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A Question of Genius

Monologist Mike Daisey gives a first-hand account of the creation of his newest work, Great Men of Genius.

Mike Daisey in Great Men of Genius (© Ursa Waz)

[Mike Daisey is about to undertake his greatest challenge ever at Berkeley Rep, where he's performing Great Men of Genius, June 6-July 1. This four-part series of monologues ties together the life stories of writer Bertolt Brecht, entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, inventor Nikola Tesla, and Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. In a TheaterMania exclusive, Daisey discusses the creation of this remarkable piece of theater].


I'm spending the month of May at the MacDowell Colony, an artist retreat in New Hampshire, sitting alone in a cabin in the middle of the woods, thinking about genius. On the walls of my cabin are what the colony calls "tombstones"-- wooden plaques that list everyone who has sat in this room before me, working and thinking in this space. In my cabin, I see Paula Vogel, Jonathan Franzen, Louise Bogan, and Stephen Dobyns. Through the trees, I can see the nearest cabin, where Spalding Gray wrote, and Maria Irene Fornes, and Henry Baldwin, and so many more -- hundreds of names, one after another, fading into illegibility with the slow process of time. It feels entirely appropriate to work on a monologue exploring what genius is in this place where so much genius has happened, and where so many have been forgotten.

Great Men of Genius is a huge undertaking, my biggest monologue ever -- four different shows, each of which covers one of the men's lives from birth to death, interweaving their stories with stories from my own life that resonate and rub against the narrative in ways that, hopefully, illuminate. My cabin is filled with the signs of this struggle: books are everywhere, roughly divided into sections of the floor and every available surface. Designs for Tesla's ultimate wireless energy tower are next to an account of Brecht's exodus from Germany, which in turn lies next to a tract from Hubbard's religion explaining what Scientology is. It's a mess.

I've done all four of the monologues previously, short engagements that showed the story was possible; but at Berkeley Rep, I'll be bringing these pieces to life in a new way. In addition to doing each monologue separately, on Sundays I'll perform all four of them back-to-back in six-hour marathon performances. A lot of my time in this cabin has been spent going over the material, trying to anticipate how uniting the separate pieces will change the story. The scale is breathtaking when I let myself think about it. I get a little freaked out and dizzy at the thought of that vast amount of attention and time, and the intensity required to fulfill the audience's expectations.

As a monologist who works exclusively without a script, it's an exercise in anticipation and patience. You can prepare, but the crucible of performance is where everything happens. I tell stories the way that stories exist in life -- created on the air at the moment they are spoken. It makes it a difficult process to capture and contain, as everything rebels against premeditation, so I armor myself with as much about these men's lives as I can: rereading the texts, reflecting on the choices I'm making when drawing on my own life. If you were in the cabin with me, you wouldn't know what was going on. I look a lot like a writer, except there's no writing. I drink a lot of coffee.

Once the shows are up, I work with my director and collaborator, Jean-Michele Gregory, to shape and hone the choices I'm making in each performance; but even that is difficult this time. With six hours of monologue to work with, we have to be careful or we'll run out of time and attention for the whole thing. This is a monster, and though I have been working in this form for a decade, this is like tackling four monologues at once. If pacing and endurance isn't reckoned with, both mine and the audience's, the whole endeavor can fall to pieces.

I'm doing this because I want to stretch the boundaries of the solo form, to reach beyond where the lines are traditionally drawn. I want to make monologues that challenge assumptions about what solo performance is capable of and break the bottle open. I'm doing it because it is grandiose and extravagant, like the men whose megalomania and insanity I'm exploring night after night. I'm doing it because, in that ineffable moment when I conceived this show, I knew it had to be this way. I had to follow this shape and let it grow like a mad flower.

As I lay at night in my bed at MacDowell, the woods are not silent; my windows are open and I can hear sounds, fecund and dark, alive all around me. At night, the tombstones of all those who came before stand over me, watching me sleep, whispering about what they did and did not do in the time given to them, time they took back from life. I dream every night about genius, and when I wake up, everything is missing. I collect my notes, gather my thoughts, and on stage I try to find the threads.


[To learn more about Mike Daisey, visit]


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