I grew up in northern Maine, and all my life I was surrounded by storytellers. I didn't know this was unusual at the time, and in fact I found it rather annoying--most of these storytellers were oral historians supported by increasingly tiny education arts grants, and they'd exclusively tell stories of "Old Maine," keeping their proud storytelling traditions alive. This had the unfortunate effect of forcing thousands of Maine schoolchildren to listen to horrendously boring stories like The Time the Storm Came Down from the Sea and We Nearly Perished, or The Time the Settlers Discovered How to Exist in Peace with Indigenous Peoples, when we wanted to hear The Story of Why the Mill Is Fucking Closing Down, and The Story of How the Old Principal Used to Touch Our Classmates Inappropriately.
It's as if they'd taken all the good stories and locked them away. In a sense they had, because once you've vetted and approved stories for mass consumption, you've usually ensured that nothing dangerous, topical, or relevant will be said. I never gave a good goddamn for castrated fairy-tale bullshit stories; the kind of gossip gifted and talented kids could tease out of the fresh-faced 24-year-old English teacher was a far more seductive oral tradition, and we all want our oral traditions seductive, don't we?
Now I'm 30, and I'm a professional storyteller. I cringed when I wrote that I'm a storyteller, because when I think of the word "storytelling" I think of Renaissance faires, women in too much velvet, and dorks drinking mead. In New York many are calling it "alternative standup" in an effort to keep it cool. They also do this because most of the people doing it are standups who get sick of the haiku-like precision of American standup, which can be inspired but doesn't allow for arc and digression.
It's strange that it's an underground profession, because everyone tells stories. It's an essentially human activity, and it excites me for that reason--even if the name gets no respect, I know the art is practiced by billions every day, and I get a charge off of being part of the world's oldest art form. I'm always amazed how little there is to it, and how hard it can be to get it right. Stories are memory, ritualized and retold so that they can wake up right in front of us, but because of that there's nothing tangible. They aren't written down and learned, and because of this they twist and writhe, changing their skins from night to night.
The current story I'm wrestling with starts simply, like most stories: A little over 10 years ago I was a supremely naive 19-year-old who had never spent much time out of Maine and had never been to a city of more than 50,000 when I traveled abroad to London as part of my school's study program. I went to study Acting, and I imagined it capitalized, and believed sincerely that the Drama instructors would lay their hands upon me and anoint me with the holy spirit. I would study at the feet of Gielgud and Olivier and other important-sounding, possibly dead white men and thereby transcend my life, which seemed impossibly small and worthless.
Surprisingly, this did not happen. In fact I learned quite thoroughly how much I hated acting--hated the neediness, the necessity of constant groveling, begging, and hoping that directors will tell you who you should be, the straitjacket of saying only what was written in a script, by someone else, and has been given to you to speak. I was one of the worst students the program had ever had, which was shocking because I had been doing so well at my school back in the States. Here I failed nearly all my classes. I could not ground my energy through my spine. I was not able to tell the difference between accents from Gloucestershire or North Haverford. The whole thing was a quintessentially English experience as the esteemed teaching staff took pity on the poor Americans and tried to show us what "real" acting was all about. For scene work I was cast as an ongoing series of fat, retarded Rain Man knockoffs with hearts of gold. I was always playing fat, retarded people--that, after all, was my type.
Though it makes for some nice anecdotes, this would be a wholly unremarkable story on its own, except that due to my massive naiveté I believed that I should go out among the English people and really Get To Know Them--I believed that immersing myself in their culture would somehow be a Good Thing. I was impossibly young, and that's how I ended up acting in a postmodern, neo-feminist play being performed in an abandoned church south of the Thames.
It was a fringe theater fueled on steroids and government money--everyone who worked in the theater lived on the dole, in subsidized housing or in the decrepit building itself, living a pure life of the theater. Imagine Waiting for Guffman, and then imagine it intensified because the people weren't amateurs--they had dedicated their lives to this. They were professionals--some of them had been working here and only here for over 20 years, having no other jobs, living to put on increasingly idiosyncratic work for a tiny audience of people who lived and drank in the neighborhood. I was cast for my American accent, which was perfect, as it sounded scary and menacing to the director's ears and he wanted to make a point about American culture raping the world.
Most of my role consisted of playing a few brief scenes--at the end of one the playwright had my character confronting a young girl I had been having an affair with, and her rebuffing my advances. The director had decided this was not nearly dramatic enough, and when the scene ended he added a bright red "rape light," at which point I was to engage in an eight- or nine-minute, brutally graphic rape scene with my coworker. In case people had missed the point, "rape music" would play as well.
This endless rape was most of my work for the show, and it was harrowing--since it involved combat and torn clothes, we had to practice it over and over and over. And, as often happens when people are doing things that are intense for prolonged periods, we began to sleep together. We'd get to the theater, I'd rape her in front of the audience, and then we'd go to her flat and have sex. I was going to a very nice liberal arts college and had taken "The Goddess Within" from the women's studies department, but somehow that had not actually prepared me for this, and while I was falling into love I was faintly horrified and titillated by the situation.
Shortly after we started sleeping together I discovered from other cast members that she actually had a job, unlike most everyone else--she was a prostitute. Not with me; I was her new boyfriend. This took an already charged situation and made it so tangled it actually overloaded my capacity to deal with it, and so I made the mature decision to simply not deal with it at all. We'd keep sleeping together, I would keep falling in love, and we'd simply not talk about the raping, the increasingly violent sex, and her professional affiliations. Don't ask, don't tell.
These are the primary threads of the story, though there are some minor strands: my deaf friend Doug, the Italian exchange students, the football player who came to a bad end. There are also set pieces: the night the piano fell, the time I had to drive with her pimp, the last time I saw her. These are things I know have to be in the story, all bones and sinews, though their size and importance will flex from telling to telling, just like they do in stories being told everywhere.
Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years runs at Intiman Theatre through Nov 22, and his latest story, The Ugly American, will be told for one night at Intiman on Nov 23 at 7 pm. Call 269-1900 for tickets.