With 'The Last Cargo Cult,' Mike Daisey invests himself in financial crisis

By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The health-care system was supposed to be the topic of monologuist Mike Daisey's new piece, commissioned by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. He'd already done "If You See Something, Say Something" and "How Theater Failed America" at Woolly with considerable success. Audiences took to his gimlet-eyed extemporaneous (he uses only an outline) views of nuclear weapons and nonprofit theater, respectively.

Anyway, as Daisey remembers it, the "financial crisis was melting down" and his anger about it was boiling up. So a health-care piece was put on hold. And that is how "The Last Cargo Cult" was born. Daisey has brought the monologue, first workshopped at Woolly in June, back to the theater through Feb. 7. In the interim, he performed it at New York's Public Theater and around the country.

It took him a month to teach himself how derivatives work in the stock market, and he traveled to Tanna, a South Pacific island where the indigenous people do not use money. In a phenomenon called a cargo cult, islanders also worship myths and memories tied to World War II days when American GIs were based there. The islanders' unusual mythology, says Daisey, isn't much different from the faith we put in a financial system "built out of air and shadows and light." In "The Last Cargo Cult," he also melds his dim view of the world financial system with his experiences on Tanna, where people remain, for now, untainted by money and greed.

Of the $700 billion bank bailout, says Daisey, "I'm furious and I'm angry, but also scared and concerned." At the relatively tender age of 36, he remembers the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. His early monologue, "21 Dog Years," chronicled his tenure at "It's staggering to me how little we've learned. . . . The manias get hotter and the crashes get deeper," he says.

Though he boned up on economics as preparation for "The Last Cargo Cult," Daisey wanted the piece to go deeper. If money is "liquid power" that flows to some and not to others, argues Daisey, and if all power corrupts, then "the real question becomes how do we live an ethical life" and still use money. That, he says, is the crux of the piece.

Ushers give theatergoers cash in various denominations, making the audience both "a listening entity and a fiscal entity," he says. At the show's end, they learn where the money comes from and that the performer has given them real power over his own financial situation.

Responses have been varied and fascinating, Daisey says. He and Jean-Michele Gregory, his director, editor, dramaturg (and wife), are keeping records of how audiences handle that power.

Sing for Stephen Schwartz

If you dream of belting a tune on Broadway, you stand a chance of having your talents assessed by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz. His Broadway shows include "Wicked," "Pippin" and "Godspell." He's written songs for films such as "Enchanted," "The Prince of Egypt" and "Pocahontas."

Schwartz will be in town Saturday morning to participate in an open "audition workshop" for wannabe performers at Olney Theatre Center's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. The event is tied to the Rockville-based Musical Theater Center and its student production of "The Stephen Schwartz Project," a revue based on Schwartz's thick songbook, being presented at Olney from Friday through Sunday. MTC trains kids of all ages to sing, dance and act.

In spring 2008, MetroStage in Alexandria did the professional premiere of "The Stephen Schwartz Project," conceived and staged by Washington-based director-choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt and arranger-composer John L. Cornelius II. Bobbitt is directing MTC's production, too. He and Cornelius will join Schwartz in critiquing workshop participants Saturday morning.

Schwartz, who oversees musical theater workshops for the ASCAP Foundation in New York and Los Angeles, seems to relish the chance to see young hopefuls. "When I was coming up, I didn't necessarily have a lot of people who helped me, just because I didn't know anybody. There weren't too many programs in those days, so I sort of floundered around a bit," he recalls.

"From a practical point of view, you never know when you're going to come across a performer or a writer of unusual talent who doesn't have any sort of connections and doesn't know what to do with it and how to pursue it," the composer adds. "I enjoy the feedback with the kids and what I can pass along, and I enjoy their enthusiasm."

Anyone who's interested must show up at Mulitz-Gudelsky at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. The first 200 people will be allowed in free to observe. Those who want to participate must buy a $50 raffle ticket and hope to be randomly chosen. MTC students can participate, too, but must do the raffle.

The workshop will run from 11 to 1 p.m., ending just before a matinee of "The Stephen Schwartz Project."

Follow spot

The Hub Theatre, a young company that performs in Fairfax County, has announced a change to its season. It will do Victor Lodato's solo play "Dear Sara Jane" Feb. 19 to March 14 at the Soundry in Vienna, directed by Jessica Lefkow. The musical "The Boy in the Bathroom" by Michael Lluberes has been postponed until spring 2011.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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