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January 23, 2007

Mike Daisey's Statement on His Heritage

Daisey's been compared to Spalding Gray and other masters of the solo show.

But there's one difference: he works without a script.

Daisey's stock is rising lately: witness Jason Zinoman's article/interview with him in this past Sunday's (January 21, 2007) New York Times.

His new one-man show, "Invincible Summer," is at Public Theater in New York City; 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place, East Village; 212-539-8500; tickets $15; through next Sunday, January 28, 2007.

Here's the Times story.

    The Need to Think Onstage Is Driving Mr. Daisey

    THE lights went up too early, the cramped theater was swelteringly hot and Mike Daisey, looking a bit nervous alone onstage, could see himself sweating profusely in the mirror on the wall behind the audience. It was going to be one of those shows.

    “Camus once said that the only real philosophical question is whether or not to kill yourself,” he said in a recent workshop performance at Collective Unconscious in TriBeCa of his new monologue, “Invincible Summer,” currently running at the Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar festival. “I’ve always wanted to start a wedding toast with this.”

    It’s a good line that had received huge laughs the last time he delivered it, half a year ago at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina, but this crowd merely chuckled. “All I was thinking then was that I wanted to kill myself,” he said the next day.

    Since he burst on the scene at the 2001 New York International Fringe Festival with “21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com,” an expertly constructed monologue about the madness behind the Internet boom, Mr. Daisey, 34, has been one of the hardest-working and most accomplished storytellers in the solo form. His plays, which include multiple narrative threads, echoing off one another and intersecting in the most unexpected ways, have received consistently good reviews, earning comparisons to premier yarn-spinners like Spalding Gray and David Sedaris. But what Mr. Daisey does is considerably different in at least one respect: He works without a script.

    Like a voluble raconteur who is always the life of the party, he builds his work extemporaneously in front of audiences, using his store of memories of what has worked in the past as well as a bit of improvisational riffing. No two shows are the same. “Working on the story in real time utilizes tool sets in the subconscious,” he explained in an e-mail message, “because the conscious mind can’t keep up, especially during heightened performances.”

    Mr. Daisey doesn’t rehearse his monologues, so when he walks onstage and sits behind a desk with a glass of water and a few pages of a skeletal outline, he is never exactly sure what is going to happen. At their best his shows recreate that rare moment when you can see a performer actually thinking through an idea. But early in the process it sometimes looks like that lackluster performance at Collective Unconscious, only the third time he had ever performed “Summer.” Before officially opening, Mr. Daisey did four workshops to massage it into shape.

    What also distinguishes him from most solo performers is how elegantly he blends personal stories, historical digressions and philosophical ruminations. He has the curiosity of a highly literate dilettante — exploring subjects like the James Frey scandal (“Truth”), Scientology (“Great Men of Genius”) and Nikola Tesla’s battle with Thomas Edison over electricity (“Monopoly”) — and a preoccupation with alternative histories, secrets large and small, and the fuzzy line where truth and fiction blur.

    Mr. Daisey’s greatest subject is himself. With each new monologue he exposes a new aspect of his biography, and part of the fun for his loyal fans is filling in another piece of the portrait. So far we know, among other things, that he grew up in a remote part of Maine as the son of a therapist and that he had a child with his high school sweetheart, both of whom he left after a painful decision.

    He moved to Seattle, where he met his future wife and started performing his monologues and working at Amazon.com, which gave him the material for his breakout show. That led to a book deal, an appearance on David Letterman’s show and minor celebrity status.

    His new work provides something of a bookend to “21 Dog Years,” which describes a young Mr. Daisey getting wrapped up in the national obsession for lucrative stock options and absurd Internet riches. In “Invincible Summer” he talks about his parents’ divorce, the creation of the New York subway system and his move to New York, but the emotional center is another kind of mania in which Mr. Daisey loses himself.

    “I supported the Iraq war,” he said in a recent interview, with the shamefaced seriousness of a man admitting to adultery. In the play he describes how his rage over the events of Sept. 11 informed his politics, leading to a subsequent sense of loss and betrayal. “I wasn’t willing to admit that my government was lying — or wrong,” he said. “It was a failure of imagination.”

    The day after his first workshop performance, Mr. Daisey, whose gesticulating arms, rubbery face and round belly can make him look like an overgrown baby, sat down to receive notes from his director, Jean-Michele Gregory, a focused, youthful woman who also happens to be his wife and, for that matter, a central character in the monologue. Mr. Daisey begins the show with a romantic description of their wedding and later explains how moving to New York introduced a new distance between them. At one point he describes taking her to the Brooklyn Promenade and being furious that she was not as impressed by the Manhattan skyline as he thought she should be.

    Sitting in their bottom-floor apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, they worked on the piece with an oddly clinical distance, sometimes even referring to themselves in the third person. “So when Jean-Michele comes back,” Ms. Gregory, 29, said at one point, before pausing for a smile. “O.K., when I come back.”

    Most of her notes were trims and edits, pressing her husband to distill each part of the show to its essentials. In their discussions they paid meticulous care to the language, rhythm and length of each story line and how each played off the other. Occasionally they disagreed on things like how much specificity should be used in describing Mr. Daisey’s experience on Sept. 11. Ms. Gregory said she didn’t know where he was exactly, but he wanted to keep it vague, recreating the chaos of the day.

    They agreed on the main problem: that the rage Mr. Daisey felt in the wake of his parents’ divorce and the terrorist attacks, two events that shook the foundations of his belief system, remained distant and unexamined. “We need to attempt to get inside your anger,” Ms. Gregory said, staring him in the eyes. “Are you entitled to it?”

    The next afternoon he returned to Collective Unconscious. This time the lights came up on time. The crowd roared at the Camus joke, and he hit his stride, starting his stories quickly, building momentum and finishing them delicately, stretching out syllables for emphasis. About 20 minutes had been cut, including the scene with his wife at the promenade, which it turns out Mr. Daisey merely forgot. (He later mused that his subconscious was trying to tell him something.) He also added a fantasy scene in which members of the Bush administration serve up bowls of borsht to members of the American public.

    When he spoke of his parents’ divorce and the collapse of the twin towers, Mr. Daisey was expressionless, but when he talked about meeting his father’s new girlfriend for the first time, he exploded. In an odd, indirect way the evolution of his anger started to come into focus.

    “Spalding Gray said there’s a relationship between extemporaneous performance and therapy, and I think that is true,” Mr. Daisey said before the performance. “It can be therapeutic. It can also be the opposite of therapeutic. There’s a moment of self-understanding, of opening a door, and then you can’t close it again.”

January 23, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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