Dallas — A week ago, I looked at ticket prices to see monologist Mike Daisey at AT&T Performing Arts Center and realized I couldn't afford them. I started panicking, knowing I was going to have to scheme my way into a seat. It is a real problem when artists can't afford to attend the inspiration in their medium, especially when they have been developing work in a way similar to said artist.
I called Mark Lowry, editor of TheaterJones, knowing he would have a staff writer interview Daisey. I told Mark that I would ask Mike Daisey better questions than his writer would—which, yes, I realize is bold considering that the only time I’ve interviewed someone was on Grindr.
My argument was that as a solo performer, Daisey is an artist I’ve admired for years. We both perform monologues extemporaneously. He does his sitting at a desk, performing his work from an outline only, with no formal script. He develops the play in front of the audience. It’s not too far removed from the way I like to work, although my performances are more physical.
I continued my pitch: In 2010, I wrote a paper about Daisey’s work for my independent study at Oklahoma State, where my teacher and mentor, the late Matt Tomlanovich, required I research various solo performers including Tim Miller, Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, John O'Keefe, Anna Deavere Smith and Andy Kaufman.
Daisey and the late Gray both stuck out for me in the way they perform a story: with only an outline written down. I remember having to stop and go back so many times when I failed to remember the words I had written down for a monologue. Matt told me to drop the script and just tell him what happens, like I would tell a friend at a bar. After that, the words and ending came to me effortlessly. The sessions with Matt transformed into storytelling lessons. The rehearsal process became about forming the structure of an outline.
Five years later and five plays later, I finally get to see Daisy, who I consider a master at the craft, do it. He's performing The Great Tragedies at the AT&T Performing Arts Center this weekend, which each of four performances devoted to a different Shakespeare tragedy: Romeo and Juliet on Thursday night, Hamlet on Friday night, Macbeth at the Saturday matinee and King Lear on Saturday night. It's part of the inaugural Off Broadway on Flora series. (Click the info button in the floating menu at bottom left to see more about it.)
Thankfully Mark agreed to let me do the interview. Below is our conversation.
TheaterJones: You have been performing monologues for 15 years. You perform them extemporaneously, relying only on an outline. I am curious about your transition to that format, from being a Shakespearean trained actor?
Mike Daisey: I worked in other idioms that I feel informed monologues. I did sketch comedy for a couple of years. I had a sketch comedy group. In fact, I actually produced the first sketch comedy festival in North America. It is actually still running: the Seattle SketchFest. One would inform the other. I would work extemporaneously and do monologues in the sketch shows my company would produce.
When you started performing extemporaneously, did you get pushback or criticism for not operating via a script?
Some people feel strangely about extemporaneous work. Frankly, I just think they are not terribly awake. Most of your life you are working extemporaneously. There is actually a vanishingly small time when you are working via a script. A lot of great preaching comes from extemporaneous work.
Have you ever had trouble turning off your performance/art in your personal life?
I do; that’s a huge problem. My job as a monologist is to explore my obsessions and look for possible areas where my obsessions really illuminate things about my social life. It is a wonderful calling, but by its nature it gives you reign to become even more obsessive with the things you are already obsessive with. It totally encourages one to work on things for a long period of time.
There’s no part of it that’s not passionately derived. It really absorbs your whole life—as opposed to the feeling even in a show that’s really fantastic. Working in a traditional piece of theater, as an actor you sort of have a job, even if you don’t have a big role. And there is a pleasure to that, because you know that there are sort of boundaries, and where your responsibilities are. But as a monologist you are responsible for everything and you are also responsible for everything in real time. And so it can absolutely be really consuming. And I work on many projects simultaneously. I often sort it without taking a break of any kind. I tend to instead switch, or parallel-track; if one thing isn’t where quite I need it to be, I work on something else. I switch.
It’s a real phenomenon. The performative part is not really an issue, because I am an extroverted person who is also very shy. As a consequence I am not terribly performative in real life. I am naturally more performative in front of a couple hundred people. I don’t have the problem other people I know have where the act of performing causes them to become distant from themselves in their interactions with other people in their immediate life.
You also switch up the plays you perform. Your upcoming performance in Dallas will be the second performance of The Great Tragedies since it opened last October at the California Shakespeare Festival. You did the Great Men of Genius monologues at Joe’s Pub in New York this January, which you did in North Texas at WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Festival five years ago. In the past you have mentioned that after performing The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs over 300 times the show “died.” Do you rotate your plays to keep them alive?
If you do anything a huge number of times as you perform it, it has a tendency on a spectrum to become innately more theatrical and less extemporaneous as it is repeated. It sort of crystalizes. And there are parts of that process that are really good, but it’s kind of like a wine aging. It just becomes too much.
I discovered over time it becomes my job to disrupt the structure and narrative of it. Even if it seems to be “working,” because the living part of it has begun to fail. It is definitely something that happens.
And I think it happens to all kinds of theater constructs. It involves shows with really long runs that become stiff, even if it’s marvelous. No matter how fabulous a play is, it will eventually become stiff. I think of theater as a living animal. The experiences we create are living constructs. They can’t actually be commoditized, where they are summonable at will. A truly great night at the theater depends on the alchemy of many different factors. One of those factors in my shows obviously is me. So if I have run the show many times it becomes too much.
When I was younger there was a desire to keep all the monologues alive, but now there are too many. There is no way to keep them in all rotation, but the truth is the older I get the faster I create shows. I have to let them gracefully die.
You so eloquently talked about your role as a monologist to delve into your obsessions, and your shows stem from these obsessions. What is currently obsessing you?
I am working on a piece on the history of journalism in New York over the last ten years. I read a wonderful New York magazine piece just a couple days ago about the lost Malaysian Air flight. The article is authored by a talking head [Jeff Wise] who used to be an expert in the whole thing. He talks about how our attention dropped because we couldn’t figure out what was going on. And it talks about him, as he kept learning more and more about it how he came around to believing what most people would consider a conspiracy theory. And what’s really interesting isn’t the terms of conspiracy theory, but what a good job he does explaining it. I have been thinking of doing a show how conspiracy theories work for years.
How would you plug The Great Tragedies for Dallas Audiences?
If Shakespeare moves you, you might be interested in going to see it.
I really enjoyed building it out in California. This is just the second time it has been implemented anywhere. It’s an attempt to delve into what Shakespeare means, not in a literary sense, but in a living sense. It’s an attempt to grapple with the theatrical DNA of it. Instead of dissecting Shakespeare as an English major would be interested in, it is an attempt to look at them as living plays; the idea that these plays are a blueprint to be implemented. I feel that this is an important step that the theater offers us, because most artworks are, in theory, finished when we come to them. And the beautiful thing about these plays is that they are not finished—none of them are finished. Each and every one of them serve as a kind blueprint that certain people have to make relevant to their time.
So in large part it talks about these plays that have been a huge part of my life. It is an attempt to reckon with why they are good. Why is it important to grapple with tragedy, why is it important to do these plays? Because if it’s not, if it gets to this place where they are...you know…an opportunity to say highfalutin words, and for people who have too much money to pay incredibly high prices to watch other people entertain them. You know, that’s a terrible and pathetic thing. There is no need to encourage class warfare. We can all stay home and watch Law & Order for godsakes.
I believe that there is something fundamentally wonderful in Shakespeare. What I think is wonderful about it doesn’t actually live in the words themselves. The words are an opportunity. It isn’t about how Shakespeare is such an incredible genius. I think the part that is genius is that he is the only author that an entire form has decided it will embrace. We have Shakespeare theaters all over this country that do just Shakespeare. Even when they do a terrible job, because they can’t all be good, there is a commonality of language. Like when we say somebody is playing Hamlet, culturally we have an idea what that means. And that fascinates me. The common language we built together around this kind of acting, this kind of theater. And how it is alternative and a different world from the common language we build around film and TV. This is our heritage in that sense. So it is an attempt to reckon with what that heritage really means. Not in a stale sense, or a stage sense, but in a living sense. Why is it worthwhile? In a time when people question why we go to theater and we have live entertainment. We should rise to the challenge ourselves too.
You trained as a Shakespearean actor, what roles would you love to play?
I do not have many more left. I have gotten to play really great roles. I have been Benedick, Mercutio and Hamlet. I do think given my age and where I am at, I would be interested in playing Falstaff. And eventually [chuckles], and it’s unlikely in our time, I would really like to get a crack at Lady M, but I do not know who is going to give me that opportunity.
» John Michael Colgin is a Dallas-based solo performer whose monologues include Would You Like Guys With That? A McTolerant One-Man Show; The A-Gays: Stillwater, Oklahoma; and John Michael and the Order of the Penix, which he will reprise for two performances at the Margo Jones Theatre (10:15 p.m. March 21 and 8 p.m. March 22) before he moves to Chicago. You can also currently see him in the title role in Gilligan's Fire Island, a world premiere comedy by Jamie Morris produced by Uptown Players (here's our review)