to play a variety of roles, staying in character himself while integrating his volunteers into dramatic events in a way that is non-threatening and humorous. And then, with a flick of the dramaturgical wrist, the humor is transformed into tragic poignancy, deftly and powerfully provoking empathy and understanding. In such instances, identity is fluid: Audience members play African-Americans, whites, young people and old, heroes and villains, regardless of their own personal characteristics. Sometimes Wiley passes a character that he himself is playing to an audience member. At one point, Wiley plays a member of the jury discussing his thoughts—and a second later, he turns and addresses the audience as if they were the jury and he an attorney. Suddenly, we seem to have absorbed by osmosis Wiley’s versatility—we feel just as capable as he is of seeing the world through the eyes of someone totally different than ourselves. And by doing so, he reminds us that we are all actors and observers, oppressor and oppressed, participants in our world and reflective thinkers. In short, we are citizens who both create our own environment and are created by it. And as a performer who invites others into the performance, he illustrates the power of shared creativity. As he puts it, “I give audiences what they want in order to give them what they need.”

Lately, Wiley has begun writing plays for casts larger than himself, including The Parchman Hour about the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, which has been performed in many regional theaters including the Guthrie in Minneapolis, PlayMakers Repertory in Chapel Hill, NC, and the Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk. He has also filmed most of his one-man shows so that, even during the COVID pandemic, he was able to continue performing.


Mike Wiley is just one example of someone who has created a fulfilling, sustainable career by controlling the means of production. He decides what work he wants to do, when he wants to do it, and where. There are many others who have achieved this independence and sustainability while making different artistic choices.

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