Mike Daisey has been a professional spoken-word storyteller for 15 years, and performing in D.C. at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for five. He’s now best known for The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, an exposé of the harsh conditions faced by the laborers who manufacture Apple products in Shenzen, China. The show was a huge hit, and the scandal that erupted when it turned out Daisey had imagined, rather than witnessed, some of the scenes that he had previously claimed were factual, was equally huge. Daisey removed the contested material from the show and continued to perform it. Lots of people wrote Daisey off, but champions like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak continued to support him. (I wrote about all of this at eye-watering length last year—-here, here, and here.)
Daisey’s fifth show to receive a full run at Woolly, American Utopias, opened last week. The piece combines his humorous accounts of his visits to Burning Man and Disney World with his reflections on the Occupy movement that rose to the surface in September 2011.
The Q-and-A that follows stems from a face-to-face interview with Daisey at Woolly Mammoth last Friday. We spent a big chunk of the hour talking about journalism, but you won’t find that stuff below. When I told Daisey I would be able to present only an edited version of our conversation, he wished me luck. “Don’t feel as though you need to bracket words [to indicate where you’ve deviated from a verbatim transcript for clarity],” he said. “Please just make it look as though it is the fictional recreation of the truthful conversation we have had in this room.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Washington City Paper: You’ve explained over the years that your monologues are performed semi-spontaneously from an outline rather than scripted or memorized. Why is it important to you that the audience understand that distinction?
Mike Daisey: Because it’s an entirely different process. If you choose to write a script, you are outsourcing the moment of creation from the moment in front of the audience—-often, in traditional theater, to a completely different person, who isn’t there in the room speaking to you. The way we read is entirely different from the way we receive oral information. When we memorize something, the question becomes, ‘Have I memorized it correctly?’ And only then does it become the actor’s job to breathe life into those words.
When I was 20 or 21 I would get drunk on bourbon and rail about the tyranny of the written word. Part of me still believes the written word might be the worst thing ever to happen to the theater. That it carves us off from the actual creation of things in the air.
WCP: I’m surprised there aren’t more monologists working on this level. Henry Rollins is the only person I can think off who does something similar to what you do. Do you wonder why you don’t have more competition in the oral storytelling game? You’ve been at this for 15 years, which is probably long enough to have inspired a subsequent generation of would-be artists to try it.
MD: It’s very difficult to do it. The nature of the arts infrastructure in America is that there isn’t any. Every person who chooses to be an independent artist in the American theater is fighting not only the economic war that’s going on, but the entrenched nature of the arts. You have to carve a space out for yourself, since you are neither a playwright nor an actor.
There are huge number of solo shows that crop up on the Fringe circuit every year, drawn by the same things that drew me and still do. In a solo show, you have an opportunity to control as many variables as you possibly can. By controlling the terms of the exchange, you can try to make something that is not shit. And when things go wrong, if you’re alone on stage, then you are responsible. You can hold that person accountable, because it’s you. That’s what drew me to the form. I like the way you can create—-even in a garage—-something really, really precise.
WCP: You’ve done nine new monologues at the Public Theatre in New York since your last run at Woolly last summer. Was your decision to work at that pace a reaction, in some way, to the scandal surrounding the Apple show? You could have just gone away, but instead you came right back with a huge amount of new work.
MD: Well, I had just spent about three years of my life telling one story hundreds and hundreds of times. I was severely backlogged. I was feeling a conflict, within myself, between what I was called to do as an artist and what I needed to do as a citizen. So as a consequence I had a lot of work to do.
WCP: By “what I needed to do as a citizen,” you mean touring the Apple show. But your artistic impulses are pulling you towards other ideas.
MD: Yes. I mean, I wasn’t completely shirking. While Agony & Ecstasy was running is also when I did All the Hours of the Day, a 24-hour monologue. But truthfully, what I was drawn toward artistically was more the 24-hour show and less Agony & Ecstasy. Because even when it’s extemporaneous, when you tell a story that many times, it drifts toward the theatrical. It becomes rote. Then you break it, and it becomes rote again. You take things that were the best they’ve ever been and you throw them out. But you can’t fight the fact you’re telling the same story 300 times. It becomes crystalline, and that’s really a problem. If I hadn’t felt compelled to do it for reasons completely outside of the craft, I never would have.
WCP:You’re skilled enough as a performer to know how to make the audience laugh just with a well-timed pause or a funny facial expression or by raising the register of your voice. Do you separate that from the “writing”—-even though it’s just an outline, I know—-part of your job? Do you worry that something might seem to be working only because of the strength of the performance rather than because the material is good?
MD: Constantly. Most stand-up comedy is people performing a monologue with low content and high performativity. I’m not saying that’s bad; I’m just saying it’s low-content. I’m not telling you very much, but I’m telling it in a really fucking entertaining way. The stand-up that endures over time is the stuff that manages to marry a high level of content with a high level of performativity. There are sometimes pieces in my monologues, especially when they’re early, when they’re not totally working, where I think of myself as using brute force—-you just perform through the hole. Then when you do notes later, it’s like, “We really need to fix that hole.”
You’ll also find some parts only work when the house is completely full, or if the audience is pitched a certain way. But there’s another side to that: We reiterate something until it “works.” When we say that something “works” in the theater, we often mean that it works the same way every time—-no matter how few people are in the audience, or how many other variables are different. The more something “works,” the less it changes. And the less it changes, the less alive it is.
WCP: I’ve seen six of your monologues, and they all seem to be built around the intersections between two—-or in the case of American Utopias, three—-discrete storylines. Are those intersections the things that you look for when you’re building a show? ‘I have an A story, and now I need a B story that will resonate against it’?
MD: Sort of. It only looks that way in the same way that the show’s construction looks like writing. The shows are constructed almost entirely in my subconscious. The subconscious impinges on the conscious mind. It’s very much like—-this is an elaborate metaphor, and I’ve never done it, so I don’t know if this makes sense—-but it’s like being pregnant. You feel something growing inside you. As it gets larger, it becomes uncomfortable. It presses on your bladder and you have to pee more often. As we know from bad sitcoms and from real life, people begin to experience urges: They want ice cream, they want pickles, they cry more often, they’re drawn to subjects they were never drawn to before.
The thing that’s growing inside of me when I’m working on a show makes its desires known. I feel drawn to go do certain things, so I do them. But it isn’t even remotely as willful as all of our biases in Western culture make us believe. We are so in love with the will over here. We actually believe artists sit around with some sort of checklist. We’re in love with writing, and writing is a very Western, top-down, conscious-driven process. We imagine a person writing something once, and then editing it, revising it. It doesn’t look anything like that.
What does happen is the shows are often built out of my obsessions, especially when those obsessions are in collision. I know that this one started very clearly when Kris invited us to Disney World.
WCP: Kris your cousin, whom you talk about in American Utopias.
MD: Yes. She made that invitation, and I knew within 90 seconds of her floating the idea—-literally floating, because we were in the swimming pool—-she made the suggestion, and I immediately felt very strongly, ‘We should go to Disney World.‘ And then immediately on the heels of that, ‘And to Burning Man.’
WCP: The program for American Utopias contains a colophon wherein you acknowledge, in a whimsical way, your various sources. It concludes, “The management wishes to remind you that this a true story, and like every story being told in every medium, all stories are fiction.” A big part of why you got in trouble with the Apple show last year was your insistence that the program say, “This is a work of nonfiction.” Is the colophon a response to that? Are you baiting your critics with that phrase at the end?
MD: No. That’s been in the program at every performance. It has very little to do with media critics, and a lot to do with staking out the terrain.
American Utopias is at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through April 21.