Monologuist Mike Daisey ready to stir things up at Berkeley Rep

01.06.11
Mike Daisey
The Oakland Tribune

By Pat Craig

Big and outspoken, with an amusement park of a mind, Mike Daisey learned quickly that he was not cut out to be a company cog.

He did well at Amazon.com, swimming nicely up the corporate ladder, he told David Letterman awhile ago. But, he added, he had an unusual way of handling his daily quota of telephone calls -- he'd hang up on the callers. He'd score well with the brass, but didn't exactly offer great customer service.

For some, that would be the end of it: sever the relationship and find something to do. Not Daisey, though. His assault on corporate America became a one-man show, "21 Dog Years," a hit off-Broadway show and a popular book. The show also played at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where Daisey will debut his newest works, "The Last Cargo Cult" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," beginning Wednesday.

Daisey goes on stage armed only with notes and an idea of what he wants to talk about. But the monologues themselves are only written out in full when the author turns them into books.

"Truthfully, I don't write as much as I would like," he says. "What I do is extemporaneous, created on air as I perform in front of an audience. I spend a lot of time researching, but the pieces are formed in a living way in front of an actual audience."

In previous Berkeley Rep appearances, Daisey has presented diverse, eclectic pieces including a captivating portrait of Nicola Tesla (where the audience reaches a point of caring about Thomas Edison's AC current and Tesla's DC current, and how it might have changed the course of American electricity), to an equally captivating picture of his boyhood in the extreme northeast of Maine.

His stories meander beautifully through one thing or another, mesmerizing his audience into believing they are on a quiet Sunday drive through a remarkable mind, when they suddenly find themselves on a wild roller coaster trip leading quite powerfully to the point Daisey wants to make.

The new works seem to have no less of that as he explores "The Last Cargo Cult," which begins as the story of a remote South Pacific Island, where the residents worship America and its goods, then leads to a look at our worship of American banks and banking and the recent collapse of the financial system.

"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" checks in on the high-tech wizard of the title and his obsessions, and how they affect our lives. It then goes to China, where millions work to make our dreams come true -- and examines the trouble it creates in their lives.
Daisey says his works tend to spring up during his research and reading process.

"They generally grow out of obsession -- I tend to look for a place where multiple obsessions I have collide with each other, and it's that colliding with each other where the monologue actually is," he said. "Actually, what's drawn me especially in the last couple of years is a strongly journalistic sense about what it happening to us now as a culture and society."

Sounds heavy, but while Daisey's work is bright, intelligent and pointed, it is also wonderfully offbeat and funny. His performances are deceptively low-key, often like a conversation over beers. But they tend to have big impact.

Usually, it's a banquet for thought, but as least once, the response has been more of an evacuation. In the spring of 2007, while Daisey was performing his "Invincible Summer" at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., a group of 87 choir students from California walked out en masse. The reason remains unknown to Daisey; some say the students were offended by Daisey's language, with members of the group claiming to be a Christian choir. The group was from a public school.

He was surprised and a bit puzzled by the reaction, but part of what Daisey does is create monologues that demand a reaction, usually emotional rather than physical, from his audience. He offers food for thought and strives to make current events, or at least the connection between events and people, entertaining theater. It's an ideal medium for finding ways of understanding or dealing with the world.

"I believe comedy is inextricably woven into tragedy and I want people to experience that onstage. It's really the only rational response," he says.

Originally, his plans weren't theatrical, but literary.

"I wanted to go to the Iowa Writers Workshop, but my life fell apart and I couldn't follow that plan any more, so I moved to Seattle and just wanted to lose myself," he said. "I had planned not to write and not to do theater. I just wanted a normal job."
And he got that, the normal job, for awhile, but the theater kept calling him and he was drawn in, performing his own writings all over Seattle, where he eventually hit upon the idea of the extemporaneous monologues.

"I wanted to perform theater I was writing as well as tell stories, and to have something happening on stage in a real time; I didn't want to feel I was taking a character I knew into that room so something different would happen that night and that night alone," he said. "And from the time I did those first monologues, it was really clear to me what I was doing, a sort of theater of no illusions."

He is able to give his audience the message he wants to deliver in the same way a minister might deliver a sermon to his congregation.

"The audience will be able to connect with the story and think about relating to the situation in a different sort of way," he said.