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Mike Daisey Has 'Something' to Say About American Might

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Monologuist Mike Daisey sits at a desk onstage at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company with an outline scribbled on bits of yellow legal paper. A heavy-set guy, he perspires beneath the lights and blots his face as he literally warms to his subject.

In his show "If You See Something Say Something," having its world premiere as part of the Capital Fringe Festival, Daisey tells the story of the birth of nuclear weapons in the New Mexico desert in 1945 and how he believes the possession of that terrible power changed America, and not in a good way.

Daisey traces his obsession with nuclear weapons to childhood. At age 10, he says, he read "On Thermonuclear War" by Rand think-tanker Herman Kahn. "I was a very unhappy child," he says. "It sort of fit in with the rest of everything that was going on. I was fascinated, in an unhealthy way, I'm sure, with the apocalypse."

The scribbled outline Daisey keeps onstage will never get tossed out, though the pages look like they were "written by a crazy person or William Burroughs," he says. It's part of his pact with the audience. "I keep the outline always in front of me [to show] that it is in fact not memorized. . . . The outline is a consistent polestar."

Working on any piece with his director (and wife) Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey says, "we make this very strong effort to try to peel away the layers that normally lie between the thought and the action of it being performed. And one of the ways we do that is by there being no script."

Daisey likes his Washington audiences. They are "quite intelligent," he observes. "They're not always prepared with the full range of emotional intelligence, but they're very prepared with the facts. So it's interesting, because what will happen is they'll put a toe in the water, and they'll put a foot in the water, and decide they're enjoying the show, and then [they] will hear something that will implicate them in some way . . . and they become uneasy." That's as it should be, Daisey says, because "the monologues aren't designed to be comfortable."

"If You See Something" continues through Saturday. Daisey will be back at Woolly in January with a monologue that has made waves elsewhere: "How Theater Failed America."

Stephen Richard Moves On

Looking back now at his 17 years as executive director of Arena Stage, Stephen Richard takes particular pride in the company's having "created the largest African American audience, as far as I know, anywhere in the country for professional theater."

He speaks of "the immense value of being able to tell stories that reach the African American community in particular" and calls Arena's embracing of untraditional, non-Western-European theatrical styles "a huge accomplishment."

When Artistic Director Molly Smith arrived in 1998, she focused the theater almost exclusively on American writers and away from European classics. That helped expand the theater's reach in the community, says Richard, though he acknowledges "an impact [on] our longtime subscribers who preferred the more classic work. . . . We did lose some folks."

Richard left Arena in May to become vice president of external relations for the National Children's Museum project, which will be part of the National Harbor development in Prince George's County. A Houston native, the 57-year-old Richard served as managing director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Los Angeles Theatre Center before coming to Arena in 1991.

A search committee is hunting for Richard's replacement, who must have at least 20 years of experience and be a world-class fundraiser, Smith says.

The artistic director praises Richard for the "quiet authority" in his management style and describes him as "a chess player. He was always two or three steps ahead of other people, psychologically." She says she also discovered he "had a totally unexpected sense of humor."

The "second most extraordinary thing" accomplished during his time at Arena, in Richard's view, was the re-imagining and renovation, now underway, of the theater's old building at Sixth Street and Maine Avenue SW. "Oh my gosh, it's going to be amazing," he exclaims.

The project began with the fateful decision -- "the most critical moment that we went through together," Smith says -- to stay at the theater's old location rather than move downtown. Then came the redesign plans, the capital campaign to raise $125 million (when Richard left the tally was $108 million) and finding temporary performance spaces.

There were tough times, too, in the early 1990s, Richard says, when government subsidies for arts organizations fell out of political favor. "Thanks to Jesse Helms and the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] and a bad economy, Arena Stage lost maybe 20 percent of our contributed income in a very short period of time."

These days, Richard sees new challenges as audiences don't seem to be growing apace with the burgeoning D.C. theater scene. "More competition, more theaters, more seats . . . audiences are chopping themselves into smaller and smaller niches. And the kind of broader menu that Arena produces doesn't fit as well into a niched-up marketplace," he says.

But Richard can now help grow an audience at his new home, the as yet unbuilt interactive National Children's Museum, formerly the Capital Children's Museum in the District. Groundbreaking is projected for 2010 and the opening, he hopes, in 2012: "All we have to do is raise $175 million."

He says he loves the museum's mission statement: "To inspire children to care about and improve the world."

"Of course it's fun and of course it's education," Richard says, "but it's all about 'This is your world, take care of it.' "

Follow Spots

· A funeral Mass for Washington Stage Guild artistic director John MacDonald will be said tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. at St. Patrick's Church, 619 10th St. NW. A memorial fund in his name has been created to go toward completion of Stage Guild's new space. Donations can be sent to Washington Stage Guild, 4018 Argyle Terrace NW, Washington, D.C. 20011-5301.

· A Broadway-bound revival of "West Side Story" will kick off in Washington at the National Theatre Dec. 16-Jan. 17. Arthur Laurents, 90, who wrote the book for the 1957 show (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), will stage the production, due to open in New York next March. Laurents has said his restaging will incorporate far more Spanish and will tell the story of love and gang warfare with tougher dramatic realism.

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