A CONVERSATION WITH MIKE DAISEY
What has been the biggest challenge for you in creating and performing A People’s History?
The scale! I’ve worked on longer shows—I performed a 44-hour living novel in 29 nights in 2013—but the fact that this covers over 500 years of history, from 1492 to 2018, is so immense that it makes the 27 hours of its running time feel short! The reality is that all history is storytelling—you can never fit everything in, and so every history we ever make is an attempt to choose a way of telling an impossible task. This epic show uses Howard Zinn’s book as a frame for talking about histories that have largely been ignored. And I compare those histories with the ones from my U.S. history textbook I was taught from when I was a student in a rural northern Maine high school, and then both those histories are compared to where we are today and the histories we are currently writing. I like how a living storytelling process gives voice to the true nature of histories—how they twist and writhe, how they change under pressure and stimulus, and how we must tend to them if we want a history that illuminates our human condition as deeply and richly as possible.
What do you think is going to surprise audiences most about your performances?
The kind of theatre I create reminds audiences that theatre is an event—because I do not work from a script, and I speak directly to audiences with the tools of theatre, it short circuits many of the traditional tropes of the theatre, and that can be surprising for people who see a lot of plays. At the same time, this show is modeled very closely on an extemporaneous performance we are all intimately familiar with, and that’s of a history teacher teaching in a classroom. So audiences will feel innately at home and at ease, which is useful, because many of the histories we’ve suppressed and vanished in our country offer some difficult truths: the genocides that we perpetrated to birth our country, the men and women we enslaved to build the nation, the cultures of white supremacy we uphold to keep ourselves in power, and the way power is constructed so it is increasingly held in the hands of the very, very rich. Theatre audiences are people I understand, because they are like me: white, largely straight, fiscally comfortable people. The stories I am telling are uncomfortable for my people to hear, even when they feel they agree with them, and that’s as it should be. Those tensions, between unease and threats and comedy and joy, give us a playing space larger than the physical theatre can ever contain.
What is your favorite random or obscure historical fact?
Now, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?