Through Sunday, Feb. 3, monologist Mike Daisey will be performing his latest monologue, American Utopias, at the PSI Theater at Durham Arts Council. In his one-man shows, Daisey presents his unique brand of storytelling in the context of contemporary theater—crafted yet extemporaneous, playful yet visceral. Recess Arts Editor Katie Zaborsky spoke with Daisey about his approach to storytelling, the difficulty in categorizing his work, and the monologue he is bringing to Duke and Durham. Visit Duke Performances’ website for tickets and showtimes.
Recess: You performed your first monologue, Wasting Your Breath, in 1997 when you were 21 years old. Did you base your storytelling style on performers you’d seen before, or were you purposely trying to carve an original niche for yourself in the world of theater?
Mike Daisey: I mean, I was living in Seattle, performing in the Garage Theatre in Seattle, and I wanted a form of performance that was as composed and direct as traditional theater, that had the form and the rigor of that, but I also wanted the theater to be alive so that each time it was performed, the decisions being made would be made in the moment of the story being told…I grew up in northern Maine, and there was a rich storytelling tradition, so I think that is part of it. I also did a lot of modern forms of storytelling like speech and debate in high school, and I feel like what I wanted was to find what I’m doing now—a place where the words happen in the air with the audience in real time…it’s not terribly unlike jazz. Those are the things that drove me to find it, and when I found the form with that first show, it was really clear that I would pursue it, that it would take my entire life to attempt to unearth the complexities.
R: In retrospect, looking back at that first monologue and the ones you perform now, what’s the biggest difference in your approach to performance?
MD: The first works were the works of a very young man, and now I’m much older. When you first start out as an artist, you’re trying to find yourself, you’re desperate to know who you are, you’re afraid you’ll find out who you are and you won’t like who that person is. For me, the biggest difference—and I think this is true of a lot of people who make a career in the arts—I know myself now, so I just know a lot more about the kind of artist I want to be, the kind of work I want to do. My work is a lot more political now than when I started in ’97, although the seeds of it were there even then. And that’s because, you know, I’m a more political person now than I was in ’97, and so I feel like the work has evolved because it reflects me, it sort of shines through me, so the changes for the most part are the changes that I’ve undergone. I’m kind of more political now than I was, a little more weathered, a little more scarred. And I hope, and I think it’s the hope for a lot of people, that you try to tell good stories in order to touch something about the truth…and create this environment in which people can interact. I feel like I understand that process a lot more now than I did when I started, although fundamentally it’s a mystery.
R: Your monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, where you describe traveling to China and examining the working conditions in Apple factories, only really became controversial once you decided to bill it as ‘nonfiction.’ I think this speaks to the public’s desire to know explicitly what is “true,” because the idea of truth is what separates nonfiction from fiction in the crudest sense. Do you think your monologues transcend these categories?
MD: I mean I feel like there was a time when “story” was “story” and then we made a decision at some point to divide story into fiction and nonfiction, which I feel can more colloquially can be described as “fake” and “not fake.” And I feel that the term “not fake” kind of tells you…why there are fundamental problems with it as a category. It sounds like you protest too much. The truth is that all stories are fiction, or more accurately, all stories are stories. And then what becomes interesting to me is, you know, how we decide to define authority. You know, who do we trust, and what do we mean by trusting them? And it is a question that I think we’ve seen again and again that our journalism in this country is very ill-equipped to deal with. Generally, what happens is that if there’s any question, there’s a heightened hysteria. And after the hysteria passes, there’s total amnesia so that we never analyze the fact that the myth of objective journalism is actually a myth, that there’s a reason why people make film in front of the White House…it’s not because it makes it more objective. It actually works the opposite [way]. They’re using the tools from my universe, the tools of the theater, so that they can have the White House in the background and that will lend their words more authority. What I’m trying to say is that theater and news have been tied together forever, and the truth is that the form of journalism could not survive without the tools of theater, that it uses constantly…And so because we won’t acknowledge that those two things actually live in tension with one another, it makes it very difficult to even have real conversations about how we hear the truth, what we mean when we say something is a fact. We can’t talk about those things. We’re not very good at it.
R: The monologue you will be performing at Duke, American Utopias, explores the liminal spaces we create to live out extraordinary fantasies in a seemingly ordinary world. Of the three threads—Disney World, Burning Man, and Zuccotti Park—your description of Disney World was especially powerful because you go from stripping away the calculated “magic” of Disney World to seamlessly discussing Walt Disney’s abusive childhood. The performance becomes notably quieter and more solemn when you talk about how Disney managed to create a childhood for so many others, and then you launch back into sardonic humor. How did you develop that technique of tonal shift?
MD: Like a lot of things, you build from older, wiser, often dead masters. In this case, I feel like that central technique of alternating comedy and tragedy and trying to get those to stand close together to one another but not blur and overlap with one another owes a lot of Chekhov, in terms of the structural system. In terms of the performance of it, it owes a lot to listening to great storytellers…The fundamental idea, and it’s certainly not mine, it’s a very old and I think a fantastic one, is the old idea that the act of comedy is, at its heart, an act of community. And I mean that in the deepest sense, not some light—when we use that term ‘community’ in a washed-out way. It’s an intense connecting that happens when we laugh or when we feel that pleasure pass through a room. That’s a very powerful, intimate thing.
R: You just performed a monologue called Fking Fking F**king Ayn Rand, which sounds like it would be delightful. Considering how many people over the age of sixteen share your sentiment, do you have plans to take the show on tour?
MD: You know it’s so funny, we’ve been doing a brand new show every single month for a year now…and this is one of those new monologues. And, I’ll just be honest with you, my first inclination was, “no.” …But the intensity of the reaction to it, combined with how fundamentally interesting Ayn Rand is as sort of a very flawed—and in some ways—complicatedly tragic figure, I do think we are going to do it again. I think we are. I think we’re going to look for ways to get that story out to people. I think she strikes at something very essential to understanding what’s happening in the American psyche right now.