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Mike Daisey and the More Perfect Worlds of “American Utopias”

The monologuist, in town to present his new show at Woolly Mammoth, discusses the idealized communities that inspired it.

Photograph by Ursa Waz.

The last time monologuist Mike Daisey was in town, it was with a revised version of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the play whose earlier incarnation sparked controversy when it was revealed he’d played with some facts. Daisey performs his new work, American Utopias, at Woolly Mammoth March 25 through April 21. The work explores three idealized visions: Disney World, the Burning Man festival, and Occupy Wall Street. We caught up with Daisey to discuss why utopias fail, his close relationship with Woolly Mammoth, and his complex feelings about social media.

How did you come up with the idea for American Utopias ?

The idea came to me about three years ago. It was born out of the desire to talk about communities that are bound by a dream to make a world more perfect than the one they live in. I’d become obsessed with utopian communities in the 19th century, and I became interested in finding modern analogs to this desire to find a community to transform your life. I settled on Disney World and Burning Man. Then the Occupy movement happened, and it became clear it was the same expression of an impulse to see yourself as part of a tribe.

Why do you think utopias are fated to fail?

Well, it’s built into their DNA. All utopias fail, and that’s in a way the major point of a utopia—they fail in the same way that all societies fail and all civilizations fail. The question is, how long do they persist for? The American experiment has only gone on for about 200 years or so, and in many ways it’s a utopian expression of ideas that were enshrined in those original documents. Right now it doesn’t feel like a utopia because we live in it and it has problems every day, but when America ends we’ll look back at it in a different way. Our terms for success are a little irrational. Truthfully, the only way you can claim a utopian society succeeded is if everyone’s totally happy all of the time.

So they set themselves up for failure.

It depends on how you define failure. Burning Man, for instance, is an environment in which there’s very little commercialization, and money isn’t used. That can be interpreted cynically, because you can be condescending about it and say all these people come from a culture filled with those things, so if they go to the desert for a week and a half it doesn’t change anything. But the truth is that being in that environment is kind of startling because it makes you aware for the very first time what it’s like to live, even temporarily, in a society that isn’t as commodified as the one we live in. In large parts a utopian attempt is really an act of faith that we can make things better.

How long did it take you to research and devise the show?

About three years. It went up for performance for the first time in July, but a lot of the shows develop for a number of years before they come to fruition because it turns out they need research that requires trips. I normally work on many different projects at the same time. But I’ve really enjoyed the amount of time it’s taken to come to the stage, because it’s a good time to talk about the Occupy movement.

What did you end up taking away from this project?

The reason I do these monologues is to explore my obsessions. I could do something else that would be easier and better paid—and cause less trouble—but I wouldn’t be able to find the things I’m interested in and have an excuse to spend enormous amounts of time exploring them. It was tremendously useful to go to Disney World with my extended family, for whom it’s their personal mecca—they worship the mouse.

How would you describe your relationship with Woolly Mammoth?

We’re married—no, dating. We’re like long-term collaborators. We really seem to understand each other. I love their audiences. They may not be the largest but they’re the most motivated and open to risk, and that’s a real commodity. Audiences are actually fundamentally the same everywhere—they’re all human beings—but at the same time, and I hope this is okay to say, I find DC audiences really hungry for compelling work. It’s not that they’re underserved by the arts community at all, because they’re getting lots of great work, but I think it’s because of the nature of some of DC. It’s this odd place that does have natives, but many people are serving terms, and for a large number of them DC is not actually the place they might have chosen to live if they felt they were free to live anywhere else. I hope this isn’t jerky to say, but it does sometimes feel like one of the reasons the audiences are so good is because people are hungry. They’re like, “Oh, my God, I had to go to the State Department, my life is in a cube, I have to go to the theater.” Hidden in some parts of DC is this wild desire to find a place to break free.

You’re very active on social media. Do you think it helps you as an artist?

I don’t know. I hope it is. I’m working on a sequel to The Agony and the Ecstasy about how everything’s changed because of smartphones. This level of social interconnectivity is very acidic to barriers, and it’s very hard to find the level of engagement that might be the right level. For most people there’s an instinct to share and aggregate as much as possible, but I actually wonder what it does long-term—not just to artists but to human relations. It’s too early to tell, isn’t it?

American Utopias is at Woolly Mammoth March 25 through April 21. Tickets ($35 to $67.50) are available via Woolly’s website.

An edited version of this article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

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