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SGN EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Mike Daisey on his new play, Monopoly
SGN EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Mike Daisey on his new play, Monopoly
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

MONOPOLY WRITTEN BY AND STARRING MIKE DAISEY CAPITOL HILL ARTS CENTER THROUGH FEBRUARY 3 Mike Daisey is a rarity in theater. He's a monologist. He's not quite the storyteller you met in a library or a standup comedian or a memorizer of lines. He tells stories - many that will have you laughing hard - and says things over and over, but they're not quite the same from night to night.

He's back in Seattle, where his monologue career began (in 1997 at Open Circle Theater), to present two different monologues at Capitol Hill Arts Center. Monopoly is the current presentation. He weaves together ideas about Wal-Mart, Microsoft, the board game Monopoly, and inventor Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla was a genius who refined Edison's direct electric current into the safer and internationally used alternating current (AC) standard we use today. But due to Edison's control of the electric industry and corporate sponsors of Tesla's continuing work, Tesla's inventions were co-opted and he died penniless.

The Monopoly game was invented by a Quaker woman (Mike reports) and then stolen by the man credited with inventing it. The man made millions; she was eventually paid $500. You may begin to get an idea of where Mike is going with this. But really, it's more than just "people are taken advantage of in inventions." He's talking about the elephant in our daily lives in commerce - corporations run the world.

His other presentation, How Theater Failed America, will play February 8, 9 and 10 at CHAC. The scope of this monologue is about theater's connection to business, how nonprofits are still corporations and how that strangles the creation of art. You might think of these monologues as bookends of the same conversation.

Daisey talks about how these kinds of monologues come together. "I think it's my responsibility to explore my obsessions and look for things that I feel speak to inflection points in the culture. The work is contemporaneous and autobiographical and shot through with biography about people, places, and things outside of my immediate area.

"It's rooted in the subconscious. I spend a lot of time reading things, like articles about media consolidation, and slowly, over time, I feel the pieces and ideas connecting one to another and they grow in my mind. The process is very invisible. Most people have to write and it becomes clearer what the process is, but mine is created when it is spoken, so it's harder to understand how it came to be.

"As described in the monologue, I was reading a lot and working on a piece about Nikola Tesla and I remember I spent a lot of time working on and thinking about the Microsoft antitrust case in the U.S. I thought there were correspondences between them, and somewhere, I ran across the story about the board game Monopoly and researched it more and started thinking about Wal-Mart and that it was about monopolies large and small. The antitrust case fell by the wayside. As did many things when I'm building these monologues. Most of it, in fact. The idea of Microsoft and what it's like as a company remains. Usually it refines itself when I'm working on it with my wife and director. I've been working on this show for three years."

Daisey uses outlines onstage and ostentatiously turns the pages as he wanders from story part to story part. "My outlines wouldn't make sense to any other people, and they're drawn over and illegible in many places. I can do the shows without the outlines, but I really like the outlines because they become a signal between me and the audience that there is a script. I want to strip away the traditional elements of performance. People tell certain stories over and over and they become staples of their family like 'the dog was on the roof' but they wouldn't say they were memorized. The work becomes like that. Each performance, it varies. It depends on how many times it gets performed in close succession.

"I've always been interested in contemporaneous and extemporaneous speaking, starting with debate in high school. Through college, I was fascinated by unscripted work. I found people with Carlotta's Late Night WingDing. Troy Mink does a late night variety show with extemporaneous scenes. He really helped me figure out what I wanted to do and where my voice was."

Daisey worked at Amazon in the early years, from 1998 through 2000. After he left, he wrote a book, 21 Dog Years, and developed a monologue on the same subject. He reports that while he was working at Amazon, he wasn't thinking that he'd write a monologue about it. "I wasn't watching for anything because I was a true believer. I thought I was going to leave theater and I thought I'd have a real job with health insurance and was very into Amazon. I left Amazon because I got increasingly fed up and the vision wasn't going to come true. After that, I went through an intense depression and only after that did I start working on the book and show."

So far, Daisey has created twelve monologues, with How Theater Failed America being the twelfth. He acknowledges that there might be some themes among the pieces. "I think most things that people find compelling are things that we'd like to see changed. [My monologues are] often connected to change for good or for evil. When things are in dynamic state, they should remain in dynamic state. For instance, I think corporations are inherently interesting because we spend most of our time pretending that they don't rule us. We spend most of our lives pretending that we still have control over our own lives. We spend our time paying bills and sending our money to corporations and we don't fully acknowledge the compromise of that. It's a large thing that doesn't get talked about much. People talk about 'bad companies' and the reality is that they are completely amoral and they're aim is to grow even at the human cost. Like the Egyptians, people will maybe see long years from now that people built pyramids of paper and they may try to figure out why we did it.

"There're some correspondences between these two pieces. Monopoly is more hopeful, in terms of it being about a whole culture, and I feel that theater has failed. So, it's a little less hopeful. I thought [the themes in Monopoly and How Theater Failed America] fit together in an interesting way. " Daisey previews the topics he covers in the next show. "Often, it's about talking about things no one wants to talk about. All these people are practicing theater, so it's important for them to make their art matter. I hold the people who make the art responsible for the failure. It's about the rise and fall of regional theaters and the death of repertory companies, and it's a fundamental shift toward corporations and nonprofit institutions. We're making a terrible mistake, because corporations aim to grow, and they grow by adding staff and hiring more marketers and hiring more fundraisers and don't grow by hiring artists. They exist to perpetuate the same problem.

"It's a point that never gets made. People have warm feelings about nonprofits, because they make good work when they can. If you squint. That gap between what their original intentions were and what they do today is vast. Boards of directors conflict with what the artistic staff want.

"It's not like the people who go into theater are devils. They have the best of intentions, as do we all. It doesn't change the fact that corporatizing theater isn't good for theater. Most especially by killing off the earning ability of the independent lives of artists. Seattle Rep is supposed to have a repertory company of actors that represent Seattle to the rest of the country. But they don't. They made the decision, years ago, to change the model and hire actors they need from production to production. People don't buy subscriptions because it's not 'their' people, it's not 'their' sports team, people don't belong to them.

"The largest things [institutions] win all the money in the arts world. This isn't radical, it's very straightforward. One of the reasons they get the grants is because they can show they have staff that have to be paid and they have health insurance and that's their priority, to support their staff and infrastructure. Making art is on their list of priorities, but it's not their number one priority because if they didn't get money to continue, they wouldn't be there to make art. So, continuing is their number one priority."

Daisey doesn't tell an audience what to do about the subject. "The hope is that the show comes to a kind of hard-won optimism. By fighting through it, you can come to something that is hopeful. I'm not leaving theater, so I'm determined to do what I can [to save it]. The monologue is a dramatically structured art form. It's not my job to create public policy on stage. Perhaps people who receive this money for public good could come up with something. I really feel that the killing off of the repertory companies is the real problem with regional theater & if they wanted to they could change it back to real repertory companies. Currently, artists are punished for doing their art. Arts administrators should be ashamed of themselves, but they're not. Maybe a younger person who is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and could figure out a way that art could actually happen, foster audiences and foster connections."

In Monopoly, Daisey tells the audience that we are charged, referring to electricity, but also philosophically. It feels like a magic moment when we feel the electricity in our bodies. He describes the purpose he sees his monologues serve. "I'm delighted to hear that it feels charged. I was really actually completely literal: people are charged and it's right in the palm of their hands. I think people can do with it what they will. I've dis-charged [pun intended] my duty in the telling. I believe all art needs to be incomplete. There needs to be a space for the audience to connect with the pieces of the work, so in a very direct way, it falls well outside the purview of my work to tell people what they should do. I feel like I've made a case for thinking about corporations and the power they've been given, but I also think that individuals make real differences and corporations never do. I bring awareness. Hopefully, if I've done my job well, they'll understand that they're adults, and they will go out into the world and make decisions. The hope is that, esthetically, it's satisfying and that people feel filled with that charge and if they feel like they need direction, they'll go find it. God knows, I'm sad if you don't change at all."

For more information, go to www.brownpapertickets.com or www.capitolhillarts.com or call 800-838-3006. Comments go to sgncritic@gmail.com.

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