In his new one-man show, American Utopias, award-winning monologist Mike Daisey ties together three unlikely places: Disney World, Zuccotti Park — the home base of the Occupy Wall Street movement — and the annual arts event Burning Man.
"I love how each of these communities are these temporary things, but in that world, the people are creating a dreamscape for themselves," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "And I thought it was a really a valuable way of looking at that phenomenon."
The show runs through April 21, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C.
On defining the word 'utopia'
"I feel like the word utopia's so academic, the way that it's usually used. I found that ... most people, when they think of utopias, think of these, sort of, 19th century Utopian communities. What I'm interested in is the utopian impulse. I think that we find communities often, especially since the advent of the Internet. Sometimes, we find them virtually; we find people that we're sympathetic with."
On Disney World as utopia
"My family loves Disney very much. It's part of their essential being. Really, it's a kind of religion for them, and we accompany them down there. And for a lot of people, Disney fulfills that mythological place. ... And I think that's the place where the traditional definition of utopia overlaps the, sort of, dreamscape that you really did want to build this utopian city and that it would be this new idea of something where the corporation was woven into public life in a very direct way."
On Zuccotti Park as utopia
"There's also incredible value in talking about something that's shared. The vast majority of people never went to Zuccotti Park. Their impression of it is built by the media and by journalism as sort of — they have an impression of it, but they don't know it. And so talking about what it is like to not have gone and in watching the fallout in my city, and then connecting with the organization afterwards, I think it's a really valuable way of talking about what it means when we feel like we've missed something, and whether it's important or not."
On what Daisey learned from the fallout of his earlier show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and appearances on This American Life
"I learned ... the value and the importance of understanding the terms of how you talk to an audience, because it's really important to understand how culturally — moving from one idiom to another, how something we say in one context, brought into another if you're not careful about how you translate it can feel untrue, even if the essential truth of it is. And it's a very dangerous thing.
"And the story got bigger than I had ever expected it to be. And I'm really glad today that so much has come out from it. But I do wish, you know, like we all wish, I wish that I would certainly do it better. I'd like to believe I would do it much better, you know, when I do it again. ...
"I'm fortunate that most of the damage was self-inflicted, because the causes that I espoused are very real. And the follow-up journalism from fine journalists who do excellent work has borne out that there's tremendous issues that need ... that need work over there. And I've been really pleased at how much attention's been focused on that in the year that's passed."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
In a new monologue, award-winning playwright Mike Daisey describes three very different places: the most magical place on Earth, Disney World in Orlando; Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, the scene of Occupy Wall Street; and the weeklong bacchanal on the high desert of Nevada, Burning Man, where on the first night, he retreats.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "AMERICAN UTOPIAS")
MIKE DAISEY: I get into the tent, and all the visuals now vanish. And there's just the sound, the omnipresent soundscape that accompanies everything at Burning Man, the sound of (makes thumping sound) as though an army of Euro-trash D.J.s has been parachuted into this place. They're all coming in the sky. (makes thumping sound) They're landing at every location. (makes thumping sound) You can't point the source where it's coming from. In fact, when you get in the tent, you can feel it coming through the earth itself from below you. (makes thumping sound) It's like God is down, deep in the earth, laying down some fat beats. (makes thumping sound)
CONAN: Mike Daisey's new show running this month at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre here in Washington, it's called "American Utopias." So what's the American utopia you know best? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Mike Daisey joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
DAISEY: Oh, thanks for having me.
CONAN: And did you have to stretch your definition of utopias to work these three into it?
DAISEY: You know, I didn't because I feel like the word utopias so academic, the way that it's usually used. I found that um, you know, most people when they think of utopias, think of these, sort of, 19th century utopian communities. What I'm interested in is the utopian impulse. I think that we find communities often, especially since the advent of the Internet, sometimes, we find them, virtually, we find people that we're sympathetic with. And I love how each of these communities are these temporary things, but in that world, the people are creating a dreamscape for themselves. And I thought it was a really a valuable way of looking at that phenomenon.
CONAN: Disney World, a utopia?
DAISEY: Yes, yes. I think it is for the people who love it very much. My family loves Disney very much. It's part of their essential being. Really, it's a kind of religion for them, and we accompany them down there. And for a lot of people, Disney fulfills that mythological place.
CONAN: It's also, as you point out in the show, originally, Epcot was designed to be a experimental community, a Disneyfied-owned operated utopia.
DAISEY: Yes. And I think that's the place where the traditional definition of utopia overlaps the, sort of, dreamscape that you really did want to build this utopian city and that it would be this new idea of something where the corporation was woven into public life in a very direct way.
CONAN: And another thing you tie these places together with is the idea of public-private partnerships. Welcome, by the way, to our public-private partnership. Welcome, by the way, to our public-private partnership, right here in...
CONAN: ...Studio 3A.
DAISEY: I mean I think public-private partnership has always been a huge part of the definition of the American character. And it's really the tension between the public and the private. And it's in that tension that our civilization actually lives. And so the parts are always pulling at each other, and so that really interests me.
CONAN: And the - I thought the most interesting definition was the park - Zuccotti Park, which was, of course, sort of donated to - semi-donated to New York City. It was a tradeoff for air rights so they can build the buildings higher in exchange for providing a concrete place for people to sit and have lunch.
DAISEY: Right. Absolutely. And what's interesting about that is that when you study it, the way that they build those spaces because the corporations are in charge of building them, after they agree to hold them in the public trust.
You know, there's no real oversight, so they're actually incentivized to make them places that are mediocre...
DAISEY: ...to make them places that no person is actually going to spend that much time in because it would be better for the corporation if they didn't use it as a park.
CONAN: The fewer people, the better.
DAISEY: That's right.
CONAN: So they invent places that are forbidding and difficult to even see as - there a whole - many years ago in New York, the idea of vest pocket parks, but they were owned by the city...
CONAN: ...and they were very attractive places with, you know, the sort of shimmering waterfalls and that sort of thing.
DAISEY: Because I think there's a huge difference between what happens when we agree as a people that something can be held in trust for the people. There's a difference between that and when we find over those rights to corporations. There's much less oversight once the corporation starts taking the place of how we manage our public existence. And so in that gap is where a lot of change is happening to our public discourse.
CONAN: And Burning Man, how is Burning Man though a public/private partnership?
DAISEY: Well, it's a public/private partnership because it's on government land. The entire - this entire anarchic gathering happens on public land, and it's a partnership between the public land and the Burning Man organization, which is a corporation. So we think of them as being, you know, this anarchic thing, but it's incredibly organized, huge undertaking. And so they work together the way that all these order public/private partnerships work.
CONAN: And of them which did you - is enjoy the right word?
DAISEY: Well, you know, it's funny because as a monologist, it's my job to sort of poetically reflect the experience I go through. So I was alternatively pleased and tortured by all of the places in turn. And I got a lot out of all of them, really, different things, very different things.
CONAN: Right. A very funny moment, you're negotiating with your family about going to Disney World with them. And you say, first of all, if we're going to go, we're going to do it your way. On the other hand, if we're going to go, you have to accept the fact that I'm likely to write everything down that you say and do and tell people about it from the stage.
DAISEY: That's right. That's right. I think that's sort of the implied. And I even imply that the explicit connection that happens when you deal with storytellers.
CONAN: It must make your friends a little skittish.
DAISEY: I don't know because, you know, what you do is, over time - I like to perform in a way where I imagine the people that I'm talking about are in the audience, specific people, when I'm talking that the group is there. And I try to work in a way where I imagine that they will be holding me accountable, they'll be in the room, they'll be hearing these stories, and find a place where I can feel good about what it is that I'm saying. So, you know, that - it's good actually to have that tension because it's one of the things that keeps us telling stories that capture the kind of truths that need to get told.
CONAN: Our guest is Mike Daisey, writer and director of the new monologue "American Utopias," and he's with us here in Studio 3A. We'd like to hear about the utopia - the American utopia you know best. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's start with Diane(ph), and Diane's with us from Anchorage.
DIANE: Hi. Thanks for having me on. My utopia - I live in Anchorage so we see a lot of glassy-eyed utopian seekers coming once the snow melts and that will be coming soon. But for us up here, there's nothing like the darkness of winter to encourage you to seek the utopia. And for many up here, it's Hawaii, of course, and there are many pilgrimages. But also living up in Alaska, politically, a lot of us progressives seek political utopia and so for me, where I grew up in San Francisco is that. And then also, culturally utopias like TALK OF THE NATION is a place that a lot of us find on a daily basis.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much for that. And I hope just not when you're snowbound in the winter time.
DIANE: Oh, we're snowbound today. I don't think - I think winter time is going to be a continuous existence. You might want to tell those (unintelligible) utopians to bring a coat when they come up here.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, and we wish for a quick melt.
DIANE: Thank you. Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it.
DIANE: Thank you it. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Have you been to Alaska, Mike?
DAISEY: I have been. I went up to Alaska a couple of years ago on tour. I performed in Juneau, and then I went up into the Yukon and performed in some very remote towns. Really, such pleasure to tell stories in charged, different environments and also to hear the stories from the people you tell them to.
CONAN: Let's go next to Frank(ph), and Frank with us from Garner in North Carolina.
FRANK: Yes, sir. I think the annual sky venture, which is held out at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, every year, to me that is utopia. That's a utopia for pilots. And while I was waiting, I remember the year when Harrison Ford, the actor, came out there. He was in charge of our Young Eagles program, meeting kids interested in flying. And there were probably about 250, 350 people in an outdoor theater. And while he was speaking, nobody was talking. Everybody was paying attention. When you go to various exhibits, everybody gets in line. There's no arguing. It is the most well-behaved, well-disciplined 750,000 people over two weeks that you will ever find. And it is absolute utopia for pilots and airmen of all descriptions.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the nomination, Frank. Appreciate it.
FRANK: You're welcome.
CONAN: And there is a quick analogy I'm going to draw to Burning Man which might not leap to your mind initially, but the discipline that you saw there, you don't think of that at an anarchic gathering like that, but there did seem to be a lot of discipline there.
DAISEY: Oh, there's tremendous amount. I think people don't understand that it epitomizes the Apollonian/Dionysian splits. You have these people who are, yes - and they're having massive parties, and it's all crazy and it's nuts. And then in the morning, though, these are the same people who are building tremendous pieces of art, gigantic interactive sculptures. So they're going to be bluer, often very detail-oriented. They have lots of to-do lists, and they really enjoy activities. So you see both those tensions at work in - on the playa.
Burning Man is a very anarchic gathering. But in order for people to be very free, they have a - they have functioning wardens who are constantly patrolling. They have extensive hospital medical safety things. You know, the society has organized itself to make that possible.
CONAN: And I did not understand this, but once you have paid your very expensive fee, no money is to - gets exchanged.
DAISEY: That's right. Once you get there, it's - the entire week that the city exists, there's no buying or selling or bartering. There's no money of any kind.
CONAN: And once you get, of course, into Disney World, your rides are free. You may have to wait on line. Of course, there's a few things available for a small fee. Most of them have ears on them.
DAISEY: This is true.
CONAN: Mike Daisey is our guest. He's with us here in Studio 3A. "American Utopias" is his new show. It's showing at Woolly Mammoth here in Washington, D.C. Right now, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I do have to ask you a question. A lot of the listeners will remember your previous show on Steve Jobs and China and Apple, and your appearances on THIS AMERICAN LIFE and the fallout from those appearances.
I was struck in your bio by the description of your - you write it was a meteoric career, a brief and meteoric career on THIS AMERICAN LIFE. After a few minutes, meteoric struck me as perfectly apt. It shined very brightly and then did a lot of damage when it crashed and burned.
DAISEY: Oh. Yeah, I suppose that's true. I'm fortunate that most of the damage was self-inflicted, because the cause of that I espoused are very real. And the follow up journalism from fine journalists who do excellent work has borne out that there's tremendous issues that need...
DAISEY: ...that need work over there. And I've been really pleased at how much attention's been focused on that in the year that's passed.
CONAN: Certainly, your metaphor was correct, if your facts sometimes were not.
DAISEY: Well, thank you.
CONAN: All right. What did you learn from that experience?
DAISEY: You know, I learned is the value and the importance of understanding the terms of how you talk to an audience, because it's really important to understand how culturally - moving from one idiom to another, how something we say in one context, brought into another if you're not careful about how you translate it can feel untrue, even if the essential truth of it is. And it's a very dangerous thing.
And the story got bigger than I had ever expected it to be. And I'm really glad today that so much has come out from it. But I do wish, you know, like we all wish, I wish that I would certainly do it better. I'd like to believe I would do it much better, you know, when I do it again.
CONAN: Let's see. We got another caller in on the conversation. This is - let's go to Beth(ph). And Beth with us from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
BETH: Hi. My utopia and my family's utopia is a really, I'd like to say seamless combination of private, public and corporate. And I'm sure it happens at any national park. But we particularly enjoy Acadia National Park in Maine, which is off the coast of Maine. It's an island. Part of it is privately owned. The public land is obviously the park. And then there's the corporation that runs every concession and experience and sale within the park. And it's kind of a part of everything that we are.
Plus it's, you know, we're there at the privilege of the people who actually live on the island. It's just a very nice place where everyone just gets along and you see a lot of people smiling as they walk along the street. I like to remember that a few years ago, our president visited, and there are pictures of him just strolling along the street with an ice cream cone like any other tourist, which I thought was only possible in Acadia, and very utopian.
CONAN: Aren't you from Maine?
DAISEY: I am. I grew up in far northern Maine. So I have wonderful memories of going down Acadia. And in fact, Acadia Repertory Theatre, a very small repertory theatre there on the island, I was actually their technical director for one fateful summer where they made the terrible mistake of letting me build sets instead of acting, which I - let me tell you, a big, big mistake.
CONAN: Beth, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: And let's see, we get one more caller, and this is Joe(ph). Joe is on the line with us from Nashville.
JOE: Hey, good afternoon.
JOE: Every year we have this - in Nashville in the first part of June, we have these - sort of a collision of two utopias in terms of a bar roof festival, happens at the same time as what used to be called Fan Fair, the Country Music Festival. So if you're at the airport, a lot of us we'll leave town during that time, you get this sort of country music people and their loud Alan Jackson t-shirts. Then you have these dreadlocked kids with metal bits and tattoos. It's almost like being at the bar in "Star Wars," you know?
JOE: These two things colliding that don't make any sense.
CONAN: It's interesting. Do you ever confuse somebody who might be going to one for somebody who might be going to the other?
JOE: Never. No.
JOE: There's - they are very distinct groups.
CONAN: Thanks very much. I have not put that disparate - two disparate groups together. Thanks very much for the call, Joe.
JOE: My pleasure.
CONAN: And there's a moment - we've talked about a lot of things, but Zuccotti Park, you actually never got there, at least not while it was Occupy Wall Street.
DAISEY: Right, right. No, I didn't. I didn't get down there. So it's actually a wonderful opportunity because as a storyteller, you know, there's value to telling the story where the storyteller says I have gone from where you have not been. Now, let me tell you. There's also incredible value in talking about something that's shared. The vast majority of people never went to Zuccotti Park.
Their impression of it is built by the media and by journalism as sort of - they have an impression of it, but they don't know it. And so talking about what it is like to not have gone and in watching the fallout in my city, and then connecting with the organization afterwards, I think it's a really valuable way of talking about what it means when we feel like we've missed something, and whether it's important or not.
CONAN: In "American Utopias," Mike Daisey also tells us that even if you did go to Occupy Wall Street, there is some other guy who was there 10 minutes before you and has a more authentic experience of course. Mike Daisey, thanks very much for being with us here in Studio 3A.
CONAN: Mike Daisey performs "American Utopias" here in Washington at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. He's won numerous awards for past performances, and thanks very much for joining us again. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Science writer Mary Roach, author of the new book "Gulp." And join us back here again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.