October 20, 2013

Mike Daisey, raised in Maine, stretched the truth, then stretched his wings

His embellishments on a public radio documentary program led to an on-air flogging. But that didn’t end the career of this performance artist, whose talent for storytelling still awes.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Storyteller Mike Daisey performs his “All the Faces of the Moon,” a two-hour monologue, at The Public Theater in New York. Daisey embellished facts in a January 2012 broadcast of National Public Radio’s “This American Life.” Apologizing, he told the show’s host: “It’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

Joan Marcus photo

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Mike Daisey

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MAINE appearance

WHO: Mike Daisey will speak at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Maine International Conference on the Arts at the Collins Center, University of Maine, Orono.

COST: Conference registration ranges from $80 to $200

FOR MORE: mainearts.maine.gov

He warmed to the task, and wrote: “Although the opening monologue had its flaws and wasn’t the most enjoyable of the ones I saw, Mr. Daisey has a remarkable ability to grab and hold an audience. His facility for impromptu asides and entertaining digressions is formidably effective. The aplomb with which he could weave his way back from a seeming dead end almost felt like a magic trick. His sheer storytelling prowess kicked in fairly quickly on that first night, and rarely let up for the next three.”

Daisey is a voracious wordsmith and an insightful observer of humankind, able to weave seemingly unconnected topics into one big story that somehow makes sense.

That he is a big talker is somewhat ironic. When he was a child growing up in Fort Kent, his folks took him to a doctor because he didn’t say anything. He wouldn’t talk. The doctor told his parents not to worry. “Presumably, when he has something to say he’ll start speaking,” the doctor said.

The country doctor got that diagnosis right.

His family lived on the road between Fort Kent and Madawaska, and the closest neighbor was “couple of miles in one direction, and the other one was a couple of miles in the other direction. I grew up with an extreme sense of isolation.”

He learned to talk by talking to himself, or to imaginary friends.

His childhood memory is of “cold and empty vistas, and very beautiful, very naturally beautiful. But very empty, and very vast. I do think there is something about the place, a hardness to Maine, a hard granite quality, a ruggedness. It doesn’t feel like much of the rest of the world, especially when you get up to Fort Kent.”

He’ll talk about all of that when he addresses the Maine International Conference on the Arts on Saturday in Orono. It’s home turf for Daisey, who was raised in northern Maine and moved to the central Maine town of Etna at age 12. He graduated from Nokomis High School in Newport and from Colby College in Waterville,

He left Maine to make a living in theater. He lived for a while on the West Coast, and has lived in New York with his wife and collaborator, Jean-Michele Gregory, for more than a decade. They do not have children.

His father, Bob Daisey, said his oldest son showed early tendencies for the dramatic.

“When he was 5 years old, he would read books and sit in the back seat of the car and tell us the story. But instead of ‘Here’s what happened’ and the highlights, he would tell you the whole story line by line. ‘And then he said this ...’ We used to tell him, ‘Mike, you don’t have to tell us the whole thing,’ but he couldn’t shorten it.”

He was into astronomy and computers, and turned to theater in high school. Bob Daisey remembers attending plays throughout his son’s high school and college years.

He sees his son perform as often as he can. He attended one of the “Lunar” plays in New York, and enjoyed it well enough, but found the topics troubling. “I enjoyed it, but as I told him, I hate it when anybody talks about suicide. But when my son talks about suicide – he has a lot of dark talk in those plays,” Bob Daisey said.

A ‘DREAM’ STUDENT, ‘GREAT TALKER’

David Greenham, the former producing artistic director at the Theater at Monmouth, had Daisey as a student in a regional gifted and talented program for high school students. He remembers Daisey as a “dream” student who embraced theater, and gravitated toward improvisation in part because “he was such a great talker.

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