SEATTLE — Mike Daisey has always performed without a net. His best-known work, “21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com,” was an unscripted monologue — an ever-changing account of his stint with the Seattle-based Internet megastore, delivered live Off Broadway every night for six months straight.
But now he’s practicing an even riskier high-wire act. This month, Daisey debuted four improvised monologues titled “Great Men of Genius” on four consecutive nights at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Arts Center. That’s four premieres in a row with nothing sharing his spotlight but a table, a chair and a rudimentary outline written in longhand on yellow paper.
“We’ve never done anything quite like it as far as giving birth to four monologues night after night after night … after night,” Daisey said the day after the marathon concluded. “It felt so incredibly live.”
The other half of the “we” to which Daisey refers is his collaborator, director and wife, Jean-Michele Gregory. They have worked together on all Daisey’s monologues, including “21 Dog Years,” “The Ugly American” and “Monopoly!”
Daisey and Gregory call the current set of stories “bio-logues.” Each one foregrounds the life of a great but problematic historical figure — Bertolt Brecht, P.T. Barnum, Nikola Tesla and L. Ron Hubbard — against Daisey’s autobiographical musings.
The four men aren’t linked in any overt way, although they have some commonalities; they are all dreamers, all mavericks and, “though they’re from different historical periods, they all share a kind of 19th-century vibe,” says Daisey. They also all believed that “the force of their own will could illuminate everything around them.”
But the most important link in Daisey’s mind is Daisey’s mind itself: “What connects these four for me is that I’m obsessed with them.” His preoccupation with the characters is the thread that sews the four monologues together. For instance, the segment about Brecht links the stalwart communist playwright with an event in Daisey’s past in which he refused to apologize for a very public (and embarrassing) lapse of political correctness.
The monologues received a couple of generally positive reviews in the Seattle press, though they were obviously still in the formative stage. Next, the four-part show will travel May 5-26 to the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn — a borough that Daisey says “captures a lot of the excitement that is supposed to be happening downtown.” Beyond that, he and Gregory are hoping to strike a deal Off Broadway, but finding a home for such an unorthodox show can’t be easy.
Daisey and Gregory both say they have thought about turning more monologues into scripts, so they could be performed by others. (“21 Dog Years” does exist in book form — available, of course, on Amazon.com.) “But what is the actor going to do?” Daisey wonders. “Come out and say, ‘Hi, I’m Mike Daisey’?”
Though a show as improvised as “Great Men of Genius” is hard to package and sell, its unpredictability differentiates it from the vast range of entertainment available today, Daisey says. The project may not make him and Gregory rich, but “at least I can go to bed knowing this can’t be duplicated.”