Monologist Mike Daisey Perturbs Christians, Wal-Mart and Others at the OC Performing Arts Center

The scourge of Norco High

The Smartest Man In the Room
Monologist Mike Daisey perturbs Christians, Wal-Mart

You can watch it on YouTube: A year ago, Mike Daisey is performing his monologue Invincible Summer at a theater in Boston, and he's talking about fucking Paris Hilton. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees some movement, and then 87 people stand up and head for the exits. Suddenly, a man walks up, upends a bottle of water all over Daisey's handwritten outline, plunks the bottle into his overflowing water glass and strolls away. Daisey sits, flummoxed, then gets up from the table, follows and asks, "Do any of you people who are leaving want to stay and talk about this, or do you want to run out like cowards?" The man who destroyed Daisey's outline was a self-described Christian with anger issues who was chaperoning students on a trip from Norco High School.

Friday and Saturday, Mike Daisey will present his equally riveting—and frequently hilarious—monologue Monopoly! at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Ostensibly about inventor Nikola Tesla and his War of Currents with Thomas Edison, Daisey tackles a dizzying array of subjects: the creation of the Parker Brothers board game, Bill Gates and Microsoft, Quakers, a sister's trip to a certain big-box superstore, the joy of Tesla coils, getting "Westinghoused," and his brief, shining moment as a "fat geek." That he's able to keep the audience entertained for two hours is one accomplishment; that he's able to impart so much information and do it in an accessible way without making the audience's head explode is miraculous.

I ask him what it feels like to be the smartest person in the room.

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"I don't know if that's true," he says, modestly. "I owe a tremendous amount of debt to a number of books I've read and people I've talked to. We're in a mediated space where I'm talking about a number of subjects I've spent time studying and thinking about. By restricting my focus to the things I feel passionate about, it intensifies the strength and depth behind it. The monologue retains the cadences of day-to-day speech, but I'm not having a conversation with the audience. It's a performance."

Tesla and Edison's War of Currents decided the future of Edison's direct current (DC) and Tesla's alternating current (AC): Which was the most efficient way to deliver electricity? Though Tesla's ideas proved to be the wiser, Edison had more money behind him and lead a vicious smear campaign against the other man, painting him as a crank and his inventions as dangerous. Tesla's career never recovered.

"I've known my entire life that I wanted to talk about [Nikola] Tesla," says Daisey. "Before I knew how to talk about him, I knew I wanted to talk about him."

Daisey grew up in Fort Kent in northern Maine, where storytelling was an important part of his youth. After a healthy dose of speech, debate and theater training, he had few artistic options. "One can't make a living as a performing artist there, basically," Daisey says. "There's not enough of an audience to support it."

Moving to Seattle, he worked at an online book empire, an experience that resulted in the memoir 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ "I fell in love with the company and was really excited about changing the world of commerce forever," he says. "It wasn't until some time later, as it became clear that we were just the online version of Wal-Mart, that I became disenchanted."

It was while working with Seattle's garage storefronts and underground spaces that Daisey found his calling. "I started to think about extemporaneous performance—created in the air in front of an audience," he says. "No script. No lines to be memorized. Just outlines on a table."

Daisey's first monologue was 1997's Wasting Your Breath. He's been at it ever since, recently completing his 13th.

I ask him how much the show changes every time it's performed.

"Shifts become very minute if I'm performing it a lot. But if it's been a few years, it shifts naturally, due to aging. It can change as much as 20 percent," he says. "White-out, cutting, yellow stickies . . . The outlines are very messy and start to look very strange, very individual as things are added and taken away."

His wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, is also his director, and she helps shape and hone the material. Is it hard after a rehearsal to down-shift to the domestic?

"There aren't many boundaries between things. They've all kind of dissipated!" he laughs. "It's challenging, but also tremendously rewarding because her attention to detail, her layering of the tone, has made a huge difference in the kind of work, the quality of work we do. The current state of the arts in America is pretty cutthroat and fierce. If our collaboration wasn't as intense as it is, I don't think we'd be where we are."

In talking about so much of his personal life as part of his art, does he ever have moments where he says, "That would be good in a monologue!" or, "Nope, keeping that one to myself"?

"We have trouble telling the truth to ourselves, let alone to others, and everyone has parts of their life they're not willing to speak about," he says. "There are things I've now talked about onstage that, years ago, I wouldn't have. Autobiographical monologues are kind of bound—and ennobled—by who we are. I think that when I talk about my life, [I'm trying to] to shine a light, to illuminate the point I'm trying to make. The biography is at the service of the monologue, not the other way around."

Daisey was raised Catholic, but he is now an atheist. Even with books from Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins on best-seller lists, this is a hard position for many people to come to. How did he do it?

"I had a decent-enough history with Catholicism. It wasn't an especially hard journey, but I knew I was an atheist from a very young age, even though I resisted it, initially," he says. "Our culture is so predicated on belief, even the words for non-believers are a negative: atheist = no God. It's hard to defend a negative. I think people should be forced to defend the positive, but that's logic coming into the equation. When people have those obnoxious arguments about whether there is or isn't a God, they're arguing about an abstraction. Something that can't be touched or smelled or seen should be immaterial . . . whether people believe in it or not."

Which leads the conversation back to the Boston interruption. How does he feel about it now, almost a year later?

"Going through the experience wasn't good for me. I needed to put the matter to rest so that the final word wasn't his," Daisey says. "I need to be able to do my job. I needed to talk to them."

Daisey called and e-mailed the Norco High principal, but he was ignored. He did, however, have an extended, awkward discussion with the conservative Christian who violated his work. He never asked the saboteur to apologize and ended up forgiving him, reminding him that it was "a liberal atheist" who was extending that compassion.

"Things like this—when they happen—they never get talked about. Luckily, we document things, so I agreed to posting the clip, and it went from a private incident to a public one. I received four or five thousand e-mails, almost all positive. Hopefully, people will be strong enough to stand up and say something if it happens again."

Mike Daisey performs Monopoly! at The Samueli Theater, Orange County Performing Arts center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $25.

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