Mike Daisey talks and dreams Burning Man, Disney World, and Occupy in 'American Utopias'
THEATER Mike Daisey is a talker. He can talk about a lot of things. Hell, he can talk for 24 hours straight (and did in All the Hours in the Day at Portland's TBA Festival in 2011). This gift of gab has brought him acclaim as an artist in the theater, where he's known as an eminent monologist of the desk-bound Spalding Gray school. In one case, it's even brought him public scandal, to wit, NPR's 2012 call-out regarding fabricated bits in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs — an experience Daisey says has made him not only "wiser" but "a better storyteller."
But Daisey doesn't tell stories for the sake of talking alone. He chases after questions that intrigue him, and these, more than his comically barbed but affable stage persona, make his stories worth listening to. Occupying a fertile middle ground between high concept and low humor, his self-referential yarns confront issues he sees as central to how we live and — in a related, no less passionate way — to how the theater lives and dies in American culture. He directly essayed this latter theme in his 2008 show, How Theater Failed America, but it remains a lively concern, as he suggests below.
His latest, American Utopias, makes its Bay Area debut at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this weekend. Following the format he has been honing since the late 1990s, Daisey uses a few notes written on loose sheets of paper to re-create afresh each night a set of three intertwining stories about Disney World, Burning Man, and Occupy Wall Street, following all three down their respective rabbit holes to glean what, individually and cumulatively, they might teach us about ourselves.
SF Bay Guardian You grew up in a really remote corner of the country. When you consider what brought you to where you're at now, how much of that do you attribute to this background?
Mike Daisey I grew up in a place called Fort Kent, Maine, which is on the Canadian border. It's actually the end of US Route 1, which begins in Key West. To me, psychically, it always feels like this must be the most remote place possible because every piece of mythology about roads is that sort of Tolkien idea, "The road goes ever on!" Whereas I was like, "No, it doesn't actually. It ends. Right here. This must be the furthest place from everything." It's a very interesting area, the St. John Valley, around the St. John River. The people are predominately French Canadian. It's a very different place from what I've come to recognize as the rest of America.
I do think that there's a storytelling tradition that grows up in Maine, that exists there, that informs the work I do now. I think partly it's informed by years of speech and debate at a very tender age. I think it's informed by a couple of years of playing Dungeons & Dragons at a formative time. And, layered on top of all of that, was a very earnest desire to discover a form that would allow me to create theatrical experiences that were new in the moment that they were spoken. I was really dedicated to that proposition, that there could be a form of theater that lives in the moment that it's spoken, both for the performer and the audience. I was looking for a form that would allow both there to be rigor and precision in the structure, but at the same time allow true spontaneity, and allow discoveries to happen in the moment that could not be anticipated.