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Truth: The theatrical tragedy of Mike Daisey

Oh, what a mess.

By now you’ve heard about the dust up over the This American Life episode that aired this weekend— “Retraction”— in which the show did the unprecedented. It took back a story it had aired on the grounds that some of the material turned out not to be factual. You may have also seen the story arc for the past few days of Mike Daisey, the monologist whose work is at the center of it all.

Before the show had aired, Daisey took the stance that he stood by his work and that the only problem was that the rules of storytelling in the theatre and journalistic ethics are two different things. Some people accepted this argument. They wonder why we— the media— are so focused on Mr. Daisey and not on the very real and very true problems with technology manufacturing in China. After all, isn’t that what this is supposed to be about?

As someone who has worked on and off in both public media— the domain of This American Life— and the theatre— the community of which Mike Daisey is a part of— my entire life, I can answer that question. This case speaks directly to the heart of what we do as storytellers in every medium, as individuals who grapple between “existential truth” and the facts with every keystroke.

I was waiting to see what my betters in the theatre community had to say about Daisey’s actions and his claimed defense. Would they, on balance, accept the argument that he sacrificed the facts in service of a greater truth? That the ends justifies the means? That, as Daisey puts in his own words from the “Retraction” episode of TAL:

I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.

When I heard this I took umbrage, because it creates a divide between the truth that is discovered in the context of a theatre and the truth we encounter in the rest of the world. Theatrical storytellers certainly have license to play with facts within the context of fiction. They do so in order to strip away some of the specific details of a particular story and come to an understanding of the human experience underneath. When they do they label it fiction. We, the audience, suspend our disbelief long enough to go on the journey with them. To weigh the truth of their opinions and perceptions against our own.

That’s not what happened here. Here the theatrical audience, much like that of This American Life, was never given that option. Alli Houseworth, who was the marketing and communications director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company at the time The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was originally produced at the company explains. As others have noted, Houseworth speaks for herself, and not the company.

He insisted that “This is a work of non-fiction” be printed in playbills. This was to be a work of activist theatre. Staff at Woolly handed out sheets of paper to every audience member that left our theatres, per Mike’s insistence, that urged them to take action on this matter. (I and other staffers would get nasty emails from him the next day if even one audience member slipped by without collecting this call to action).

A little later on in her essay, Houseworth addresses Daisey directly.

My answer to that is that “This is a work of non-fiction” is pretty clear language. And how dare you, Mike, how dare you say to Ira Glass that the context in which the work is presented is different. All this time I thought you respected this industry, respected our audiences the very same, if not more than the audience of This American Life. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement.

Other “documentary theatre” practitioners, as my friend the playwright David J. Loehr points out, are far more transparent with their source material. This honors and engenders the trust that an audience empowers a performer with when they stand up in front of an audience and say “this is what happened to me, this is what I saw”.

The tragedy here for Mike Daisey is that with a storytelling talent as great as his, it is easy to imagine this playing out another way. That if he had resisted the urge to insert himself into the Shenzen narrative we would not be having this national debate and the focus world remain where it rightly belongs: on the human cost of high tech manufacturing.

Instead Mike Daisey, human being, was weak. He took shortcuts. As someone who tells stories for a living I understand the temptation, but every day I am reminded that we owe it to our audience, our subjects, our fellow human beings and failing all that ourselves to not take the easy way out. It may be damn hard to get someone to care about what happens to workers in China when you are hobbled by your own lack of direct experience on the subject, but that’s the work.

In a talk at Georgetown University on Monday and transcribed by Rebecca J. Rosen of The Atlantic, Daisey excavated how he found himself deceiving his audiences. He claims (and I am saddened by that necessary qualifier but we’re left with little choice here) that he did not set out to lie. Instead:

I always visualized the monologue, for good or for bad, I always thought of it as a weapon. I always saw it that way. Balanced. Well built. Intended to try to get into people, to change us.

Yet after the initial media attention on Foxconn because of the tragic suicides of 2010, the story cooled. iPads and iPhones were still rolling off the assembly line, but the lives of their makers were no longer of consequence to Western audiences.

But I’m doing the show, and I’m doing it in silence. I’ve performed it in city after city after city. When I say silence, what I mean is, that furor over Foxconn had died… I would actually go and meet journalists separately from doing interviews just to talk to them, because I was looking for people, I was trying to recruit people in big cities, like the Bay Area, we tried to pick specific cities to take the show to, because I was looking for people. And I actually had a stump speech I would say: There is a Pulitzer waiting for someone at the gates of Foxconn. Go, go.

He felt like the message was falling on deaf ears. He says that when journalists gave dramatic but inaccurate summaries of his actions in China he began to agree with them. To confirm what wasn’t true.

And I would do these interviews, and I would say things, and they would just. be. wrong. And often I would know they were wrong when they came out of my mouth. Always small things because, I mean, I had the fundamentals down. And in the monologue itself where things were more stable, always very, very careful. But it was the hundreds and hundreds of interviews over time made it really difficult.

In time he had told so many stories like this, outside the monologue, that the work in a sense became infected.

Mike Daisey didn’t just fail his audiences, Mike Daisey failed himself.  You can hear it in his voice in “Retraction”. You can follow in real time as he struggles with the scale of what has happened. His reaction evolves over the two interviews in that episode through his indignant Monday morning blog post, right on through the Georgetown speech. This is the curious state of our super-connected, Apple-defined networked reality. The personal is so very public, unavoidably so.

There will be those who never forgive Mike Daisey for what he’s done. Alli Houseworth called for a boycott of Daisey’s work until he apologized to theatrical audiences, and I’m curious to see if she thinks the Georgetown speech qualifies.

Now we can put all this behind us, right?

Unfortunately for Daisey we can’t. This has become a teaching moment for every student of theatre and journalism. David J. Loehr outlines some of the lessons to be learned in his piece. Yet the essential lesson can be unearthed in Mike Daisey’s original monologue.

There’s a line in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, right near the end, where Daisey as prosecutor makes his case for Jobs’ culpability in the evils of the global technology supply chain:

And Steve Jobs—this genius of design and form—blinded himself to the most essential law of design: that the way in which a thing is made is a part of the design itself.

It doesn’t take much to turn that back on the man who uttered those words:

Mike Daisey—this genius of storytelling—blinded himself to the most essential law of storytelling: that the way in which a story is made is a part of the story itself.

This story was originally published on TurnstyleNews.com on March 21, 2012.