Magic Time! Mike Daisey on Playing ‘The Trump Card’ in the Turbulence of Trump

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You might say The Trump Card keeps getting dealt one new hand after another. Since Mike Daisey’s monologue played to acclaim in August at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency has been roiled by multiple revelations, meaning that Daisey’s show has had to shift fast on its feet even as he continued to tour with it.

The morning after the third and last presidential debate—when The Donald dropped yet another bombshell—I had a chance to check in with Mike to find out how he’s doing with all that. In just days his The Trump Card would return to Woolly (for one week only October 25 to 30, 2016). I found him characteristically talkative.

John: I got curious after reading on your Facebook wall about how The Trump Card is transforming and changing nightly. You called it “like riding a wild horse.” I pictured you trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. What’s that process been for you?

Mike Daisey performing 'The Trump Card.'
Mike Daisey performing ‘The Trump Card.’

Mike: All of the monologues are always changing. And working extemporaneously prepares you in some ways for something that’s changing. But nothing can really prepare you for trying to do an artistically mediated monologue about and around this campaign.

I don’t feel obliged to include everything that happens because I’m basically creating a biography, the whole arc of Donald Trump’s life up to and including this election. But the debates shifted the ground. The disclosure of the tapes of him talking to Billy Bush shifted the ground a lot. So I rebuilt the show. Previously it was the biography of a man named Donald Trump and a lens through which to look at this moment in time of this election. Now it is more the rise and fall of Donald Trump in a political context.

At what point did you realize that the character whose biography you were telling was becoming more of a disruptor than you or anyone could have imagined?

Early. Very early in the primaries. When I was putting the show together I would call political journalists I know and ask them—when Trump was ahead in the primaries in this state, this state, this state, that state—why wasn’t I seeing more people saying Trump is easily the favorite to win the nomination? No one had a satisfactory answer for me. I think the answer actually would have been: I can’t accept that that’s true and so therefore I can’t see it. So therefore he must fade for a reason I can’t actually determine. He must fade and therefore that isn’t going to happen. I ran into that chain of logic a lot.

I was in a very different position than most pundits. I don’t make a living from my politics inside the beltway. I’m not a creature of Washington. So I don’t really care in the sense that I’m not excited about whether I’m the one who gets to determine Donald Trump is ahead early.  That doesn’t do anything for me. What I was actually trying to put my finger on is what effect it was going to have on the art I was making and what effect it was going to have on my country.

You wrote in a wonderful piece in American Theatre, “The Theatre of Trump”:

The art of theatre is inextricably bound with the political, because to be political is to be aware of the performance one is giving….

And you wrote of the responsibility of theater artists as citizens and storytellers:

Those of us in the theatre have a vision that the world badly needs. We are used to being ignored, but we may have forgotten how deep and universal our form is. Whether we wanted the job or not, we have a role to play in the story that is unfolding.

Clearly you took that challenge up with The Trump Card. What lessons have you learned from your work on this piece that you would want other theater artists to know and pay attention to?

That’s a good question. I was happy to release the show under an open license a month and a half ago, so there’s always productions of it happening right now, all over the place. And I’m about to release a new revision of it based on the work that I’m doing now so people can be more up-to-date.

We do have a problem in America where there’s a lack of political work, and I think that’s a couple of different things working together. I think that currently our theatrical systems don’t encourage political work.  It’s not that people are censored; it’s more that on the list of aesthetic considerations gatekeepers are tracking, political work is not valued. And then people write for that and create for that.

I was hoping by opening up and doing political work like this, it helps demonstrate a very urgent need for it—especially in a time when journalism is extremely overtaxed and doesn’t do the same job that art does. I find it a really important part of civic discourse to have art that reflects the times that we’re actually in.

Mike Daisey in ‘The Trump Card.’ Photo by Ursa Waz
Mike Daisey in ‘The Trump Card.’ Photo by Ursa Waz

I read the published version of The Trump Card, and I could go on and on about incredibly good it is.
Thank you.

Besides being laugh-out-loud funny, it explained Trump’s racism and entitled bullying better than any punditry I’ve been reading. And I’ve been obsessed. 

You and me both. You know, pundits are important and necessary in their own sphere, but we tend to get a tremendous amount of one kind. We think it’s multiple kinds because some of it is to the right, some of it is to the left—but it’s all politically driven and politically written, which is not the same as art that has political intentionality or awareness.

I find that the monologues work best if they create empathy between the subject being talked about and the people in the audience so that they can connect. I have different goals than someone writing punditry. That’s why when I try to talk about Trump’s racism or I try to talk about where Trump comes from or where his supporters’ interests come from, there’s an attempt to create a kind of connectivity.

I want to focus on a few things the published version of The Trump Card doesn’t have because they hadn’t happened. First the tax-loss disclosure—after which you posted on Facebook you were having to revise the whole show an hour before performing. How did you manage that?

Well, obviously it doesn’t cause the entire show to end up getting revised. If you’ve made your house well, then it holds up even if there are changes. I decided to build the monologue on the idea that it’s a biography of Donald Trump, and Donald is a 70-year-old man now, and he’s had a very full life. As a consequence, no matter what happens at this point, it’s largely in ways that reflect backward on how we view the rest of his life. It changes the light we see him in, but it does not change the thing itself.

I had already built a section of the show about his losses in Atlantic City. The collapse of his business empire in the early ’90s is a very important part of Trump’s story. And the tax revelation is important to it because while he lost all this money, most of which was not his own, he was able to leverage that to get 20 or more years of paying no taxes, which is extraordinary. It’s something I perversely admire about him.  In the show I say very truly that when I turn off my moral and ethical centers, I have to admire how good he is at manipulating things. Not only as a performer but also as an amoral businessman. I mean, the chutzpah to be a person to take that loss and never pay taxes again. But then on top of that to decide after you’ve not paid taxes for 20 years that you will run for president, and you know people will ask for your tax forms. You know that before you start running!  And you just decide, brazenly, I don’t give a shit.

When the so-called hot mic recording was released, you posted:

 I’m revising the show for tonight. Because proof that Trump speaks about sexually assaulting women in the same way that he has specifically been accused of sexually assaulting women changes the equation for what I consider admissible in the monologue.

There’s a video of a powerful section of the show that you recently added, where you riff on the word allegedly.

If you were to riff on the word admissible in the context of this monologue, what would you say?

That tape is devastating, but the truth is we already had horrible information about Donald Trump doing terrible things to women for years.  It’s been 25 years since a book came out that outlined very clearly that in depositions Ivana, his wife, talked about being raped while she was married to him.  We’ve had information that he’s been terrible to women for decades, much of it in his own voice, on the Howard Stern Show, elsewhere. But what makes this different is that it’s in his own voice but it is not performative. He did not know he was being recorded.  So there’s the feeling of seeing behind the scenes. Of catching the magician before he adds his tricks in his pockets. It’s a scene in which he’s trying to impress a 32-year-old kid. Like a fellow cad. And he’s trying to show off because it feeds his ego. And it’s so naked, the need for approval.

The whole time people have been watching a performance of Donald Trump and when you watch him he says some terrible outlandish things. Supporters when they hear him say, “Oh that Donald Trump.  He’ll say anything,” in a sort of admiring way. People who hate Donald Trump have become almost used to it—like, prepared for what terrible thing will he say next. What thing could we not have imagined that anyone would say will he say? Last night, it was that maybe he won’t concede the election. Maybe for the first time in our history, he’ll just refuse to leave. That performance is very powerful, but what ruptures it—whether you’re for him or against him—is seeing behind the curtain. The reason that tape stuck so quickly and so hard is that it plays directly against his central power. It really is damaging for him.

How a man treats women matters more in the world.

Yes.

A lot was known and knowable before then about Trump’s treatment of women (including, as you pointed out, court papers attesting to the marital rape of Ivana), and with the hot mic tape it has now attached to “who he is.”

You have performed previous monologues about, in your words, “a number of megalomaniacs.” And I’m guessing none of them has had their treatment of  women as such a focus of the performance?

You’re right, it hasn’t been. Oh actually I did a monologue about Bertolt Brecht that’s a lot about his relationship to women, a lot about the negative parts of that as well.

And a couple years ago I did a show called Yes This Man, which was fundamentally about my own life—grappling with my own privilege, tracking the evolution of my life, really grappling with living in a world where we consider 50 percent of the human race less human than the other 50 percent—which I honestly believe is the largest piece of ongoing cognitive dissonance that we engage in. Like, we do a tremendous amount to not think about the fact that systematically on the widest spectrum we do that every day constantly. And I’ve been grappling with that. It’s one of those questions that’s so large you can never spend too much time trying to unpack that in your own life.

Looping back to the political responsibility of theater artists as citizens and storytellers, it’s interesting to me what came into The Trump Card after the hot mic tape. At a time when how a man treats women matters more and more in the world, it is mattering more in the theater art that you have created.

The earliest versions of Trump Card had a section about his treatment of women. I would perform it and people would hear it and recognize it and often be quite shocked by Trump’s behavior—but I didn’t have a single case that made its argument in a way that worked well enough that I would hold it inside the body of the show. So it ended up getting cut. Very regrettably. It was after the show had been performed six or seven times, and it was one of the hardest cuts I made. I feel like my early instincts were right, that it is actually quite central to talking about Trump. It’s just that the culture was a little bit behind.

We’re talking the morning after the third and final debate, in which Trump dropped yet another bombshell about not promising to respect the election result. Given that and all the other volatility in this dramatic character’s irresistible rise and probable fall, what do audiences have to look forward to when The Trump Card reopens at Woolly?

If you saw the show in the early workshops, it’s radically different. If you saw the show in August, when it was last at Woolly, it was about an election still ongoing; it was about the middle of the storm. Now the show is about an election that’s resolving—and I don’t have to pretend the race is tight; I don’t have to pretend it could be anyone who becomes president.

I strongly believe that Trump is finished in terms of actually getting himself elected. But we’re certainly not finished with Donald Trump, and he’s not finished with us and the kind of damage he can do to the infrastructure of our democracy.

What the show is starting to do is talk about the rise and fall of Donald Trump as a way of talking about the toxicity of white male privilege that has dominated our discourse and our lives, and what that means. I find it very horrifying that my gender and racial group is a group that’s supporting this person. I find that very hard to wrap my mind around.  It’s actually a great expression of how much people feel threatened in their lives that they would turn to this person to be their savior.

And so what I’m hoping to bring people is a very artistically mediated experience. We all feel a fatigue and a terror in these last weeks. It’s a shifting terror about what the whole thing means. Art, I feel, is an opportunity to actually come together to try to understand things in an empathic way. I feel this show’s new direction is to really try and strike those notes hard so that there’s the possibility of finding some kind of catharsis from this—so instead of just feeling like we survived this election, feeling like maybe we can try to find some understanding. Like, how did we get to a place where so many people feel so threatened that they ascribe to ideologies that are so destructive? Like, how do we begin to reconcile—because these forces do not go away and they will not go away. The fact that Trump has gathered them means that we’re going to have deal with them, and the Republican Party has to deal with them, which means we all have to. That’s what the show is really working on now.

daisey_billboard_trump_web

The Trump Card plays October 25 to 30, 2016, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company –  641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.