Mike Daisey meets genius

Looking back, Mike Daisey calls “the incident” “chilling and dorky.”

The monologist, who has brought his 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com and The Ugly American to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, was in Cambridge, Mass. with a new monologue called Invincible Summer.

He got to the part about what it must be like to have sex with Paris Hilton (the man’s a satirist, OK?), and suddenly most of his audience got up and walked out of the theater.

While Daisey absorbed the exodus of his audience, a man approached Daisey’s table onstage — Daisey’s monologues are always delivered with him sitting behind a table that holds his hand-written notes and a glass of water — and dumped a bottle of water all over his notes.

You can see the incident below or on Daisey’s Web site because it was videotaped (www.mikedaisey.com, go to the April 20 entry).

The look on Daisey’s face, especially after the water ruins his notes, is painful to see, but he gathers himself enough to get up and shout after the fleeing crowd: “Do any of you people who are leaving want to stay and talk about this or do you want to run out like cowards?”

It turns out the group was from Norco High School in Southern California (Norco is kind of between Chino and Riverside), and the adults felt Daisey’s language was a “safety” issue for the students.

In the aftermath, Daisey contacted the man who ruined his notes and writes about the encounter in great detail on his Web site.

“Looking at it now, the realization for me is that we have a tendency to cocoon ourselves and imagine things like this don’t happen where we are,” Daisey says. “The idea that a word would cause someone to destroy something is somewhat alien to me. Or was.”

Daisey is on his way back to Berkeley Rep with a new monologue — actually four new monologues — called Great Men of Genius. Each show is devoted to a historical figure Daisey considers great: Nikola Tesla (a scientist who worked with electricity), P.T. Barnum (the circus showman), Bertolt Brecht (the German playwright and poet) and L. Ron Hubbard (the sci-fi writer who created the Church of Scientology).

But at the moment, Daisey is in residence at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where he’s sequestered in a woodland cabin creating great works and communing with other great artists.

“The incident in Cambridge was so singular and shocking you worry it will overwhelm the other work you do,” Daisey says. “But as P.T. Barnum said, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. He also said it doesn’t matter what you write about me as long as you spell my name correctly.”
Daisey, 34, doesn’t quite agree with that, but the Barnum mention provides a nice segue into talking about Great Men of Genius, which has been burbling in Daisey’s brain a long time.

“I’ve known I wanted to talk about these guys for a really long time,” he says. “The synaptic jump was when I realized I should do all four of them together.”

Each show is about 90 minutes, and Berkeley Rep convinced Daisey that on Sundays during his run, he should do all four in a marathon — something Daisey has never attempted to do.

“Most shows have an eight-show week, so this means I’ll do four shows between Wednesday and Saturday and then have half of my week all in one day on Sunday,” Daisey says. “I’ll really have to keep my energy and stamina up.”

In putting the four shows together, Daisey realized he was creating one big show about the nature of genius. What kind of environment creates genius?

“Is genius a product of social order where we declare genius, or is it a force reaching beyond the human to do things we didn’t think possible?” Daisey asks.

Perhaps the most surprising “genius” on Daisey’s roster is Hubbard.

“I discovered Hubbard by reading Battlefield Earth, the worst enormous book I’ve ever read,” Daisey says. “But Hubbard captures one of the facets of this process of geniushood, this process of demagoguery, where people worship at the shrine of idolatry. He was incredibly brilliant at coming up with the idea. that a religion could be a business. All cults in the modern world really descend from patterns he created in the ’50s for Scientology. He wrote and spoke convincingly about forging a system of belief that would then support the person at its center.”

In Daisey’s show, Hubbard sits alongside Barnum, whom many may not consider a genius.
“But he was a brilliant marketer,” Daisey says. “He was brilliant at marketing himself and crafting a story in a sales pitch. You sell the sizzle, not the steak, he said. Sell the steak, you’ve got no more steak, but you can sell the sizzle over and over again.”

As for Brecht and Tesla, Daisey says they have more congruities than differences.

“I think each of these men has connections with the other,” Daisey says. “It would make an interesting diagram. Where they all overlap, that’s the heart of what I’m getting at: the pathways to illuminate the psyche.”

Audience members can see one of the four or the entire quartet. When Daisey did the shows in Seattle and New York, he says a large portion of the audience ended up seeing all four.

“The shows are built independently so each functions on its own artistic merits,” he says. “I don’t end on a cliffhanger. They won’t be unsatisfying. But what I’ve experienced in the past is that people see one, realize they’d like to see more and end up seeing as many as they can.”

Great Men of Genius continues through July 1 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Brecht is at 8 p.m. Wednesdays; Barnum at 8 p.m. Thursdays; Tesla at 8 p.m. Fridays; Hubbard at 8 p.m. Saturdays; four-show marathons at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

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