Mike Daisey has been the subject of public scrutiny over the past week after it was revealed that details of his one-man hit show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, were fabricated/inaccurate. Brought to light after a broadcast on This American Life (which was recently retracted), Daisey’s work has been both portrayed as a work of artistry/storytelling and complete lies. So which is it, and what does it mean for investigative theatre?
By Kimberly Lew (Playwright/Blogger)
I am only one of many people addressing the recent “scandal” surrounding Mike Daisey, writer and star of the one-man show/monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Some are outraged by the revelation that many details of his work detailing the labor conditions in China that produce Apple products were fabricated/inaccurate, while others are quick to rush to Daisey’s defense, claiming that he was merely exercising artistic license. In fact, tonight there will be a panel addressing this at The Public, where Agony/Ecstasy recently finished its run. Personally, I feel no need to feel offended or affronted, and I don’t really believe anyone else should have the right to, with the exception of the journalists and industry professionals to whom he directly embellished to, particularly when faced with fact-checking questions. Still, I am disappointed to hear that Daisey is using the idea of “storytelling” to justify the misleading presentation of Agony/Ecstasy, and I think it pinpoints a problem that goes far beyond just some distorted details for the sake of entertainment.
It’s almost inevitable to compare Daisey with writer James Frey, who was blasted by Oprah years ago when it was revealed his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, was more fiction than fact. Frey’s defense in the matter was claiming that the genre of memoir is never fully factual, so his fictionalized autobiography was merely a product of good (thought not accurate) storytelling. The difference between Frey and Daisey, however, is that the former was representing himself, while the second was trying to represent a very real issue and a very real company.
Had The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs remained a work of the stage, there would perhaps be less of a responsibility to verify all the facts, though even an author’s note or footnote in the Playbill giving some indication of how the narrative was put together would have been a show of due diligence (and, in fact, declaring "This is a work of non-fiction" in promotional materials was misleading to say the least). But I think the most damning evidence of Daisey’s true intentions with the piece came directly from his mouth in the This American Life retraction podcast, when Ira Glass asked whether Daisey’s bigger fear when TAL was fact-checking his piece was that they would kill the story or that there would be two different versions of his story (the stage version and the journalistic version). Daisey admitted, “the latter.”
This response demonstrates Daisey’s conscious choice to present his work as truth, and with his attachment to news outlets concerning Apple and Steve Jobs, it is not unfair for people to assume that his work has some semblance of reporting.
What I believe is most problematic and frustrating about the debate surrounding this controversy is that now the material is so embroiled in reliability of the narrative that it overshadows the message at the show’s very core. Now instead of being a powerful work that sheds light on grueling labor conditions and the moral dilemma of the technology we love, it’s going to be a work noted for its controversy and questionable storytelling practices.
In an age of click-activism where knowledge is being transmitted like with the Kony 2012 controversy, we have come to question if it’s merely enough to spread ideas and call attention to issues, rather than to accurately represent them. While it’s a valid (though potentially dangerous) way of thinking, the onus is then transferred to the audience/viewer/information-absorber to seek out his/her own truth and do additional research before enacting on the message. While we should all do our own due diligence when it comes to information that affects our worldview (and the worldview of others), disregarding the facts in favor of creating an emotional response cannot hide completely behind “artistic license.” After all, when the faults are found in the fabric of the piece and people’s emotional reactions are to feel betrayed, you can’t claim that that response isn’t just as valid as the one you created from manipulated truths. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, and in the end, not admitting your own manipulation of the truth from the outset does your own work a disservice.
KIMBERLY LEW is a playwright with two published one-act plays for high schools, as well as full-length Searching for Candi (co-written with Gabriella Miyares), which had its first production at Mt. Holyoke college. Her latest play, Other People's Children, was recently featured as a part of The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective's new works reading series. She also created/manages the Emerging Musical Theatre blog. www.kimberlylew.com
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