Theater

Great Men of Genius Debriefings

Dispatches from Onstage and Off

Monologuist Mike Daisey

Monologuist Mike Daisey is at the Capitol Hill Arts Center this week, premiering four “bio-logues” in four nights about great men of genius. Some are evil geniuses, but most are morally ambiguous (my favorite kind).

Every day, I’ll post two reports from the previous night’s show—one from the stage (courtesy of Mr. Daisey), and one from the audience, where Anthony Hecht, our intrepid aficionado of all things genius, will sit through the four monologues. And now, for your reading pleasure:

Great Men of Genius Debriefing #1: Bertolt Brecht

Mike Daisey (performer): It was a surprisingly smooth opening night in terms of logistics—CHAC really stepped up to the plate, and I think the natural brick and wood of the space has made a fantastic set for the monologues. I'd like my transitions to be sharper and simultaneously cleaner, and sometimes I swear too much—that should clear up so that I'm only swearing for direct effect, but when I do a show for the very first time, sometimes there are extra epithets clinging to it. It was unfortunate, because I had elderly relatives in the audience for the opening and every time I said "fuck" and "shit" I imagined could feel them wincing and tsking. At one point there was an inexplicable rhythmic thumping that went on for about ten seconds—it sounded like the devil knocking from under the floor, trying to get in.
Anthony Hecht (audience member): It occurs to me that performing four monologues in four nights isn’t as challenging as attending four monologues in four nights. Wait—hear me out. Mike Daisey is a monologuist, and I’m sure he’s performed four nights in a row dozens of times. He’s probably pretty comfortable with this kind of thing. I, on the other hand, go to the theater maybe three or four times a year—going four nights in a row is, for me, quite a feat. So congratulations to me for making it through the first night. I’m pretty proud of myself.

The subject of the first night was Bertolt Brecht. I don’t really know who he is. I’ve heard of him and, if pressed, probably would allow that he was a playwright, probably the German kind. Daisey referred to people like me in the opening segment, and he made me feel at ease with my ignorance. He also went quite a ways towards curing me of it. Now, when someone brings up Brecht at a party—and someone always does—I’ll be able to give a brief biography of the man, and perhaps even a short analysis of the major themes of his work.

The most interesting stories in Daisey’s work are his own. He juxtaposed his own life with Brecht’s by interweaving stories from each, and speculated about the influence his early fascination with the playwright may have had on everything from his working relationship with his wife to his revolutionary and possibly ill-advised postering of his college campus in defense of free speech. Some sections worked better than others—the postering story was particularly good, Brecht’s later years fell a bit flat—but all of it was delivered with Daisey’s casual pacing and well-known humor and energy. When he’s at his best, Daisey is hilarious.

I can’t say if I would see it again and again, but I would definitely see something else like it. Probably tonight…

Great Men of Genius Debriefing #2: P.T. Barnum

Our series of dueling dispatches from the stage and the audience continues. Featuring a very enthusiastic Scientologist! And pussy!

Mike Daisey (performer): Creating the outline and preparing today was easier than the first monologue, as I've figured out now how to navigate, and it showed in performance—we learned from the first night, and there was a lighter, defter touch to every moment, and because of this the show was much more delightful for me than the night before. One exception: in the blackout after the monologue and before the curtain call I ran into the table trying to get around it, which is embarrassing because it's the only blocking I have. The first person I talked to after the show was a very enthusiastic Scientologist who is looking forward to Sunday's show on L. Ron Hubbard immensely. I agreed that I was looking forward to the show as well.
Anthony Hecht (audience member): The theater was nearly full for the second night of Mike Daisey’s Great Men of Genius at CHAC, and, as my companion noted, “there are a lot of hair and earth tones in here.” A lot of corduroy too, and, for some reason, Hawaiian shirts. Before the performance began, the audience jabbered while one whole row of patrons quietly read books—one a hardbound graphic novel and one a smaller book, presumably the Communist Manifesto. They must have thought it was Brecht night.

Instead, Daisey focused his gaze on P.T. Barnum. We learned that Barnum gave the world terms like “jumbo sized,” “Siamese twins,” and was responsible for making opera popular in the United States. (Is opera popular in the United States?) Did you also know that Barnum’s family crafted an elaborate lie (a “humbug”) that they told P.T. until he was a teenager, just for fun? Then they took him to a swamp and told him it was all a big joke, and they laughed and laughed. Good times! Or that he started his own newspaper called the Herald of Freedom soon after, but had to shut it down after he was sued for libel four or five times and briefly imprisoned? Me, I knew about the Siamese twins thing, but not the rest of it.

Daisey closely related aspects of Barnum’s personality and work to his own life and work, from his days as a Star Trek geek to his more recent work with the burlesque performers of New York. Barnum was first and foremost a showman, and, in Daisey’s eyes, much more than the huckster he’s commonly thought to be. Not only did Barnum never actually say “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but he believed the opposite. Barnum had deep respect for the intellect of his audience. He didn’t think they truly believed that the 80-year-old slave woman he was trotting around the country was actually 160 years old and had once been George Washington’s nurse, but he understood that they wanted to see her for themselves, and, more importantly, he understood they would pay him to do so.

Daisey returned to this last point several times throughout the performance—the money. “It is difficult and challenging work to be without shame,” he says, and, if done properly, it can be quite profitable.

For the record, I counted forty-nine swear words in tonight’s show—at least seven of those in quotes. I think that’s fewer than last night, and 60 to 70 percent of those were used for direct and great effect. I liked the swearing. The best use of swearing tonight: “Are you there God? It’s me, Judy Blume, spanking your ass,” followed closely by, “… and then her pussy says, ‘Hello, I love you.’"

Great Men of Genius Debriefing #3: Nikola Tesla

Featuring alpha geeks! And war with Thomas Edison!

Mike Daisey (performer): Today's preparations were hard—the rain got to me, because I needed to walk and think, so I got very wet and miserable. I do another monologue called MONOPOLY! that is also about Tesla, as well as Microsoft's antitrust case, Wal-Mart, and the board game Monopoly, and I was determined not to reuse any material I've done before: a friend who had seen MONOPOLY! was amazed that no material was repeated, so I feel the effort paid off. I had vocal strain right at the top from a poorly judged “BWAHAHAHAHHAH!” but recovered as the show evened out. At one point I used the word “amplitude” incorrectly and I saw an audience member scowl—probably an electrical engineer. Someone took out a Sidekick right after I made a statement about Tesla, and I'm certain they were googling my statements—fact-checking in real time—which I thought was simultaneously lame and awesome.
Anthony Hecht (audience member): Mike Daisey is really starting to get to me. I knew his selection of geniuses was right up my alley, but even more amazingly, the order of geniuses is perfect for me. Each night presents a subject I’m familiar with and fascinated by, and each night I feel more connected to Daisey’s narrative. Tonight he talked about his stints in the Gifted and Talented Program in elementary school (check), as a Star Trek nerd (check), and having thoughts of the end of the world while hanging around Loring Air Force Base (check). I can only assume that tomorrow night he’ll recount how his Scientologist aunt tried to indoctrinate him and his wife as they passed through Clearwater, Florida in 2003.

Tonight’s subject was Nikola Tesla and Daisey was in top form. Tesla is dear to Daisey’s heart, as evidenced by another of his monologues, MONOPOLY! which deals with Tesla’s war with Thomas Edison over whether the nation would be powered by alternating or direct current. Tesla is a verifiable genius and someone who has a profound effect on our lives, but most of us don’t know anything about him. Some people—Daisey calls them the alpha geeks—know a lot about Tesla. Like your favorite teacher, Daisey plays to the uninformed and the geeks. You get the feeling that Daisey is coming to new conclusions and realizations all the time, right there on stage—that his delving into the minds of these men is never complete, and that it’s deepening before your eyes. (Though Daisey claims he’s no longer a geek, he has a picture of a MacBook Pro booting Windows XP on his website, and if he’s in the 0.64% of the population who thinks that’s in any way interesting or noteworthy, he’s definitely a geek, but in a good way.)

Over a couple of whiskeys after the show, I went on and on and on to a friend about my experiences with Scientology, and met with the usual response: “You have got to be fucking kidding me.” And I didn’t even get into the really weird shit. Needless to say, I’m very excited about tomorrow night’s final performance. If there’s one thing I like more than the history of science and technology, it’s cultivating a frothy loathing for Scientology.

Great Men of Genius Debriefing #4: L. Ron Hubbard

The final installment! Featuring meth! And bovine death!

Mike Daisey (performer): I was behind the eight-ball all day because L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology has such an epic story that it's hard to know what to keep and what to throw away, and the stakes could not have been higher—a totally sold out show, with the Church of Scientology expected to be in attendance. The performance for me was strange, surreal and alternated between great fun and sheer fucking terror as I felt the wide, staring eyes of Scientology members radiating their disapproval—at first I thought it was paranoia on my part, but I hit a section where I talk about my issues with psychiatry and I felt their approval, which was much more disturbing than when they were hating me. After the show I spoke with Scientologists and Scientologist survivors, and the survivors were extremely gracious and moved by the show, which meant a lot to me. The Scientologists I spoke with weren't as happy. The series ended with a bang, and I'm delighted to have had the chance to birth it here in Seattle—now I am taking a nap, and then it goes up in New York City in May.
Anthony Hecht (audience member): The last night of Mike Daisey’s Great Men of Genius finally arrived, the night everyone had been waiting for—L. Ron Hubbard night. When we arrived at the theater a line snaked halfway down the block on 12th Avenue. My companion and I scanned the crowd, trying to pick out the Scientologists. Some women in the back held up their programs like protest signs briefly, but I didn’t have the angle to read what they said. L. Ron Lives? Daisey is an SP? Get me some Jujubes?

It must be strange and a little scary knowing that a percentage of your audience is there simply to witness what they consider to be a direct attack on their belief system, particularly when that belief system is not known for tolerating dissent. It felt a little tense from where I was sitting; I can’t imagine how it felt under the lights. After a bit of a shaky start, Daisey found his rhythm. He related the two undisputed things we know about Hubbard’s life—the dates of his birth and death—and filled in the middle with a very small subset of the thousands of wild tales of success, failure, wacky adventure, megalomania, and a distinct bovine death theme that make up the legend of “LRH.” A highlight was his recounting of his experience with both the book and the magnificently horrible film Battlefield Earth. When he complained that the last 500 pages of the book are about space-banking, someone in my row—either a Scientologist or a sci-fi geek—hissed, “Booo! No it isn’t!” As for Scientology itself, Daisey’s treatment was remarkably restrained and sympathetic. He only briefly mentioned the whole dead, 3-D movie-watching, brainwashed alien souls living in our bodies causing all our problems thing; he instead focused on the auditing process, the core practice of Scientology and how you purge those darn dead aliens. The process is not unlike meth addiction. It appeals to people at a low point in their lives, and it makes them feel better quickly, but not for very long. Soon they can’t function without it and they have no money. Then their teeth fall out. He also compares the process to some kinds of corporate “team building” exercises and the Upright Citizens Brigade theater—many of us go through indoctrination rituals in our lives and they’re all creepy and weird, but they have a strong appeal for some people at some times and we can never be entirely sure when those people might be us. Probably best to steer clear altogether.

After four nights, I feel like Daisey and I (and a few others) have been through something significant together. Daisey works without a script, so these monologues existed for the first time this weekend, and it’s an exciting process to watch. He weaves many threads through all four pieces, but there were no grand conclusions about genius, except maybe that there can be no grand conclusions. Genius is slippery and mysterious, and that’s how we like it.

(That's all for our Great Men of Genius Debriefings. If you've read this far, you're a fucking champ. Hit the showers and treat yourself to a steak dinner.)

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