A conversation with
(with a surprise guest appearance
from Jean-Michele Gregory)
By Madeleine Oldham
Madeleine Oldham: You call what you do "extemporaneous monologuing." I thought briefly about writing a piece about other performers who do this. But I ended up reading about Spalding Gray and...Spalding Gray. Are there other people whom you consider ancestors?
Mike Daisey: Well, there are two lenses we can look at this through: one is that there's almost no one performing this way, so it’s a very strange and alien thing. On the other hand, you could say that everyone is performing this way and that, in fact, it's the American theatre that's the aberration.
I perform extemporaneously, so I speak in the air and the words compose themselves in real time. This is the dominant form of human expression—everyone who teaches in a class is performing extemporaneously; everyone who preaches in a church, a synagogue or a mosque anywhere in the world; almost all comedy; lawyers arguing their cases—all are performing extemporaneously. So you could say it's the theatre, in its very structured, locked-up form, that's the odd man out.
But within the construct of the theatre there aren’t that many extemporaneous performers. So it can feel very strange, you can feel very isolated. But then I just have to look at the world around me to realize I have many brothers and sisters.
You seem to have a tremendous appetite for new information. Have you had that since you were a kid?
I have always been interested in the world. The job of the monologue is fundamentally the pursuit of my obsessions: to illuminate them and to illuminate paths through them that an audience can follow and can participate in. It's a wonderful job that I built for myself. I do tend to pick up obsessions with a lot of vigor. I really enjoy the chase, and then discovering the connections between the pieces of each individual monologue, and then also between the works from one to another. When we’ve done pieces next to each other in the past, you learn a lot more about each of the pieces because of the way they relate to each other.
In fact, you ran this play in repertory with your last piece, The Last Cargo Cult, during the run at Berkeley Rep. How do those two relate to each other?
These are both about commerce and our own obsessions. The Last Cargo Cult is about our economic system that spreads across the entire world. It's a system of dominance and submission that really controls how we conduct human exchanges. A huge amount of that is about the acquisition of stuff, and our love of objects and of tools.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is really that in microcosm. It examines our technology through a very personal kind of lens. It's the stuff we actually mediate our minds through, especially in this age when we spend so much of our time on the net and on the web and communicating with one another virtually. Even you and I are having this conversation by telephone. When we do this—when we use systems to destroy space so that people who are far apart can connect to each other, these are actually massive shifts in human consciousness. And as we shift that way again and again we fetishize the objects enormously because they're so important to us.
I regularly fall asleep with my iPhone in my bed—I have it right before bed and I fall asleep and in the morning I have to find it again. When I was younger, before cell phones, I never had an object—not my wallet, not my watch—I never had anything that I feel the way I feel about the iPhone. So I think it’s very important that we examine these objects and the circumstances under which they are actually built, which we are very, very unaware of. And even when we think we're aware of it, we aren't really fully aware. So I feel like the monologues speak to one another about our stuff and the importance of it and the power exchanges that happen in our culture.
How does something go from being an idea to being a show?
Well, first, it isn’t really an idea in the traditional sense—it’s an obsession. When an obsession of mine might be related to or connected to a show, I can sort of feel that. Then it gestates for a long period in my mind, and I do research, and one of the things I'm looking for is another obsession. Because generally where a monologue emerges is where two obsessions are colliding. It's not enough for me alone to be obsessed. It's not enough even for me alone to be obsessed and then to also feel like my culture is obsessed, because if that were true, I would just make instructional videos. Where two obsessions are in collision is where it's near the ignition point, and where it might be possible to make a monologue. So this generally involves a lot of research, and travel sometimes—in the case of both of these monologues, extensive travel as well as personal journeys. Then I collect all this information but nothing actually gets written because the monologues are not scripted. Nothing is written at all, including notes, until about 24 hours before the very first time the monologue is created in performance. At that point I create an outline. It's very tense and very nerve-wracking—it's a lot like giving birth, and then I perform it for the first time, which tends to be a very monumentous thing. Only after that do we begin to use the tools of the traditional theatre to shape it.
How did you and your wife/director discover that working together was a good thing?
That came about very early-on the very first monologue, actually. We met doing really bad theatre—a terrible German expressionist play in an awful production in Seattle that we were both acting in. It was just a dreadful production, and in that way that horrible theatre can bind people together for the rest of their lives, it did that for us and we found one another. It was really natural when we started working together and the relationship began around the same time, so things have always been intertwined. Our work life and our personal life and our marriage are really the same braid—the strands are woven around one another. And I think that shows in the work. It's very rare in the American theatre—normally directors stay with shows until they open, then they fly off to the next location. The actors are then left on their own, and I think that you lose something ineffable and vital when a director goes away.
Jean-Michele and I work together on everything, and she’s been there for thousands of performances over the last 15 or so years. As a consequence, I feel like the quality of work would never be what it is now if she had not been devoted in that way. She is so exacting about what it means to have an image that’s precise and what it means to cut something just so. She is a fantastic editor, certainly the best editor, I think, in the American theatre. She has an amazing ability to see an image clearly and then to divine from watching it in three dimensions, as it's playing out on stage, what needs to be cut or trimmed or sharpened to a point. So it's been a really fantastic collaboration and a fantastic marriage, and really for us those two things are inseparable.
I think a lot about the separation between people's work lives and their personal lives and how those lines have gotten very blurry in recent years—for a lot of people it all blends together, particularly now when it’s so easy to work remotely and be accessible all the time. This somehow relates in my mind to your appetite for technology and how you can operate on many different levels at once...
I do think people conceive their relationships in a wide variety of contexts. We spend more time together than any other couple I've ever heard of. Ever. So as a consequence I feel like we fall outside the normal bell curve of what people think of as constituting a collaboration. At the same time I love it. We wouldn’t do it if it didn’t feed us. I’m confident that had we come together much later in life, we'd have a very different relationship to the work, because when we came together we were both developing what kind of artists we were going to be. We were still finding our voices. I think that plays a role in the chorus that has emerged, and I know that the work would not be anywhere near what it is now without that collaboration. That's incredibly clear. Not just aesthetically, but also economically and socially. The way the American theatre works, no one can afford to hire a director to be with you 24/7 that way. The only way you can do it is to do what we've done, which is basically like a commune, but it's a commune of two. It may not be a perfect model, but given the way the arts are in my lifetime, this is the path we found to try and realize our visions and make them as vivid and real as possible. I think we're able to achieve more together than we ever could have separately.
I’ve heard you say that you enjoy teaching. Why?
I do love teaching very much, and I love the extemporaneous nature of teaching. It’s also very instructive because you learn a lot about how you tell stories not just by doing it, but also by having to communicate to other people how you do it. It’s very illuminating. The process of having to break down what you did into resonant metaphors that might afford the possibility of shedding light on a creative process is actually a difficult undertaking. It’s really rewarding because first, if you succeed, even a little, there's a chance you might have actually communicated. Which, I think, is why we go to the theatre night after night—in the hope, the dream, that someone might actually tell the truth. It happens so rarely that something leaps the gap and actually connects with us. When it does happen, it's like the sunlight pouring in—it's a marvelous thing. And for it to happen in teaching, there's that chance that you could actually impart something that's numinous, that goes on to illuminate a variety of contexts, and I love that. Often it doesn't happen. When we think back in our education there were lots of days when we learned nothing, so it keeps you humble too. It keeps you honest. You can't actually be illuminating every moment of every day—people would burn out. So I really enjoy trying to parse that distance, and I feel like I learn a lot about my craft by doing that.
Do you consider your work a form of journalism?
Given the state of journalism today I don’t know if I should be slightly insulted. (Laughs.) No, I do actually. I think that journalism should be part of most art that we make. Because we should know what is happening in the world, we should know it in our bones and it should inform our work. I feel like the impulse in the theatre, and in many other art forms, is to distance ourselves from the concerns of the day in an attempt to then get an overview of life, but I think that's a false dichotomy. I think that actually being cheek by jowl with life itself, with things that are actually happening, affords us an opportunity to have a specific dialogue that doesn’t exist otherwise. It lets us find these charged elements that can pull us along like a magnet and pull us somewhere where catharsis is possible. So I do think journalism is a huge part of it. Journalism has a fantastic framework to live up to: the attempt to actually transmit the truth even despite all the difficulties inherent to that undertaking. I find it very inspiring. A lot of my heroes are journalists.
In performance terms, how do you see the relationship between journalism and activism?
I think that in the arts world we have a strong bias against activism. We always say we don’t because that would seem like we were uncaring. But we do, because if we say someone is an activist artist, really what we mean is that we've ghettoized that artist and that we're no longer as interested in what that artist might have to say as we would be if that artist didn't have any kind of adjective attached to the front of his or her name. I feel like it's the act of conscious citizens to be activists. I think that if you have no activism in your life, if you have nothing you’re advocating for or fighting for, then you are not conscious. There is so much that needs work, there is so much that cries out for people to have passion about, that I feel like people need to be activists, they need to search for what their activism means. That's an ongoing search to clarify and constantly question what it is to stand for something and the incredible pull and tug and battle in our hearts and minds over what is right.
And we can't rest on dogma: if the theatre is a living construct, it is exactly the place where these things can actually be wrestled with. Because in theatre, people have to physically come into a space together. There's this fantastic communion between what is happening on the stage and what is happening in the audience. In my work, the attempt is to dissolve as many boundaries as possible, so we’re actually speaking to one another, not from a script—we’re having this experience tonight and tonight alone, and I feel like activism is a natural outgrowth of that.
When we speak about charged circumstances, part of the attempt is obviously to incite the desire for change, but the ways in which people change the world, those are their own idioms. What prevents theatre from collapsing into didacticism is the understanding that our job in the theatre is to present these charged circumstances and to work with the audience to reach toward catharsis, but that the catharsis is their own. They’re the ones that come to that place and they’re the ones who have to walk out owning what they’ve seen, so you can’t actually preach, you can’t actually tell people what they believe. Well, you can but it’s not going to work, not the way you want it to. It won’t work because it becomes aesthetically rigid and unyielding and it doesn’t allow audience members to find their own paths, which may not be the same as your path. Like the role I have as a monologuist—people sometimes find things in the shows that I wouldn’t agree with politically. But that’s not my job. My job is to aesthetically moderate a path and create these opportunities and chances to reach for something that they may not have been able to get to on their own. It's not to dictate what that path contains and who they are in relation to that path.
You've been accused of biting the hand that feeds you, most notably with regard to your piece called How Theater Failed America. How do you respond to that?
It's the job of people who are citizens to stand up and speak responsibly in their own workplaces and be truthful. I think a lot of the talk about biting hands that feed you evolves mostly out of a fundamental disconnect: we’re not used to hearing a performer of any kind speak about the working conditions of the American theatre. As a group, actors and artists are so disenfranchised that they are effectively voiceless. If I was a traditional actor, I certainly wouldn't have been able to make that monologue—I would never work again. One of the ways we make people voiceless is that we criticize them. Wouldn't you want people to bite the hand that feeds them if they care? I want to see us have a healthy, vibrant American theatre that justifies its existence and creates works that are transporting and transformative. Our theatre doesn't do that often enough. I get paid in the theatre to make work, and it's my responsibility to speak up if I see things I think are wrong. If I remain silent out of some belief that because I make my living doing it this way that I should be silent, then I’m actually perpetuating the problem. I’d actually argue that it’s a conspiracy of silence in the American theatre that leads to a lot of our problems. People don't speak, and they even have good reason not to speak because they will pay for it if they do. But nevertheless it's going to require bravery—people need to stand up and say clearly what’s going on, and when people speak that's when the possibility of change begins to emerge.
Are there people making work right now that you think, "Yes, we need more of this"?
Oh yes. Particularly people making ensemble-based work, devised work. There’s a socioeconomic thread to it—I’m very interested in artists that control their own work and the circumstances under which the work is made. I am really touched by The Civilians. Tim Crouch does a lot of fantastic work that really connects with me that way. David Cromer's Our Town was amazing. The people I get most excited about are the ones who feel like they are in control of their own destinies—especially when they're doing work that speaks to local concerns or a constituency that actually gets to see and then participate in those shows. I find that all really exciting.
Is there a moment in your career you’re most proud of?
That’s such a good question. I can't speak for both of us, and maybe after we're done I'll see if JM will chime in. You know, all the monologues end up feeling like your children, so it’s very hard to point to any one and be more proud of one than another. But also I think parents actually do have favorites, although they change from time to time, but you try not to tell anyone that you have favorites. The reality is that what I’m most proud of are things that exist outside the traditional aesthetic framework. I'm very proud of the teaching work we've done. I’m really proud we've been able to carve out a life together as independent artists in the theatre.
I'm really proud that we had the opportunity to take The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to India this summer. I got to perform early versions of this show talking about China's labor policies in the context of performing in India with Indian audiences who are having the same multinational corporations move in and try to enforce the same labor standards. It was riveting to get to have these conversations late into the night with people and feel how this is a living story that really matters right now.
A small thing that often feeds me is that after the shows I generally go to the lobby. Unlike traditional theatre, I feel like it's important for people to have an ability to connect with me because of the nature of the performance. Over many years I've gotten some wonderful opportunities to hear people's stories, because when you tell them a story, often they feel inspired to share a story back to you. That feeds me the way it encourages real human contact—the way we're actually talking to one another and the real way it pushes back the dark a little bit. I like that a lot.
Do you think you will do this kind of work forever and ever?
I think that I'll be telling stories forever. I think we all will. Storytelling is the only art form built with language that is actually intrinsic to human consciousness—everyone in every culture can tell stories. That's a remarkable thing if you think about it. I have no doubt that I'll keep telling stories for the rest of my life, because if I was not, I'd probably be dead.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?
I’m obviously really passionate about monologue. I’m probably more likely to transform the format of the work I do into other idioms. I write books and I make films and things, but really the focus is this. Right now I’m working on a piece that's a 24-hour monologue, a gigantic project that I'm deeply invested in that's about many things. It's largely about the history of Puritanism in America and how Puritanism functions as an essential American value right down the center of our country. It's a huge project that transforms and explodes our traditional ideas about how long and large a piece can be and what the boundaries are of performance. So I'm investigating those sorts of things that are sufficiently outside the box of what constitutes performance at the theatres I often work at.
I’m very likely to go off in those sorts of directions. There’s been talk of and ideas about installations and large-scale happenings and things that sort of intensify the feeling that coming to the theatre is an event that happens once and once alone, and that this thing that happens is special and sort of sacred, and that we participate in it and realize it. It creates its own scarcity because once that event has happened, it is past. So I'm very interested in those things that work against the cookie-cutter mold where we make shows run for a certain amount of time and then repeat them, because I think they're unrepeatable. Trying to find a balance between the art being realized and making it unrepeatable is part of the essential magic of theatre.
(At this point, Mike wanted me to ask Jean-Michele the question I’d just asked him about what he’s most proud of. She got on the phone, and I did.)
Jean-Michele: I think I’m always most proud of whatever we’re working on currently. Whatever the newest thing is, this is the one that has all my attention. But you know, we went to India this summer and we did a performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. It was so cool because it was this hall packed with all these future business leaders, and I couldn’t believe the luck of getting to be there telling this story to these people, and then getting to talk to them afterwards and hearing their responses and their perspective on the situation. It's a mixture of pride and luck, I guess.
Mike and I were just talking about his obsessions and how they appear in the work. Do you have obsessions that make their way into the work? Do the two of you share obsessions?
Jean-Michele: I function much more as an editor. I have my own obsessions, and if I were creating shows they’d probably be about very different things. What I’m trying to do is clarify his vision and fully understand the story that he’s trying to tell and the point he's trying to make, and to make him aware of when the message isn’t coming through clearly or if there’s something blocking the flow of it. I find that the gap in our obsessions is helpful. Like everything I know about tech is by virtue of having spent a lifetime with him. That's not something that I would be natively interested in. And so it can be very helpful when he's speaking about those things to have an outsider perspective.
Is this situation something you look back on and think it makes sense how you got here, or is it completely surprising that this is how you’re making your living?
Jean-Michele: Well, I think it makes total sense that this is what I’d be doing—the fact that we’re making a living at it is the surprising part. I started doing theatre when I was a kid and so I always knew theatre was going to be a big part of my life. I grew up in Seattle and just assumed that I would always have a day job and the theatre would be what I would do at night. Honestly, it never really seemed like it was even possible that one could make a living at it. So the fact that we have been able to do this as our job always feels to me like this crazy wonderful lucky rare thing, like we won the lottery but even better because we're getting to do what we love to do.
This article was originally published in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre program in conjunction with the premiere of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs there in January 2011. Madeleine Oldham is Berkeley Rep’s dramaturg and literary manager.