Sunday, May 3, 2009

Arts feature: Mike Daisey's big fat systems of desire

Monologue master Mike Daisey.
(Illustration by Pat Crowley)


By Marya Summers


“Fat Geek,” a role in a Microsoft movie, was the part for which he was born, so Mike Daisey says in his comedic/dramatic monologue Monopoly.

Sitting in a chair behind a desk, Daisey wipes away the sweat that comes with all the work of being a large, excitable man under bright stage lights. Telling his story at a good clip, he gestures emphatically and punctuates his story with exaggerated facial expressions as he tells how he landed the role opposite Bill Gates, just inches away from the richest man in the world.

He speculates, “What if money was real rather than abstract? What if it had mass? What if it had gravity?”

He answers these questions by creating a ludicrous scenario: Bill Gates’ gravitational pull sucks in everything around him – the set, the cameras, his sycophantic assistants. Then, suddenly, Daisey breaks the fourth wall to admonish a loud-talker in the audience at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse: “Yes, I can hear you.” And just as quick as you can say “quark,” he’s back to the story, and Bill Gates is emitting radiation.

Daisey not only spins a yarn, he knits a masterpiece.

Monopoly, like Daisey’s other monologues, braids several stories on a singular theme, usually with autobiographical elements. He leaves one story for another in places where they intersect, diverge, and meet again. Monopoly brings the board game of the same name together with Microsoft, Wal-Mart, the Edison/Tesla power struggle, and Daisey’s own experiences. These all build a complex network of stories that reflect the cutthroat game of monopoly-building. Games, theater, corporate greed: these are systems of desire.

Daisey’s monologues, 14 in all, bring arcane and egghead topics to the mainstream in his unique staged version of gonzo journalism. His next endeavor, set to hit the boards in the fall, will weave story threads on South Pacific cargo cults, which worship American power and goods, and the international financial crisis.

Delving into the issues of money and power, he’s been called the Michael Moore of the stage; others say that he continues the legacy of Spalding Gray. But unlike these men, Daisey performs without a script. The yellow papers the audience sees in front of him are a guide, he says, but he’s told these stories so many times he never refers to these notes. Instead, he flips them to signal a shift from one scene to another. Otherwise, the stage remains the same: a chair, a desk, a glass of water, a microphone, a slender pile of yellow pages.

Daisey’s been lauded by theater critics across the country. The New York Times called him a “master storyteller” and “one of the finest solo performers of his generation.” He’s been reviewed and interviewed in countless places, including The Late Show with David Letterman and NPR. In other words, he’s a big deal.

Perhaps the most controversial of his monologues, How Theater Failed America, aims his invective against the corporate and educational models in the theater. Among other things, he asserts that theater is out of touch with its audience.

Is Daisey living proof?

On that Thursday night [April 16] at the Rinker, Daisey’s performance was energetic, electric – sort of like the concluding scenes in his monologue where he imagines what will happen if he puts a Tesla coil (“the lightning-throwing death machine”) on stage during a performance.

But the black holes in the half-empty theater sucked in most of the storyteller’s energy and what remained seemed to evanesce as quickly as Daisey supplied it. This made an especially delicious irony of his concluding metaphor: “You don’t have to touch something to get a charge. Tonight, you are charged, and you will not dissipate. ”

After the show, Daisey’s disappointment in his Florida premiere was palpable, though he declined to comment about it on the record. As the crowd made its exodus, a slapdash survey of the audience revealed that few had much at stake. Many had been admitted free – either through theater comps or promotional contests – and were previously unfamiliar with the monologist’s work.

So why the disconnect between this celebrated storyteller and South Florida audiences?

It may be that since this is Daisey’s first Florida appearance, he simply doesn’t have a rep here. Or now that the papers have jettisoned most of their arts writers, maybe theater isn’t getting the coverage it needs. Or maybe a monologue on monopoly is just too scary-sounding – too much like a lecture on the evils of corporatism—in already bleak economic conditions.

How about all of the above?

According to Daisey, we should place the blame for a lack of interest on a failure of the theater to understand and address local cultural values.

Mike Daisey in performance.

In the interview that follows, Mike Daisey and his “director, collaborator, and co-conspirator” Jean-Michele Gregory (who is also Daisey’s wife) explain why they don’t attribute their careers to their alma maters and go on the record with what’s wrong with theater.

Summers: I’m really interested in what your beef with education is. Specifically, it seems like a conspicuous absence of educational information from your bios, where you went to school, for both of you.

Daisey: Most people drop their educational information. I’m a midcareer artist. I have more than enough. My bio is really full.

Gregory: I don’t think either of us have a “beef” with education.

Daisey: I think you’re talking about what I have spoken about at length online, which is very specifically about theatrical MFA programs that exist to train actors who can never possibly repay the loans they incur as they train. That is not ethically responsible or defensible. That’s much less broad than “my beef with education.”

Summers: Did you do an MFA yourself?

Daisey: No.

Summers: A bachelor’s?

Daisey: I went to Colby College. I got a degree in aesthetics. I have a minor in medieval history and astronomy. I designed it so I could do as much writing in theater as I possibly could. You know, the joy of a liberal arts education is they give you as much rope as you need to hang yourself with, which I used gloriously. So I just did a ton of theater and a ton of writing. And I studied theater in London.

Summers: While you were in school – so going to school was a nourishing process?

Daisey: Yes.

Summers: So it’s mostly the cost of the programs you object to?

Daisey: Yes, I think I’ve been really clear. Like, it’s not ethically defensible, that equation. The people who run and teach those programs are ostensibly training people to enter the arts, and they enter saddled with tens, sometimes, hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. It makes no sense.

Gregory: I think, pragmatically speaking, we all know that theater is a passion, a calling, and very few people are actually able to make a living at it. So what happens is the best and the brightest, the people who are most called to it, come out of these programs with their directing MFAs or their lighting design MFAs – whatever their actual MFAs are – and they can’t continue to work in theater because they have to pay off these loans. If they took that same money, or even a fraction of that, and you got these people together and they formed their own theater companies, or they just went out and worked and applied themselves, they would learn so much.

Daisey: And, of course, that world doesn’t exist because loans exist for people to go to school so a theater structure has grown up around that so that some people, namely those smart enough to teach in MFA programs, can have a career in the theater. Their career is training people for a life they themselves do not practice – working in the theater – that they know themselves they would not do because they would not be able to make a living. So I think that it’s deeply unethical and it should be called out.

There are a few programs that don’t charge students ridiculous amounts of money. What’s very interesting is looking at other art forms and how, like, if you look at the number of equivalents of an MFA program for musical education and a couple of other forms in the fine arts, many more of them have scholarships disproportionately to the [theater] MFA system, and that’s because they can find people who will throw down the money and put themselves through the wood chipper before they know what life holds for them.

And I think it’s ethically irresponsible for adults who are in their 30s and 40s and know what the world is, to take 18- and 20-year-olds and tell them they need this education or they will never be an actor and then saddle them with debt and they know that when they have a family and health insurance that it’s on the backs of these other people.

Summers: Don’t you think that they are doing these MFA programs so that they can teach while they are acting because they can’t make a living at acting alone, and it’s all sort of self-perpetuating?

Daisey: Oh, yeah, I mean, that’s fantastic. We have a system where people get their MFAs, and they’ll be able to teach other people acting and those people will teach other people acting, and that’s a Ponzi scheme. Each generation passes on to the next and then everyone can learn to teach; then they can teach other people. In that case, if we’re not going to teach actually what it means to be on stage and acting and performing, then we already have a PhD program, and maybe theater needs to admit that it’s not teaching a craft anymore, admit that that craft is dissolved away, and that it’s academia….

Summers: The people in power aren’t the people with the problems – that’s why they aren’t changing things.

Daisey: Well, that’s very true. It’s always funny where progressive things come from. Like, it’s usually people who have a lot of power and they lose things through their status diminishing in other ways. Like Yale, as of now, like as of last year, pays tuition for everyone who gets in so Yale School of Drama’s MFA program is free for anyone who gets in. There was a great model proposed at Slate a couple months ago about this, like, progressive education taxation system where you pay a percentage, a gradated percentage of whatever your income is after you leave – that’s probably a lot more equitable.

I don’t know, there are really a number of different educational models. It’s really a subset of what’s wrong with all education in America, but it’s accentuated by the fact that the theatrical establishment lives by exploiting performers and the people who work within it, and this causes it to be really inequitable and so that gap becomes so vast when the education costs are not calibrated to have any relationship. I mean, it’s not that different to become a lawyer than it is getting trained as an actor, the amount of debt that you incur….

Summers: But where did you learn to do what you do? Was that something that came from school or from being mentored by someone?

Daisey: I’m self-taught. It’s derived from all the things that happen sort of in collision. I discovered the monologues early, around 1997.

Summers: What was the impetus?

Daisey: I wanted to find a way to say the things I wanted to say in the most effective way possible. I wanted to find my voice and it was clear to me from the very first monologue, from the very first performance, it was so clear that this is what I should be doing…

Summers: So you’ve kept basically the same format? The braided essay?

Daisey: Yeah, they’ve all been pretty braided. A lot of them have a lot of personal information. The early ones were all autobiographical. As opposed to now – they’re autobiographical and biographical, or journalistic, where I go and find out a story or there are elements of facts embedded wherever possible in a story framework, especially Monopoly, but the early ones didn’t have that. They were just – well, not just, because that makes them sound minor – but they were entirely autobiographical, and they used to have blocking; I used to walk around. They had a few hand props, and in general things have been subtracted over the years. There are more threads [to the stories] but there’s less stuff on the stage and no more blocking.

Mike Daisey and Jean-Michele Gregory.

Summers: How long has Jean-Michele been involved?

Gregory: Since the first monologue.

Summers: And what are you adding to it as “co-conspirator”?

Gregory: I work very much as a dramaturg and very much as editor of the whole process, just refining the narrative threads. And of course the lighting and that sort of stuff.

Daisey: Pretty much all of it – the lighting, the staging. Principally, it’s dramaturgy, shaping, lighting, technical, moving space to space.

Summer: And the lighting cues are done on ...?

Daisey: It cues on page turns, not on text, because the “text” does not remain the same, we can’t cue on text.

Summers: It seems that after a number of times a lot of the stuff would just flow naturally because you’ve already told the story so many times.

Daisey: Yeah, over the years the story sort of forms, but they shift quite a bit. Like I hadn’t done Monopoly in three or four weeks, so it shifts quite a bit. And I do all the show in rep so there’ll be some I haven’t done in six months and those will shift quite a bit.

Summers: So it’s never the same show twice?

Daisey: Right. Tomorrow’s show will be 5-10 percent different.

Summers: I like the idea you offered of theater being like a home team people can root for ... How do you create a home team, a theater that would really resonate with people?

Daisey: First of all, the standard model is broken and doesn’t work for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t generate enough interest. You need to find ensembles of people particular to a place – they need to be talented people – and then you bring people together, and honestly, I think you need to find what the value sets are of that place and then do work that is provocative and challenging and compelling for that particular place. Like, for instance, this place [Palm Beach County]. I don’t know this place. The audience is much older than any audience I’ve ever had.

If a bunch of young, tough young people – like a bunch of 25-year-olds, like eight of them -- put together a company, We Should Kill Old People would be a great title. I bet it would get coverage and people would show up. And if you’re really lucky, people would protest. It sounds like I’m being facetious but it’s actually a real suggestion. I hope someone is doing more work than me to come up with a better title than We Should Kill Old People. Maybe instead, it’s a delightful musical version of Soylent Green ... I don’t know … but it should be something provocative to your place. The thing about theater is all theater is local.

That’s what’s wrong with this place [the Kravis Center]. That’s what’s wrong with this theater: nothing is local. It’s actually intentionally never local. The idea is that there’s nothing good that’s local. Because if it was good it would not be here, it would be somewhere else, and it would be trucked in in a semi, and we would install it, and you would love it, and it would leave immediately.

Summers: We do have regional theater here.

Daisey: I meant literally here [Kravis]. I hope they don’t get mad at me. But they would say, “That’s not our mission. We are a performing arts center. We bring things in.” But the problem is that regional theaters follow that model as well. The idea with the regional theater that creates fear, the reason they don’t interface with the community, the terrible fear is “We don’t want to be community theater.” That’s the nightmare.

Especially as you go more and more rural with less audience base, they are terrified that they’ll become community theater. They’re like, “We’ll give up everything before we’ll cast locally. And if we have to cast locally, we’ll pick three people we know and then wall it off,” and they’re just terrified.

Summers: Because many papers won’t review community theater.
Daisey: Because they have to figure out where to draw the line. What did Mark Twain say? “Politics and academia are incredibly vicious because the stakes are so low.” Like the lower the stakes the more viciousness there is between regional theater and the community theater, especially as you get more and more remote regional theaters and smaller and smaller endowments and they get really crazy about it. That’s why they can’t reinvent themselves. The thing about theater that makes it great is that it’s local.

Summers: Wouldn’t you be out of a job, though, if everything was so regional?

Daisey: Me? Oh, yeah! I’ll take my chances, though. The great thing about being alive is – I think I talked about this in a New York Times feature that I did, they said, “If the things you want to change do change, then people wouldn’t hire you anymore,” and I was like….

Gregory: Although I do have to say that I think that cross-pollination is really important. I mean, if you’re just seeing your local theater, whether that’s here or Seattle or New York City, if you’re just seeing stuff that’s originated and written and performed by New York City people, you just not going to have that kind of diversity of thought. It’s great when people come in from other cities and they bring their whole ensemble.

Like there’s this great production of Our Town right now that just came in from Chicago and it’s done in this way that’s not New York-ish, you know what I mean? You can just tell that it came from somewhere else and that cross-pollination is really important. What happens, though, is a very corporatized model where you’ve taken the thing, and you’ve stripped it apart all the different things that made this piece, and you don’t keep the whole ensemble together and playwrights don’t write for ensembles.

They write this page, this very abstract sort of Ur-document that can then be applied in all these different markets as opposed to one specific group that is creating it and is alive and interacting with it. Even though they’re living playwrights, they should be able to work with…

Summers: So going back to the model of The Globe with Shakespeare?

Gregory: Yeah.

Daisey: Fundamentally, it’s such a hub-and-spoke system now. New York is the hub, and everything comes out of New York on spokes, and then goes straight back into New York. There’s no, like, cross pollination between, like, Chicago and San Francisco. Even though both of those places have viable theaters, there is no system right now for those cities or the groups in them to talk to each other because it’s dominated by this system where New York is the hub and then all these spokes.

Right now I feel like there’s no cross-pollination, so I don’t feel like we’re in any danger of entering a new world where there’s even less somehow. I do think, though, that if the world changed, you know, we would just adapt. I’d be fine. I’ll just do something else. I’ll take that chance. I’ll take the chance that the American theater will surprise me so completely that it will cataclysmically change – it will undo everything it has every shown me and will instead adapt to change quickly, and I’d be like, “Wow! Omigod, I’m so psyched! That’s great! Good for you guys!” I’ll go back to writing books. I don’t know. I’ll just do something else.

Summers: I know the idea is to keep the show live and extemporaneous, but for people who want to be familiar with your work before going to see another of your performances or to be able to draw comparisons, are you going to make your work available for purchase?

Daisey: Seven or eight of the monologues are available at iTunes. We’ve talked about putting one or a couple of the shows up for free or recordings of the show up on the Web. We made a film of If You See Something Say Something.

Gregory: That’s in editing right now.

Daisey: It’s coming out as a feature film later this year.

Summers: It seems like process and content are inextricable for you, like more search-engine serendipity than stream of consciousness, is that true? Do you go in with a fixed idea as you’re creating these shows or are their surprises that pop up at you as you research?

Daisey: There are a lot of surprises. It’s a different process, but it’s not that different from people writing plays or writing fiction in that you have an entry point and you have a sense of the things that you want in collision and what obsesses you, but yeah, there are a lot of surprises that pop up along the way. I think that you discover it as you go.

It’s certainly true of all the other monologues, I think, and there’s a degree to which things shift as you’re doing it – like the largest things – but there is a degree also of choosing what it is, what direction it is that the boat needs to go in, and then the collision of those things is really what creates the work.

Marya Summers is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

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