“The Enthusiast”: Column 4
“The act of telling a story, if you’re truly telling it, has an automatic subtext. The automatic subtext is: Holy shit, I’m telling you a story, what am I going to say next? I really have to tell you this story. And that creates an automatic depth and texturing that has to be imposed if you’re acting.”
Mike Daisey and his wife/collaborator Jean-Michele Gregory are sitting in front of me – a Panasonic tape recorder from the late 1980s and the remnants of various coffee drinks and pastries between us. We are sitting in The Fall Café, a small coffee house in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. The crazy old man who sits in a corner and rants about the evils of George W. Bush (and, rumor has it, co-owns the place) is thankfully missing. A Best of Queen CD is playing in the background, however, so we all lean in close over the table, making sure the conversation is preserved for posterity.
I have asked Mike and Jean-Michele to join me to glean how they work together as creator/performer and director. Of their latest show, How Theatre Failed America, much has been written (including by me), but little of it focuses on the great amount of thought and craft that informs their practice as an artistic team.
Mike Daisey is one of the preeminent monologists working today. He has been called a “master storyteller” by The New York Times and has performed all over the country with various one-man projects over the last decade or so. His shows weave together personal fascinations, historical happenings, autobiography and more to tackle a wide variety of subjects from L. Ron Hubbard to the history of the board game Monopoly, to his experiences working at Amazon in Seattle.
Through it all, he has worked side by side with his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, who directs the shows and co-runs the business side of their operation with him. Their relationship began, fittingly enough, with a show. “We met doing a very bad German Expressionist play…in Seattle,” Jean-Michele begins. “I just randomly answered a call in the local alt-weekly for an audition.”
“And,” Mike offers to complete the story, “I came to [be cast in] this particular German Expressionist play because I had just moved to Seattle and I was going through a period where I was trying very, very hard to never do theatre again and, failing at that, I auditioned for it sort of against my will.” What started as the in-the-trenches bonding that happens between actors in terrible plays (especially ones who live nearby each other) grew into a romantic relationship and then into an artistic partnership. “Each thing flowed out of the other,” Mike explains, “like when we were friends…we were very involved in each other’s artistic lives…the work has always been a kind of continuous thread through our relationship.”
Watching their interplay in the highly artificial world of being interviewed by a friend and admirer for a weekly column, this becomes obvious. They are both articulate and passionate about the work and each other’s contributions to it. Over the years, they have discovered and refined a process that works for them. Because the shows are extemporaneous, Mike explains, “We had to discover, to build a way of working together, which I think everyone has to do in an ensemble, but really from the ground up… How do you direct extemporaneous performance?”
I ask Jean-Michele to describe how the shows are developed: “Mike is always talking about … three or four different ideas in the background, and he’ll be like, `I think this is going to be a show. I was just reading this article about Canadian geese and I think there’s something in that that’s related to the Constitution,’”–and here both Daisey and Gregory crack a smile at her depiction of his thought process—”and it will germinate like that in the background.”
Finally, it is too much. She’s laughing and so is Mike. Jean-Michele says to him, “You’re like, `Oh God, is this how it’s described?!’” and then gets back to the matter at hand: “At any given time, there are the shows that are up and the shows that are in the background, gathering steam…and then at some point we will book a theater to do a show, and by the time we’ve gotten there it has a title…and then Mike will create an outline roughly 24 or 48 hours before a show is told for the first time.”
The outline is part of the essence of Daisey and Gregory’s working methods. Mike does not use a script and never rehearses what he is going to say. Instead, he works on an outline, handwritten on yellow college-ruled 8.5 x 11-inch paper. The monologues are then performed with an audience, with Mike sitting at a table, the outline and a glass of water in front of him. Having seen this in action, I can attest to its simplicity and power. Each page of the outline represents the “script” to one “scene,” only here the script is a guide for an extemporaneous performance and the scene is between Mike and the audience. The goal of all of this is to buttress Mike’s attempt towards genuineness, to “speak on stage as authentically as possible. So I’m trying very hard not to play anyone except insofar as I’m trying to play like what I would be like if I was in front of three hundred people.” At the end of the scene, instead of a blackout and set change, Mike simply pauses, turns the page, and begins the next one.
“They [the outlines] are ritualistic and fetishistic,” Mike explains. “We know from experience the shows can be done without the outline…but I like the outline for a number of different aesthetic reasons for the performance. And the outline is integral before the performance because it is in the making of the outline that the structure is fixed in my mind.” When he sits down to make them, he works continuously (for How Theatre Failed America, roughly eight or nine hours for a nine-page outline). In performance, the outline gets referred to at most perhaps a half-dozen times, but it is there for him to help keep him on track.
Once the show has been performed in front of an audience, Jean-Michele steps in. She reviews the recordings of it (she finds them helpful; he does not) and works with Mike to refine his outline. “We begin teasing everything out scene by scene,” Jean-Michele elucidates – “Big things like, `What is this whole arc doing? What is this character’s relationship to the rest? Why does this happen here and not there?’”
Mike looks at Jean-Michele and smiles, “You’re very dramaturgical…you’re like, `There are three metaphors here, but would not one suffice?’” In this role, Mike says, “She’s really masterful… it’s not enough for anything in the monologue to do only one thing. The first thing you do when you’re cutting is try to get rid of the things that aren’t doing anything. That’s the easy part, but then you have to start getting rid of things that are only doing one thing and replace them with things that can do two things at once. The dream is that the monologue will be like a ship, and every part of it will have multiple functions.” These notes result in physical changes to the outline, little notes to remind Mike of how to better structure his extemporaneous performances.
In their own way, Mike Daisey and Jean-Michele Gregory have appropriated the structures of theatre and used them to their own devices. They think of themselves as an “ensemble” (comprised of two members), they go through a “rehearsal process” (that happens to also be the performance process), and have a “script” (that is notes on a piece of paper). Talking to them, it’s clear that they have spent a lot of time developing their own working methods. “[It all] sounds good in theory, putting it into practice is a lot harder,” Mike says. “We have these tested models that we’re both trained in. It’s very tempting to just be like, `…or we could just script this part…’” For Jean-Michele, her “values have shifted. I don’t think an extemporaneous piece can be as clean and as tight as a scripted piece, but there are other things I’m interested in. I like the liveness of it…you’re right there with it and watching him think out loud; it grabs the audience in this very particular way.”
This change in values was important to the development of their work. It meant seeing what could be perceived as their weaknesses as their strengths, and tailoring the process to fit them. The turning point for much of this was Mike’s residency at PS 122 where, using the title All Stories are Fiction, he performed brand new monologues using outlines composed one hour before curtain up. The show had two runs, one roughly 13 weeks in a row, and one about ten. That’s 23 new shows, each one written 60 minutes before the audience would see it. Explaining all of this, we enter the conversational territory of close collaborators and couples where words and ideas overflow and complete each other:
Jean-Michele: All Stories Are Fiction…
Mike Daisey: And those were really great shows…
JM: And they were instrumental to the process, we learned so much in terms of, like, about how we work…
MD: We learned a lot about…
JM: We learned so much about how you work and about how we work…
MD: Because we didn’t even know it was possible…
MD: We were actually like, “”Well, if it doesn’t work, if I can’t actually make a new show every week…then we’ll just remount some of our old monologues”"…. I assume[d] I’d run out of things to talk about, but it always seemed like the further you reach, the more story there is.
* * *
I think any story well-told enlarges the people who listen to it; the process of hearing a story, if it works well, emboldens people to feel like stories are theirs and their stories are relevant.
I first met Mike Daisey five years ago. A mutual friend had just had a performance at The Red Room, a 50-seat red-painted theatre in a sweaty third floor walk-up in the East Village. We were across the street for the de rigeur after-show drinking and reflection. Mike, who at this point I had only heard of (and only vaguely), was trying to describe the friend’s shows. He said, “When I tell my friends to come see your work, I try to describe it as a rock band fronted by a storyteller, because people don’t like theatre.”
I was offended at the time, but I came to realize that I had actually misunderstood the point Mike was making. Mike wasn’t saying that he didn’t value theatre, but rather that theatre had become so devalued in people’s lives that you had to speak of other art forms to get them to consider going to see something. This devaluing was on some level painful to him because he cares very deeply about the future of American theatre. Both his care for and opinion of the state of American theatre have been formed by being a working actor and, eventually, a traveling storyteller.
It is out of both of these experiences that his latest show, How Theatre Failed America, was born. How Theatre Failed America tells two stories simultaneously: the story of Mike Daisey’s life in the theatre, and the story of the regional theatre movement and what happened to it in the last 30 or so years. His opinions on the latter (told as entertainingly as great stand-up) were formed over the past few years, as he and Jean-Michele have toured his various monologues. Going into theaters, meeting their staffs, and working closely with their business offices has taught Mike a great deal about what’s really going on in the American Theatre. Finally, he decided (although on some level he didn’t want to) that he needed to tell his (and American Theatre’s) story.
The eventual goal of the piece is to broaden the conversation about what is going on in theatre in America and what is possible in the art form and the business. This conversation has extended into the blogosphere and into the pages of The New York Times, and into Mike’s own world, as he talks with theatre professionals after the shows. Mike recounts a former producer who now works in film, an actress friends of his, and a man who owns and operates a space downtown, talking with him after the show: “The monologue made them want to talk about their experiences in the theatre and why they believed in the theatre, and how hard it was and why they still wanted to do it… A core value of the monologues is that I’m very excited when they make people see themselves inside of it.”
Along the way of touring and promoting the show, there has been no small amount of resistance. One artistic director quoted in The Times called Mike naïve and myopic, and said he should run a theater for a few years before deigning to speak on the issue of the business end of show business. Jean-Michele Gregory has clearly spent some time thinking about this: “The danger is that people will say, `What right do you have to talk about the economics of theatre?’… They said the same thing when Mike did 21 Dog Years, talking about his time at Amazon.com … people asked how he got permission from Amazon to tell his story. Why would you assume one would have to get permission? Who owns these stories? Who owns their histories?”
In some ways, the stories Mike Daisey tells are owned by no one and everyone at once. They are taken from his own experiences and those of people he’s met and historical figures. They are filtered through his own and his wife’s narrative lenses. They are given to audiences to do with what they will, and people find themselves within them. As the audience responds to his pieces, they also inform the future construction of the next performance of the piece, so in a way, each monologue is partially formed by them. This interplay between subject, performer, and audience exists to some extent in every play, but in Mike Daisey and Jean-Michele Gregory’s work, it is heightened to a point where it becomes a subtext of the work itself. The development of this practice has happened alongside a marriage where the relationship is the work is the business is the art. It continues to grow. A new show is already in the works, a title and venue chosen, awaiting an outline, sitting in the background as Mike chronicles the travails of the American Theatre.
Read more from Issac Butler in his blog: Parabasis