Like anyone needs to read another person’s opinion of this, I know.
Lots and lots and lots of people have been talking about the whole This American Life retraction of Mike Daisey’s story, which itself had been excerpted from his solo show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” I am squarely in the camp of folks who find Daisey and his schtick indefensibly smug and lame and his response to his exposure (and the New York Public Theater’s response) to have revealed him (and the American theater) in all his (and its) repellent hypocrisy.
Of course, the real point of all of this is to not lose sight of the working conditions in China. But something about Daisey sticks in my craw. Not as a betrayed TAL listener. But as an artist who has worked in the theater, and specifically in political theater, and research-based theater.
First, let me share that when I heard the original show in January, I was put off by Daisey’s tone. His delivery so profoundly self-satisfied and overwrought, blatantly manipulative. So aware of the “power” of his most compelling “stories” (which were all fabrications). Frankly, when the retraction came out, I wasn’t even surprised about his lies–if anything, I felt embarrassed that the staff of TAL had ever found him compelling and trustworthy.
I have spent over a decade working with solo performers (some of the best!), creating art and live performance and theater that is political and research-based and community-based and news-based; I tend to believe that when a story is truly compelling, you don’t have to cram it down your viewer’s throat–you can present it, and give the viewer room for his or her own experience with the material.
In 2008, I was working on a show called CLEAN which was all about the toxicity of high tech manufacturing in Silicon Valley–the gap between our fantasy of what technology can do for us, and the harsh realities of the costs of that technology. I used two stories ripped from the headlines–of Hans Reiser, a Linux developer who was then in trial for the murder of his ex-wife; and of Fernando Jimenez Gonzalez, a worker at a Redwood City PC board manufacturer, who was found drowned in a vat of sulfiric acid (by his father, who also worked at this factory).
I took these two stories and put them side by side; and of course, I took liberties. For Gonzalez’ story, I imagined his fall into death, and slowed it down, and created a fantasia of the memories he would be encountering of his short life as he was dying. It was, dare I say, a poetic interpretation. For Hans, I used found text from interviews and online chat rooms, but the key line in one of his monologues was entirely inserted from one conversation I had years earlier. I know all about doing deep research and using that to inspire theatrical work.
But I did not insert myself into the story. In fact, when my friend Krissy Clark, a reporter for Public Radio, was inspired by CLEAN to do a story on Jimenez Gonzalez, they cut me out of the story, because the story was not about me.
And this is why I believe Daisey must be held accountable for his fabrications–because of how he presents himself as a storyteller in this piece. His whole performance persona is a self-aggrandizing schtick based on saying “I was there, I saw it, I was a witness and as a witness, I had a real emotional experience and as such, I have a certain moral authority.”
He (and sadly, TAL, in the original story) framed him as a performer who did what even journalists don’t or can’t do–and in doing this, in going to China, in going to these factories, in interviewing these workers, was able to, through the magic of his persona, of his personality, of his daring, uncover things that no one else can. So brave! So aggressive! So dauntless!
But of course that isn’t how the real world works. You don’t show up in the biggest industrializing nation in the history of the world in a Hawaiian shirt and get the whole story presented to you in 10 days. The real story of Apple and manufacturing gets pulled together by hundreds of journalists, workers, watchdog organizations, activists, translators, policy-makers; it gets told over weeks, months, years, in pieces.
You can also take all this work and research, and distill it into a theatrical production. But when self-canonization is central to the work, that’s when the integrity fails. That’s where it stops for me.
So when Daisey makes excuses for himself that what he did was not wrong because it’s theater, when he refuses to admit that he lied and instead calls it “unpacking the complexity,” I have to call a big fat bullshit on that. Mostly because if we demanded higher standards for our theater, we would do better than giving the stage to a self-aggrandizing fantasist and narcissist with no real insight. We could do better than the big man with the big heart doing big Forrest Gump melodrama (I was there for the moon landing!) and making up facts where truly sophisticated synthesis could have been demanded.
If you want a compelling piece of journalism on this, might I recommend Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang.