Putting a Face on Theatre
I’ve been debating as to whether or not to write this blog post. As many of you know last Friday a theatrical bombshell hit: This American Life issued a retraction (read, hear) regarding their January episode that featured Mike Daisey performing an excerpt from his monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. After further investigation TAL host Ira Glass uncovered that Daisey’s monologue included fabrications, that some of the emotional stories and claims he made about the Chinese factory workers who labor in harsh conditions to create Apple products were in fact not witnessed by Daisey, but rather lifted from stories he had heard or read.
Considering that Daisey billed the show as a “work of non-fiction” and that he ventured off stage into the news media circuit as an expert and witness to these unseemly working conditions, he was believed. His word, his stories relating what he claimed to have seen became evidence in the court of public opinion.
Now, Mike Daisey’s work has been on my radar for some time. You see, social justice theatre is why I got involved in theatre in the first place. Because I believe in the power of creating empathy for others, in looking at the plight of our fellow human beings and seeing ourselves, in the ability of fiction to move an audience to rethink their beliefs and to act.
So I was pleased to see Daisey’s monologue garner the success it did. Pleased to see him on television as he continued to highlight a cause he believed in. Pleased to see that yes, theatre can speak to our times and become part of the national discourse.
And I was disappointed to learn the truth.
Disappointed to learn that what he had told us, not just on stage, but through our television screens as an expert, was riddled with fabrications, embellishments and that he attempted to cover up his lies with more lies.
But wait—it was theatre, right?
Yes. It was politicized theatre, activist theatre, documentary theatre. However, most importantly, it was billed as “a work of non-fiction.” So the theatrical part was the performance, but the content was claimed to be non-fiction. And while it’s certainly true that memoirists often remember their life events through their own lenses, we can at least be sure that the events they are describing indeed happened.
There are those who feel betrayed, and rightfully so as Alli Houseworth explains that Daisey lied directly to her and others who were part of the production team that supported his show at Woolly Mammoth. Then there are those, like Polly Carl, who are using this revelation to examine theatre’s soul on a larger scale.
My disappointment stems from what I can only articulate as Daisey’s lack of faith in our art form. His lack of faith in audiences. That he didn’t believe that fiction could still move people to think, to act, to reconsider their assumptions and beliefs. What about The Jungle, The Crucible, Ruined?
I understand his desire to try and put as big a spotlight on an issue he cares about. But good intentions don’t make up for his intentional decision to bill his work as non-fiction when it clearly is a mixture of fact and inspired fiction.
Because in the end he’s broken trust with audiences, with his collaborators and with the very people he was purportedly giving voice to. He’s undermined his cause by becoming an unreliable witness, to creating suspicion for others who are indeed reporting faithfully on conditions in Foxconn factories and giving those who were looking for an excuse to disregard his message a reason to ignore the issue.
We’ll probably never know exactly why Daisey chose this route, to claim his monologue was non-fiction, to take those claims off stage and into our national discourse via new media. His intentions may have been good, but in the end that’s not always enough.
I can’t help but think of Icarus. Daisey’s monologue was a mixture of truth, emotional truth and fabrications. And the closer he got to the spotlight his cause so deserves and needs, the more intense the examination and scrutiny his claims were put to. In the end the fabrications melted away and the lies came crashing down.