Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Last Cargo Cult

Performance Date: 12.13.09
The Public Theater

Oftentimes you hear a director or filmmaker say, “Well, what I really am is a storyteller.”  And to that I say, “No you’re not.”  I get what they mean, and they’re not wrong per se.  But to me, a storyteller is a person sitting in a chair telling you a story.  And that’s it.  No other actors, no jump cuts or soundtracks.  Just the person, the chair, and what they say.

By this definition, Mike Daisey is a storyteller par excellence.  His recent work, The Last Cargo Cult, features Daisey seated behind a desk, on which are a few sheets of yellow paper and a bottle of water, and that’s it.  For the whole show.  All two and a half hours.  And from this comfortable perch, Daisey tells us a rather uncomfortable story about our culture’s relationship to money.  It’s thoroughly engaging, funny, and significant, and I encourage everyone to go see it.  He’s going on tour.  Check your local listings.

It takes a certain talent to reel an audience in with just your words.  My boyfriend and I took note of this after attending a Moth-inspired birthday party a few months back.  All the guests were asked to bring a story to share, and the best one belonged to a friend named Brian.  His was a long and outrageous tale about exploring Disneyland in an altered state of consciousness while on a high school field trip.  It would have been a good story coming out of anyone’s lips, but Brian made it a work of art.  Rather than go the obvious route and deliver his nefarious account with bombastic showmanship, Brian spoke quietly at first.  He sat there with a soft look in his eye, as he conjured the images from his memory and set about describing them to us.  He took his time, but not unduly.  He offered detail upon detail, and in so doing captured nuance and tone.  But most of all, he allowed the memory of the event to affect him in the retelling of it.  So that as the story progressed, we too felt the exhilaration, the wildness, and the fractured absurdity of his journey, as if it were in fact happening to us.

That’s not easy.  It takes confidence.  How many times have you tried to convey a story that you know is hilarious or otherwise incredible, and yet you find yourself skipping over things, rushing it along?  You get skittish when your audience doesn’t immediately respond the way you want them to, and you give the story short shrift.  Your fear gets the better of you and disappointment wins the day.  Not so with Brian.  He took the risk to soften up and take his time, confident it would pay off.  Of course, he had told his tale before and knew what parts to enhance or leave out, an advantage over us skittish story-rushers.  But that is part of the art as well.  Trying again after you flop the first time.  Honing the story over time.

Mike Daisey, of course, enjoys all the same advantages as Brian in The Last Cargo Cult, and more so.  He’s a storyteller by profession and crafts his monologues for performance over long periods of time.   While maybe a little less thrilling than the high-wire act of informal storytelling, the overall effect of Daisey’s expertise is one of relaxation.  He sits in his chair behind the desk, flips over a yellow sheet of paper (serving more as theatrical convention than crib notes), opens his mouth, and you immediately know you’re in good hands.  Which is helpful when you’re simultaneously getting the rug pulled out from under you regarding our collective faith in the abstraction we call money.

I guess what really fascinates me most about storytelling, though, is that it’s an act of mutual creation.  I’ve written about this idea before, in my posts for Our Town and Los Elementos, so it’s clearly an important concept for me.  In storytelling, there are two imaginations at play, the teller’s and our own.  And there’s this double-translation that happens – sounds a little far out, but follow me.  An event happens to the storyteller, which logs in her mind as images.  She then translates these images – her imagination – into words.  We hear the words, and our brains translate them back into images – our own images this time, our own imagination at work.  And it is actually the experience of our own imagination that is so exhilarating when we hear a story.  But it’s an experience we could not have had without the storyteller.

This is exactly what happens when we read a book.  Or see a painting.  Or engage with any art.  The artists help us experience our own imaginations in ways we would not be able to without them.   And yes, this includes directors and filmmakers.  So I guess they are storytellers after all.  Go figure.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to write about CARGO, Anna, and for your empathic and perceptive thoughts about storytelling, especially the mutual creation part. Producers and well-meaning audience members keep asking me when we're going to start using multi-media for Mike's shows.

    I'm not saying that all multi-media is bad, but it has to be used very carefully in order not to rob the audience of that essential creative act. Especially in the era in which we live, where I can go home and Google any term and be rewarded with a slew of images (which I am grateful for!), I love the primal minimalism of unvarnished storytelling, how it engages my mind in a way I can't get with any other medium.

    Even a book I can put down, pick up again later...in a theater, I'm forced to actually shut the outside world out for a spell, leave my (beloved) iPhone in its pocket. That kind of enforced, communal concentration is becoming a more and more valuable experience for me.

    ~Jean-Michele Gregory

  2. Thank you for writing, Jean-Michele, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Congratulations on Cargo. It's the first time I've seen Mike Daisey perform but it won't be the last. You clearly work well together.

    I support your instinct to keep the multi-media at bay for Mike's shows, and for exactly the reasons you state. I am horribly and enjoyably addicted to the various screens (computer, TV, iPhone) I stare at all day, but the last few multi-media theater experiences I've had did not work well for me -- probably because of the very fact I am so addicted. The two productions I'm thinking of both involved live projection of the actors on stage, and in both cases my tiny little monkey brain could not pull my eyes away from the shiny screen. I may as well have been watching TV rather than sharing space with the performers on stage.

    As you say, not all multi-media is bad, and it's still a relatively new element to theater in the grand scheme of things. I'm sure we will figure out how best to use it in the decades to come, and it will take us places we haven't yet been. But I'm also hoping it will generate movement in the opposing direction. That it will nurture a thirst for the unvarnished, communal experience, as you put it, to cleanse our collective palettes.

    Thanks again for writing, and for reading. It was a treat to hear from you.