Woolly Mammoth interns to premiere ‘American Utopias’ to benefit themselves

October 9, 2012

“American Utopias,” Mike ­Daisey’s new monologue set to open in March at Woolly Mammoth, will be presented by Woolly interns as a one-night-only premiere performance on Sunday. Proceeds from the show will benefit the interns, the adorably named Tiny Mammoths, per ­Daisey’s request.

“I’m always interested in how interns are paid, and it’s always terrible,” said Daisey, whose interest in American theater labor standards goes back to his monologue “How Theater Failed America,” which he performed at Woolly in 2009. “The stipend is incredibly small, and there’s no way the stipend can cover any housing. I don’t think you can feed yourself.”

The 10 Tiny Mammoths, all college graduates, are such a vital part of the Woolly apparatus, said artist relations manager and intern mentor Kevin Faragher, that “we could not function without them. They are essential to the day-to-day operations.” They make a weekly stipend of $50.

Jordan Beck, the connectivity assistant intern (some interns assist specific Woolly staffers; others work in marketing, development, lighting and so on) said that many interns, Beck included, hold jobs in addition to their 40-hour workweek at Woolly. The theater offers opportunities to earn extra money by working at performances.

What the internship mainly provides, Faragher said, “is the different types of experience that we offer. [The interns] are integral to what we do on a day-to-day basis. . . . We try to involve them on every level.”


Robert Leembruggen and Timothy Hayes Lynch in Keegan Theatre's “A Couple of Blaguards.” (Timothy Hayes Lynch and)

Daisey said he understands theaters’ reluctance to fundraise on behalf of their staff. “It’s hard to campaign for why you need to be paid more,” he said. “So as an outside person coming in, I suggested we could do a benefit . . . and all the money from the performance could be used to raise intern salaries.”

Woolly does not have similar qualms about fundraising for other causes. According to Sarah Slobodien Dovere, director of development, Woolly’s Free the Beast campaign, which aims to fund the development of 25 new plays over the next 10 years, has raised $2.3 million toward its $4 million goal.

Proceeds from the intern benefit will first go to fund said intern benefit. If there is money left, that sum will be divided among the interns. Tickets start at $25. Should the show sell out, each intern stands to earn $550 to $600.

Although Daisey’s proposition to Woolly came loaded with a bit of an accusation — namely, that Woolly doesn’t pay its interns enough — Daisey said the reaction from the theater was “unanimously positive, in terms of engaging with them. . . . I think it’s really admirable that there’s no blowback from them. I think they really recognized an opportunity to make things better for them.”

As for “American Utopias,” ­Daisey’s exploration of community creation that examines, among other things, Disney World, Burning Man and Occupy Wall Street, Daisey has spent the past 21 / 2 years doing research (when he wasn’t performing and/or reacting to criticism of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”) and is ready to “tell the story, for the very first time, out loud.”

The through line from Walt Disney to Wall Street, he said, is “about the way in which we create bonded spaces. That within the spaces, rules exist in which members of society who believe that vision can create a world for themselves in those spaces.”

“American Utopias” will be ­Daisey’s first new work following his “Agony” fact-checking fallout on NPR’s “This American Life” in March, in which sections of his monologue relating conversations Daisey had with workers in China were found to be fabricated.

Daisey said that, although he’s given the experience a great deal of thought, “fundamentally, it didn’t change the core of how I do my work. I’ve already dedicated myself, I think like we all do, to doing better work all the time.”

Is “American Utopias” fiction or non? “I’m coming from the standpoint that it’s a story. It is true. I am telling it. If people choose to go and fact-check it, how wonderful that they’re so engaged in my work.”

So, does that mean it’s true? People “can choose what kind of truth that means to themselves. . . . I’m not going to submit to the kind of interrogations the work has received in the past.”

He is prepared for a different kind of interrogation: feedback from a live crowd. “You need an audience that’s warm and receptive but isn’t sycophantic,” he said. “You can’t do it in the living room for a group of friends. You need the charged environment of the actual theater.”

Sunday at 7 p.m. at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. woollymammoth.net.

Brotherly ‘Blaguards’

Keegan Theatre is wrapping up its run of “A Couple of Blaguards,” which means it is probably about time for the uninitiated to verify the definition of a “blaguard.”

I consulted an expert, and by that I mean I called Colin Smith, who is directing the production. Excellent choice, self! He provided not only a definition but also the etymology: “A blaguard is like a scoundrel,” he said. “I believe it came originally from a military term, the black guard. [They were] a sort of frowned-upon group.”

This is a lovely definition but might not be accurate, as the Dictionary of Word Origins offers the following: Blackguard was a nickname for the kitchen knaves in a lord’s retinue, because they used black iron pots and utensils and also because they were dirtier than other workers. Either way, kind of a rude thing to say to someone. But, we’ll take it!

The play, by brothers Frank and Malachy McCourt, tells the story of their childhood in Ireland and immigration to the United States. The narrative is nonlinear; the play consists of vignettes. Smith said the transition scenes “were as important to me and the actors as the scene parts, because that’s when we really get to see them being brothers.”

The sketch-style show is a change of pace for Smith, who directed Keegan’s production of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” last season. “It’s a little more freeing than working with a very structured, linear play,” he said. “There’s nothing scripted [in the transitions], but there’s room for the actors to find the brothers’ relationship . . . [and] what inspires them to tell the next story.”

Despite the hardships faced by the McCourts, many of which were famously documented in Frank’s books, “Angela’s Ashes” and “’Tis,” Smith said that what drew him to the play was the brothers’ sense of humor.

“There’s something about Irish comedy that always has some pathos involved that I really like about it,” Smith said. “The whole play is about struggles growing up in Limerick, immigrating to America, to New York, and behind everything, it’s pretty dark. But the Irish sense of humor sort of pervades over it.”

Through Sunday at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. 703-892-0202. keegantheatre.com.

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