Mike Daisey is about to perform a roughly 30-hour monologue that he’ll create on the spot. And he describes it so matter-of-factly that he almost makes you forget this is an insane and monumental thing to do.
“I’m always sort of an unusual figure in the American theater,” Daisey said by phone last week, “but the funny thing is, if you expand the lens and look at forms of address we use in the culture, extemporaneous speaking is one of the primary ways we communicate.
“Every day, teachers teach in classrooms, preachers preach from pulpits, lawyers practice. You and I are doing it right now.”
Daisey and I did not, however, do it in 18 separate performances, each lasting 90 minutes. That’s exactly what Daisey will do with “A People’s History,” March 14-31 at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio.
Each installment will address a different section of Howard Zinn’s bestselling “A People’s History of the United States.” And, although the monologuist knows the book well and will have notes to guide him, each new show will be created extemporaneously. It’s a style of performance that Daisey traces to his family of storytellers (in Maine) and his days on his high school speech team.
“When I got out of college and was in Seattle, doing a lot of garage theater, I was obsessed with the idea that the work should live in the moment,” said Daisey, who brought his “The Trump Card” to the Guthrie two years ago. “I wanted to find a form where the work is not just new to the audience for that one night, but it is new to me, so it fundamentally surprises and teaches the audience and me together.
“I wanted to talk about the things I wanted to see talked about, and I wasn’t interested in a form where I could write a play and, if people liked the play, in a year or two years we would start to see productions.”
It’s a way of working, Daisey said, that makes him more empathetic and interesting.
“It really is all in the response to the people in the room, the people who are collectively the audience and the people who are collectively me,” continued Daisey, who plans to take a version of the show to Seattle after Minneapolis. “The two of us are making the story. I have always been very enchanted by that particular alchemy.”
Daisey’s show, which eventually will become a podcast, is having its world premiere at the Guthrie, although Daisey prefers to refer to it as “the first time I’m doing it” because he thinks some theaters get too hung up on premieres.
(While we’re at it, he also prefers that monologuist be pronounced like “monologue” with an “ist” added on. He dislikes the more common way, with the accent on the second syllable and a soft “g” sound, because he thinks it sounds like “gynecologist.”)
Daisey chose to stage the show at the Guthrie because he had a good experience there with “The Trump Card” and because he hopes the $9 Dowling Studio tickets will attract a diverse crowd.
A historian at Boston University, Zinn intended with “A People’s History” to tell stories that are often left out of textbooks, in part by recognizing the lasting influence of genocide and slavery in U.S. history. Pop culture has periodically rediscovered the book since it was published in 1980. (It’s in the zeitgeist yet again because a character in the movie “Lady Bird” reads it.)
Since he first tackled it in college, 40-something Daisey has owned several well-thumbed copies of the Zinn book. Daisey’s shows will also incorporate “A Guide to U.S. History,” the more traditional textbook he read in high school. Zinn may even appear as a character.
The book “is, by its nature, very dry. So my job is not to live the book. It’s to create a monologue where I talk about the difference between the history we were conventionally taught and this history, and why that gap exists,” said Daisey, who also is at work on a book called “Here at the End of the Empire.” “One of my jobs is to work with these stories and create frameworks and visions that are engaging and dramatically compelling.”
That’s true of all of Daisey’s work, which he says has not fundamentally changed since the scandal that erupted after “This American Life” aired a portion of his “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” in 2012. A piece that had existed as theater, by a performer whose credos included “all stories are fiction,” was suddenly received as journalism. Because parts of the story were invented by Daisey but represented as true — and he failed to cooperate with “This American Life” fact-checkers — the show ultimately retracted the piece, and Daisey apologized.
“You want to know what has changed the most?” said Daisey, reflecting on the controversy. “I have learned, deeply and fundamentally, not to trust journalists to take your story and change it for their purposes. What you learn is that people love drama, that people will beg you to be on their radio show but that doesn’t mean you should say yes. I learned that allowing someone else to tell my story is a big mistake.”
He will have lots of time to tell his story at the Guthrie, though. And he’ll need that time to tackle more than 500 years of complicated American history.
“It’s a big canvas,” Daisey said. “A lot of things will be touched on.”
Yes, there will be some teaching. No, there won’t be a quiz.