Mike Daisey unchained
Wed Dec 2 2009
Mike Daisey is a really good talker, so it was hard to edit down our hour-long interview with him for the opening article of this week's Theater section, which you can read here. Never one to let good conversation go to waste, we are now pleased to offer you, dear Upstaged reader and Mike Daisey aficionados, a much, much longer version of that same Q&A. Enjoy!
The press release for The Last Cargo Cult features photographs of you in what looks like a pretty exotic locale. How did you end up there?
Last November I was doing If You See Something Say Something here at the Public, and the financial collapse was really accelerating. It was right in that period where every single day the news was more unbelievable than the day before. Everything felt very unstable. And when I perform, I can't go to sleep afterward. I stay up very late. So I was up very late, surfing the Web, and I followed a chain of links to an article about this island, Tanna, which is in the Vanuatu island chain. I'd studied cargo cults for a number of years; it's been one of the things I've been obsessed with. But I have a lot of things I'm obsessed with, and they don't always rise to the level of becoming monologues. They have to be in conflict or tension with something else; otherwise, they're just things I'm obsessed with. So I'd read about Tanna before, and I'd read about the people, but I had not realized that they actually have a celebration one day a year—in the village of Lamakara, which is at the base of an erupting volcano—where they tell the history of America, as they know it to be, in dance, theater and song. I was reading about it just as my culture was undergoing this kind of cataclysmic shifting. And very abruptly, I had this epiphany that I should go to this island the next time that this happens—like, I should go right away. And that was the genesis. Some of the monologues grow gradually over many years, and this one sort of erupted. I'd been interested in cargo cults for a long time, but this would not have happened if I hadn't read this particular thing at the moment this was happening in my culture.
When you say cargo cult, what exactly does that mean?
The working anthropological shtick, the working story that the anthropologists tell—well, cargo cults is sort of a catchall phrase for a number of phenomena, but the primary phenomenon that they're talking about is that, during World War II, no one was sure what was going to happen in the war in the Pacific, and there was fear that it could shift anywhere in the Pacific. So the United States set up military bases on islands very far away from the conflict, in case the war shifted in those directions. And that meant that some islands that had very little contact with the outside world abruptly had airfields and U.S. airmen on them and chocolate and cigarettes and refrigerators and radios and all this magical awesome shit. That's the first part of it: There's this incredibly disruptive sudden event in these cultures that had been relatively stable for two or three thousand years. The second thing is—to truly make it a religion, to make it magical—the Americans leave. Because they're there for a while and then the war ends, and it turns out that those bases aren't needed, and so everyone packs up everything and leaves. And that's what makes it magic. It's pretty easy to tell that an American is not a living god when they're in your living room, because you get tired of them. But when they leave and take all of their awesome shit with them, that is when—on different islands all over the South Pacific, independently—religions sprang up that worshipped America or, more specifically, that worshipped the objects of America. They worshipped the power of America through those objects.
It's 60 years later, and Vanuatu is its own country now. Hasn't it been penetrated to some extent by the worldwide technoculture?
There's technology on the island, but not very much. There's no infrastructure to speak of. Tanna is the last place in the world where a cargo cult is growing rather than shrinking. In fact, 70 percent of the people on the island worship in the John Frum Movement, which is the name of their particular cargo cult.
So no irony has snuck into this ritual yet? No self-awareness of the strangeness of it?
Well, that's the thing about human worship. About a century ago, Tanna was ground zero if you were a missionary and you wanted to be eaten. It had the fiercest history of cannibalism anywhere in the South Pacific. That seems alien and terrifying to us, but I belong to a culture where a dominant belief system involves changing bread into flesh and then eating it. And that belief system is 2,000 years old and largely practiced without irony. I think that religions functions very similarly everywhere in the world, in that they feed the human spirit. So no, there's not really what we would call irony.
The built-in religions that we've inherited over thousands of years may seem absurd from an outside perspective, but they're so ingrained. It surprises me when more modern religions come up because they seem so much more easily disputable.
Yes. I think that a lot of the comfort we take from belief systems revolves around time; time is a great pacifier in terms of making it easier to swallow the eccentricities of our different belief systems. Going to visit Tanna is a lot like dipping into what Christianity must have been like 60 or 70 years after the time that Christ was around: warring sects, wild and extravagant beliefs. Things are very charged. But there's not very much irony. I think irony's a late development.
So what are the beliefs in question, other than, say, chocolate's delicious, or cigarettes are fun to smoke and then you want more of them. What else?
The John Frum Movement is growing, whereas most cargo cults have died off—and if they haven't died off, they've become sort of fragments, not comprehensive systems of worship. The reason that is happening has to do with the fact that Vanuatu used to be the New Hebrides. When the French and the English ruled the New Hebrides in codominion, they tried to strip away the custom—the native way that the islanders lived before they got there. They actually forbade them to follow their way of life, and forcibly would bring villages in and dress them in English and French clothing, and then give them jobs and pay them with money. So they would force money on different villages as a way of putting them under the yoke of the French and the English, and making them participate in that society. And that process of colonizing them—the John Frum Movement actually grew out of that. So in Vanuatu, the John Frum Movement is inextricably linked with independence. This is a very fascinating schism to me, because what the people of Tanna want is cargo, which we perceive and infantalize as being, like, iPods and tissue paper and jewelry. But the reality is, cargo is medicine, and guns, and knives, and planting. You know? It's tools. They want power. And they want that power explicitly to preserve their way of life. They want that power to keep out colonial influences. That is actually the central thread, the spine of the John Frum movement. Now, we from the outside would say, "That's crazy. You can't use technology to keep technology out. That's not going to work." But a moment's reflection: We do the same thing. We have tools and power that we use every day, and we always tell ourselves that we just want to have a world where we can raise our children well. We have these weapons and these tools, and we use them, but we largely want to live like these people on the island do—except without lice, without the problems—and we're willing to make compromises. We live in tension with the technology that makes our current life possible, even though a lot of what makes our current life impossible is the technology that's making that system. So I actually think the two worlds are much more similar than they are disparate.
What language is spoken in Vanuatu today? How did you communicate with people there?
They speak a lot of languages. On Tanna itself, which is an island that's only 13 miles by 18 miles, there are actually seven different living languages that are fully spoken and not in any danger of going away. If you're on the southern end of the island, it's entirely possible you will not be able to speak with someone from the east or the north. Which is why everyone uses Bislama, which is a pidgin language that's mostly French and English fused together, with some existing words from different parts. That's the dominant language of the entire chain; it's used as kind of a trade language. Bislama is totally comprehensible; in the piece, I talk about how it's a lot like as if French and English had sex with one another, had a baby, and the baby was raised by sailors from the '40s. You can actually read it. It feels like you've been drinking or something: If you squint you can make out what the words are saying. And there's a decent number of people who also speak English. So finding the people who can translate is not very difficult.
So what's the B-plot in this monologue? What's the counterpoint plot?
It's been like a real challenge to make sure that they're both A-plots, because the island is so Technicolor that it tends to try to subsume everything in its path. But the other storyline is a story of our culture: It's the story of the financial collapse that occurred about a year ago, and it's about the religion of money. The monologue looks at this belief system that seems very absurd to us, and then uses that as a tool to examine what I believe is the overwhelmingly dominant religion of the first world, which is the financial system—a belief system that relies on trust and faith and sympathetic magic. Many people profess to be Christians or Jews or atheists, but truly, if you live in the first world, your dominant religion is the financial system, since it actually runs on faith. If you do not believe that something has value, it doesn't have value. And so a lot of the show is about connecting the two cultures. Something that wasn't clear to me before I got there is that there's a war in Tanna today—an economic war about the value of money. On the western side of the island, money is accepted, and people will take money for things. On the eastern side, that's not the case. Most people are living in custom, but money is creeping across the island village by village. And that becomes a major thread in the show: what money does to human relations.
Have you considered writing a play?
I wrote one play for the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab about two years ago. It was produced in Seattle, and different people have wanted to do readings of it. It's fun to write plays: very fundamentally different, but it's been enjoyable. I've also written screenplays for movies, and books, and a couple of other forms of writing.
You are usually at your desk with just the notes and the water—at least I assume it's water.
When I was involved in debating many years ago, I'd have bullet-point outlines, but essentially they would just sort of be there as a crutch; I knew what I was going to say. How much do you allow yourself to depart from your notes?
Quick question about that, because I was a very avid speech-and-debate person back in the day: When you say you knew what you were going to say, had you actually memorized it?
Ah! Exactly. So, yes, it's known that way. It's known, but not memorized. The outline is largely vestigial in performance. Often, whole sections of the show don't appear in the outline.
So what happens if you want to publish it?
We're actually going to be publishing an anthology of the monologues. We'll work from a couple of different representative transcripts and then we'll reconcile those transcripts together.
When is this book coming out? And which pieces will be in it?
It's supposed to come out next fall, although it might be, like, January or something.
Who's publishing it?
TCG. And it will be four or five of the monologues, depending on what looks like a good grouping. We haven't decided which ones, definitively; we're still in the process of figuring out which will go in this first anthology. We have representative transcripts of some of the monologues, but not many of them, really, because it's a lot of effort to make them, and they're kind of useless, you know? I don't really need them for anything. We only do them to distribute them.
Couldn't you hire a typist to transcribe them?
We've found a couple of people through trial and error who are really good at transcribing the monologues; they tend to be people who have a connection to the work. Because getting a good transcription with decent punctuation, or even a decent attempt at the punctuation. A lot of the music in the work that I create is in the pauses and the shape of the words and so forth. When I was young, I actually was into never having anything written down. In fact, I would drink a lot of bourbon and I would talk about the tyranny of the written word, and I would rail against how the death of the American theater was the written word—that it was the worst thing that ever happened to the theater. I believe in the moment in the room, and I believe in everything being in service to that. But, you know, I've also written books now. Obviously I've fallen away from my youthful idealism, as most of us do.
Corrupted! By the gold, the lucre!
Oh yes. It was for the money. It was for the incredible money. But I'm interested to see what it's like to have them live on the page this way. I'm very aware that part of the magic of this particular form is that I take everything with me. When I die, they all go with me; they don't live on in any form or any shape. So I think there's the hope, there's the desire—hopefully less out of some kind of morbid, Egyptian immortality complex, and more out of... I remember when I was young, it would have been very useful to know someone else had been a monologuist, you know what I mean? I remember reading the transcription of the books of Spalding Gray's monologues.
Well, also two of those were filmed. So whether those films capture it exactly or not, you do get a pretty good idea of what Swimming to Cambodia and Grey's Anatomy were about. I wonder if that kind of ephemeral theatrical transience we're talking about is even possible anymore, now that we have all of these recording devices and videos and such.
Yeah, that's an interesting problem I'm grappling with for a piece for next year. I want to create a piece that is not capturable. And I hope to do it with scale.
Did you see Taylor Mac's The Lily's Revenge?
I did! I thought it was fantastic! It was one of my favorite things I've seen in a long time.
There's an example of something that's probably never doable again. They can't extend it. They can't transfer it.
And that's the beautiful thing. I'm hoping to do something similar, but for a monologue. I'm working on a show that's tentatively titled All the Hours of the Day. It's a 24-hour monologue that begins on a Friday at 9pm and ends on a Saturday at 9pm. And it follows the rotation of the earth: It begins where it is geographically, and then it moves across the earth through each time zone, up and down the globe, all the way around. It's actually 24 50-minute interlinked monologues; it uses what I think the dominant dramatic form in our culture. which is the long-form television series. So the idea is that each of these 45-50 minute episodes is dramatically whole and dramaturgically sound on its own, and can be watched and enjoyed alone—but they all interlink, and the characters and the stories interweave into a large arc that travels through the entire 24 hours.
No. No. But one of the things I most dislike about theater now is the feeling that everything has limits: This feeling that you don't know what's going to happen in the room you're going into, you have no idea, but you know you'll be out in time to get dessert. So I'm excited at the idea of doing a piece that I actually am not certain is completable.
I don't know if you saw the advertising campaign for After Miss Julie, but the tagline—and I'm paraphrasing, but only mildly—was something like: "an exciting new 90-minute play." I swear.
[He laughs.] I'm not sure this is the right route to take. You know what I mean? It doesn't take that much reductio ad absurdum to get to the point where you're like, "Or—don't even go at all! It's so great that you can just stay home!" But that giant piece is probably going to happen in the next year.
How many pieces do you work on at one time? How many pots do you have on the burner?
That's a good question. I want to say it's hard to say—but it's not actually hard to say. I could count them right now. But the thing that's interesting is that because the work happens extemporaneously, there's not much to look at, so it's actually hard to say how far along different things are. But there are probably six or seven major pieces that are in process now, all at different stages. There's the current ones being worked on, there's this 24-hour show, there's a monologue about the history of Puritanism in America, there's a monologue called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I'm hoping to go to China to go to the factories where the products are created. It's the untold story in any technology endeavor: We live in this Utopian future, and we all understand that they come from China, but we don't actually internalize that.
Or think about what people are paid...
No. And it's almost worse than that now, because we do sort of think about it, and then we take a moment to be like, "Hmm...well, there you go." And then we open up our laptops. You would not even think about doing this story about the technology of, say, the car without going to see a car built. But the vast majority of profiles of Steve Jobs and Apple never involve even a moment of stepping into the room where anything is made. And I think that has a lot to do with Utopianism, the side of techno-utopianism where we sort of create a world—like the Apple Store, all glass and steel and exposed aluminum and beautiful design. We are very effective at walling off what made it possible for these things to be here.
Sometimes your monologues chronicle recent adventures you've gone on, and sometimes they draw on things in your past. Do you worry that there's a limited number of great stories to draw on? Do you have a kind of card catalog of really good, dine-outable anecdotes that you can work into monologues?
I used to feel closer to what you're describing—in, like, 2002 or 2003. This was just after 21 Dog Years, which was a big enough success that it was becoming problematic for me to manage it. Because the expectation in the solo-performance industry is that if you find something that works, you'll do it for five or seven years. Which is a fantastic way to make sure that producers are happy with your work, and that artists never actually grow. I don't know what other art form this happens in, where people are like, "Well, I made something good. I guess that's what I'm doing for the next decade." And then we never hear from them again cause they're so busy touring around doing that one goddamn thing.
"Father played Cyrano de Bergerac!"
[He laughs.] Totally! Totally. So I was like, well, I'm not doing that. That's retarded. And during that period, I kind of got concerned: What does it mean to turn your life into art? And what are the limitations? How many stories are there? So what I did was, I got a spot at P.S. 122, where every Monday night I would do a new monologue. We called it All Stories Are Fiction. I did a new monologue every Monday for most of 2003 and I think it was all of 2004. I did something like 65 of these shows. We'd give the shows evocative titles, like Serenity Through Viciousness, because it's good for marketing, and also it's good to have something to resonate against. But I would really be strict with myself. I wouldn't think about the show; I would figure out as little as possible until I got to the theater. And then I would get to the theater, and in the hour before the audience came in, so actually as the audience is coming in, I would sit backstage and I would make the outline, and then I would perform it. And we really weren't sure if it was going to work. I remember there were actually plans like, "Well, if there aren't enough stories, what we can do, we'll just start doing one show for a bunch of weeks. It's totally fine. But we have to try." I don't know, I was looking for something. What I found was that this thing you're setting up, this question, is an illusion. It seems very true that there are only a few stories in each person's life, and maybe it is true that people—you used a great phrase, "dine-outable anecdotes"—it may be true that there are a certain number of "dine-outables," you know what I mean? But the reality is that every person, in a sense, has an infinite number of stories. In another sense, they only have one story: the story of that person, and it's constantly shifting and changing.
Like in Proust!
Yes! Very much. And so what we discovered was that every week I would do this show and it would be about the events of the previous week but then they'd be connected to larger themes and motifs. And it was doing that practice week after week that cured me of that fear. And that was a really good thing to let go of, because if you are afraid you only have a certain number of stories, they automatically become precious to you. You hold onto them too tightly; you have to let them go. And most of our great novelists are actually dealing with, like, five or seven issues in their life. It's the same with monologues. The Last Cargo Cult, which is about the first world and the third world and what money does to us and means to us—many of those issues are in Monopoly!, which I did five years ago, which was about the corporatization of everything and the ownership of ideas, which is not that different than this monologue about Steve Jobs. And it's not that different than How Theater Failed America. I'm very interested in corporatization. And the personal threads are very similar too; I'm always returning to the place I'm from. I'm returning to the root things, like any artist.
Are there any things your life that you won't talk about onstage?
It's interesting, because as an artist who works directly with autobiographical material, I try not put artificial boundaries on what I won't talk about onstage. Having said that, of course there are things I don't talk about because, like anybody, there are things that are too personal. Life is huge, and I talk about so little onstage from my life, actually. There's a great expression that I learned—I can't even remember where I picked it up, but it's from the Middle Ages, actually: "Do not call up what you cannot put down." You want to grapple with the largest issues of your life, because the hope, in monologue, is to shine a light though your life so that you can illuminate it like a map, so the audience is involved. This is what keeps it from being self-involved. It's actually, done correctly, a generous thing: You're trying to illuminate yourself and include the audience so they can take a journey with you, so we can all get somewhere together. And the hope is, if you all get somewhere together that you couldn't have gotten to on your own, that's catharsis. You're like, Thank you for helping; we all went somewhere.
But there are certain things that you're not ready to talk about onstage. If the emotional weight of it is too high, and you're not ready to grapple or reckon with it, then it can exceed your capacity to put yourself around the story—and then it becomes spectacle. I feel like that's the line between art and spectacle. And that's why daytime television, where people are having breakdowns, is riveting to watch because you're watching a car wreck, but that's not the same as a mediated theatrical event, a story being told. And it doesn't involve you. You are watching the car wreck at a distance; it's no longer a communication or a communion. My job is to dissolve as many boundaries as possible, and that's why the works still aren't scripted—at a fundamental level, they're not scripted because I want the knowledge that we can be in a different place each night to be real, and not just a theatrical illusion. But the only people who truly have no boundaries are insane.
One danger of writing about yourself is that you run the risk of being called self-indulgent.
Well, yeah. We are in a culture that is titillated by people telling their own stories, but actually has a really hard time with people taking possession and ownership of their own lives and telling them onstage, and in other forms as well. There's a real dichotomy between being in love with hearing about someone in a personal way, and then also being very quick to judge and say, "Now I've heard too much!"
Or that silencing phrase, "Too much information!" There's a social management of exactly how much you're allowed to imply about about your feelings or your worries, even in day-to-day life.
It feels like the reason solo performances get tagged with "self-indulgence" is because there's only one person. If it's a two-person show and someone else wrote it, then no one can be tagged with self-indulgence, because the playwright is not there. It's like a low-level corporatization—you don't know who to blame. Whereas in solo performance, it's very easy to be, like, "Oh it would be you, because you're creating it in front of me." And with solo performance, it's you. It's not the work, it's you, and the reviews become, like, "I don't like you." But solo performance is actually a critically important form. Since the theater is so corporatized, it's actually one of the few forms where artists, if they have something to say, can take the means of production completely into their own hands.
Theater as blogging, in a way.
If you have an independent viewpoint, getting a play produced in New York, or anywhere, is an enterprise that involves so many people all getting in line, and getting so many things to run. And it's slow. Painfully slow. So one of the things I like about my form is the ability to talk about things that are still resonating in the consciousness. Like, I don't know what else the American theater has to say about the baking collapse. And I really enjoyed being able to perform, last year, If You See Something Say Something, and talk about the state of the Department of Homeland Security.
What other solo performers would you recommend to people who want to see this kind of work?
I would very much recommend Taylor Mac. I know that we just saw his show so it's hanging in the air, but I really, really, really love his work. And I would recommend, actually, going outside the mainstream theatrical community in New York. That's been a tremendous resource for me.
Where can people go for that?
There are a bunch of small storytelling nights all over the city. Down at the Cornelia Street Caf they have a number of them, and I participate in some of them. You have people who have full, rich lives coming in at 70 and telling really compelling stories; the people are so interesting, and you learn so much about what it takes to tell a story in these environments that are stripped of all theatrical convention—where it's really just a person and a story.
The act of storytelling is hard-wired in human consciousness. Every person can tell a story. It's fundamentally different than acting; the skills can work together, but they're different things. And the kind of people who are capable of telling a fantastic story are often voices that otherwise we would never hear, because they're not giving these stories out in other forms. The ability in this city to hear a vast array of voices: For me, that's been a tremendous influence over the years. It's been really tremendous.