Mike Daisey’s colorful reputation precedes him. He has spent many years becoming one of America’s most unusual, outspoken, and admired solo performers (he would say, more accurately, a ‘monologist’), performing several new shows every year as he attempts, often in very funny ways, to make sense of the charms, foibles, and hypocrisies of the human race.
Last spring, his show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which investigates the human cost of consumer tech manufacturing in China — his most visible and commercially successful piece to date — became a lightning rod for a heated and ongoing public discussion about the boundaries that, perhaps only in theory, separate fact from fiction, and the arts from the news.
Daisey’s energy, we’re happy to report, is undiminished. Sporting a beard these days, he was in high spirits when he sat down with DC Theatre Scene for an interview. The following has been edited and condensed from conversation during the week leading into the run of his new show, American Utopias, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Hunter Styles: You’ve performed American Utopias in several cities this spring. Are you still making any changes as you get into your run at Woolly Mammoth?
Mike Daisey: It’s actually been changing a lot. The show has been in seven or eight cities now, and I’ve probably performed it 25 or 30 times. We made some major changes at Duke University in February that didn’t start until around the third performance. A scene dropped out and we replaced it with completely different material.
That became the version I did at Emerson College in Boston. Then when we were at the University of Iowa we sort of reconciled the old version and the new version into a hybrid.
You bring a few pages of outline on stage with you, but your shows are never actually scripted, right?
That’s right. There’s an outline, but often I don’t figure out the outline until a few hours before the first performance. I’m discovering the show as I go through it.
In American Utopias you set your sights on three places: Disney World, the Burning Man festival in Nevada, and Zuccotti Park in Manhattan during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. How did these three places start to connect in your mind, and when did you know that you had a new show?
Well, I always have a number of shows growing in my head at the same time, at different rates, so it can be hard to tell sometimes. But this show really began when my cousin invited my wife and me to go to Disney World with my extended family. Within, like, 90 seconds of her inviting me, I had this idea that I should go to Burning Man right afterward. It was just an impulse — I wanted to look at those two places right next to each other. And while this idea was gestating, for maybe three and a half years, Occupy Wall Street happened. And by that time I had been thinking a lot about public spaces. It became very clear to me that Zuccotti Park was part of this story, and it all started to coalesce.
Do you think that if Occupy Wall Street hadn’t happened, you would have made a show out of Disney World and Burning Man?
Definitely. Zuccotti Park was a bit of serendipity. The other two were already tied together in my mind, because I wanted to talk about how we create these weird, charged environments in which we all attempt to realize our fantasies. At Disney World, and at Burning Man, like-minded people are drawn together in a sort of shared attempt to dream of a better world.
It sounds like a completely different animal than your show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In visiting the Chinese plants where Apple products are manufactured, your job was to explore a secret, closed-off world.
These two new setting are the opposite — they’re destinations, and they’re both trying to sell you in the doors.
They’re really strange worlds, it’s true. Disney is very aggressive about how they push their brand of culture. Their goal is actually to make you feel like you haven’t fulfilled your role of good parent until you take your children to Disney World. Burning Man is sort of at the opposite side of the spectrum, because it’s so difficult to get to and there are never enough tickets. But their ‘cool’ cachet is incredibly high, so they do zero marketing. They just exist, and everyone wants to go, and no one can get a ticket. But both places have a lot of cultural capital, although leverage their coolness in different ways.
There’s also, often, a feeling of pilgrimage to these places.
Yeah, getting to Burning Man is a pain in the ass. Disney World has a certain amount of travel misery built in as well. In that sense, actually, Zuccotti Park becomes the odd one out. It only lasted a couple of months. But it totally makes sense that Occupy Wall Street is a far more unstable community, because that community was trying to do something.
Disney World and Burning Man are concerned with money and cultural presence — in creating something that perpetuates itself. Whereas Occupy Wall Street uses a lot of the same tropes about building a community, but then they used that community to affect actual change. And that community came into conflict with the wider culture. Any radical shift worth fighting for, particularly shifts in power structures, just can’t happen without some people becoming pissed off.
Let’s talk more about your work on Zuccotti Park. You’re a political individual, as we all are.
I’m curious how you ended up locating your political self within Occupy Wall Street, in an atmosphere that’s already so politically charged. Did your personal politics come out, or stay in?
I’m really interested in this question because, honestly, it’s really emblematic of what’s wrong with art in America. It’s a fine question — it’s an identity-politics question. I’m just fascinated by the underbelly of the question, which is all about the fact that we push our theatre artists these days to be apolitical. “How will you navigate the fact that you have opinions when you’re making your art?” It’s so weird. It’s as if the artists shouldn’t be in the fight themselves.
I actually think a lot of this thinking comes out of the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 90s. Those years engendered a middle-management layer of arts mediators who are the ones that choose plays, the ones who decide where creative energy should be going. And it massively changed how art was made in America.
It’s perplexing to me, and infuriating. Usually, the taking away of individual power leads to a revolutionary impulse. But so many of our artists have attempted to un-politicize themselves rather than politicize. They’re often pushed to be apolitical, I think. Like the purpose of a piece of theatre with political themes is just to present many views and opinions on a main political theme, and then it’s up to the audience to look among the evidence they’ve gathered and decide for themselves. You would think our artists are, like, conventional journalists or something.
A trend like you describe — conflating what ‘responsible’ political theatre should look like with the straight-facts focus of other media channels in our lives, many of them news — would definitely help to explain the whole big controversy over the level of ‘truth’ in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Right. Well, I’m not a journalist, I’m an artist. And I firmly believe that every story is a form of fiction, period. You just have to be in touch with how you feel and think about it. And building your story for the politics of it can be important. I designed The Agony and the Ecstasy to be a weapon, to hit people in a visceral way. I’m just sick of so-called political theatre shows in which the only thing we can do afterward is walk away pondering the fact that the world is complex. We already knew that before we walked in the door. It’s not enough just to say that people disagree on things. We show up because we want to see something more, to see some kind of light shine through.
I mean, I’ve never had a problem being political, but I’m also not a normal American theatre artist. I don’t work the way anyone works. I don’t ever apply for grants. I don’t fill out forms about what my objectives are. I don’t do any of that. Nobody ever really vets me. I eat what I kill, and I just figured out how to make a living that way.
Closes April 21, 2013
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
2 hours, 15 minutes, without intermission
Tickets: $45 – $70
Tuesdays thru Sundays
No, it’s a different kind of show. I made The Agony and the Ecstasy to be clean, simple, and sharp, like a knife. This new show is patterned more like a ritual. It’s built around the idea that each of these spaces we’re talking about — Disney World, Burning Man, and Occupy Wall Street — are spaces populated by people who have shared values, and in those shared values they create a community for a temporary period of time. Which, of course, is what theatre is as well.
So I’ve designed American Utopias to use this gathering in the theatre as a mirror, a way of touching what these other places are there for. And, by extending the metaphor, to talk about what it means to assemble in our society.
You’ve sometimes traveled the world to create your shows. Did you ever think that this show might take place on an international scale?
Actually, it was very clear to me from early on that this show would be specifically about America. These three spaces all touch on an American impulse, I think. There’s, like, a strong streak of Puritanism running through everything, wrapped up in a larger sense of anarchy and discovery. Disney World was a spin-off of Disneyland, of course, which is a product of the American West. Burning Man is also a product of the American West. And to look at the Occupy movement in this show as well, born out of that same sort of anarchic impulse… it feels very American to me. The show feels very American.