Mike Daisey and why theater is important

Mar 17

I watched the unfolding of the Mike Daisey story yesterday with some amusement and some shaking of my head and some outright complete bemusement.

In case you don’t know what happened with Mike Daisey, you can read the story here (or here, or here, or…). Basically, it comes down to this: Mike Daisey has a show he calls The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he gives a monologue about how he went to China and discovering the conditions in which Chinese factory workers operate under subhuman conditions and never use the products they make.

Daisey

You can read the monologue here. The popularity of his monologue was one of the factors in increasing questions about and investigations into how Chinese factories make electronic devices. And he was interviewed for a number of pieces on the subject — by the New York Times, and by This American Life on PRI. It turned out that Daisey had not interviewed the workers he said he did, he hadn’t experienced the things he said he had, and sometimes he relied on other journalists’ work and sometimes he just made shit up.

Given how many times I’ve seen people quote things Daisey said as gospel truth, this is somewhat problematic.

As Theater

Fuck you, naysayers. You can do anything in theater. Rock on with your monologue, Mike Daisey.

You want to present a theater piece saying the Trilateral Commission is behind everything that happens on the planet? Awesome. Make it thrilling and entertaining and I am there. Want to present a dramatic recreation of how George W. Bush instigated the Iraq War in order to steal the budget surplus and hand out billions to his supporters? Do it do it do it. An eighteen-hour multi-play cycle depicting what life is going to be like after we run out of oil? If you keep down the costs of stage effects and keep speaking roles to a minimum, some theater somewhere will stage that puppy.

If audience members turn out to be getting all of their facts about the world at large from the theater, that’s not the theater’s problem. That’s your problem, for being an ill-informed moron.

As News

Unfortunately, because Daisey presented his monologue as his real-life experiences and he never hedged on that line — he told everyone, “This is what I did” — he set himself up as an authority. And when it turned out that he lied, his reputation — as a truth teller, where it should have, and as a theatrical monologuist, where it should not have — became the story. When in fact the story is our journalists suck.

The biggest problem here is how many reputed journalists took Daisey’s stories at face value without apparently doing their own legwork. Reporters said, “Hey, I’ve stood outside of Foxconn and never run into workers saying crap like this…oh well, guess I just talked to the wrong workers. He must be right!”

According to Bloomberg, the reporter for Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, who discovered that yeah, Daisey overstepped (or outright lied) on a number of issues found the translator Daisey worked with by typing “Cathy translator Shenzhen” into Google. Which no one else had done. There’s some real investigative journalism right there, people.

I could go off on a rant about this whole topic (Quick! Name all the electronics manufacturers who have revealed not only their supply chain but specifically what they’re doing to improve conditions! Okay, I’ll make it easier! You only have to name more than one!) but I won’t. I’ve enjoyed making fun of Daisey over the past day only because he got so much attention for being an authority on a subject he wasn’t.

But his theatrical monologue? He isn’t the evening news, people. We don’t want to hear endless stories of “Well, I heard…” or “I read in a paper…” or “You know what it might be?” No, we want to hear what people have done. And that is how Daisey presented it.

Jason Grote, a playwright whose work I’ve never seen but whose Twitter feed I enjoy (and whose blog I enjoyed, before he discontinued it), had four really cogent tweets on the subject yesterday:

Grote theater

There are different levels to truth crimes:

Grote cheney

And most especially, let’s keep a little perspective:

Grote trayvon

In case you don’t know who Trayvon Martin is, you can read about his death (and the racism that clearly caused it and lets his murderer go free) here.

I’m still of two minds. Anything that gets people thinking and connects with them emotionally (as Daisey clearly did, and as 97% of our entertainment so clearly doesn’t) is awesome. People clearly want what he said to be the gospel truth.

A good question is: WHY?