Theater Spotlight: What Mike Daisey Thinks of You

Mike Daisey in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Photo credit: Stan Barouh

Mike Daisey, the famous-turned-infamous creator and star of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, has returned to Woolly Mammoth with his controversial production. The show – a monologue about all things Apple, including geekery, gadgets, and Chinese factories – inspired a national inquiry into Apple’s manufacturing process. It also caused a public outcry as his “work of nonfiction” was later revealed to be partly fiction.

I didn’t want to bore you with the ugly details, because you’ve heard them already from former staffers at Woolly Mammoth, from NPR’s This American Life (TAL), and from Daisey himself.

Instead, I headed over to Woolly Mammoth last week to see the show for a second time. Then I spoke with Mr. Daisey about coming back to our fair city and what he thinks of our very favorite thing: us.

First, the show:

Daisey has changed things up. The new version omits his fictionalized accounts and replaces them with humorous quips and discussions centered mostly around truth and storytelling.

Daisey remains his hilarious former self – a lovable, angry mix of Lewis Black and Eric Stonestreet; but no matter how funny or impassioned his stories, no matter how dynamic his performance, it’s hard not to wonder at first if you’re being hoodwinked every time he says something interesting.

Fortunately this time around, many of Daisey’s allegations about the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen have been scrutinized; and he cites The New York Times and NPR reports on the subject to back up his claims. Unfortunately though, the show now lacks its most shocking stories, which are partly what made the original so powerful.

Still, by the middle of the performance I found myself sitting back, a bit more trusting, admittedly sweet-talked by the man who fooled us all. And when he called Steve Jobs a “visionary asshole,” I jotted down the possible comparison to Daisey and then forgot about it, won over by his charisma.

Then an odd moment happened. Daisey began discussing whether or not he’s a trustworthy narrator. “You don’t have to listen to me,” he says. “You never did.”

I thought, “Really, my visionary friend?” As someone who writes on arts and activism, I blogged about the information in his show (twice) after seeing it. His own show discusses how passionately people reacted to the original version. And the controversy with This American Life was actually worsened by how much attention he got and how hard we all listened.

So when I talked with Mr. Daisey the next day, his opinions of his fans, and once-fans, weighed on my mind. We spoke about regaining an audience’s trust and what to say to the haters; and in the end I have to admit I agree with most of his assessment of… well… us:

JCM: What’s it like performing in DC again?

Daisey: Truth is, people don’t talk about this, but it’s all the same. Fundamentally and demographically speaking, when the lights come up on the stage, it’s oddly universal. Within the room, there are some differences. The first night was a pay-what-you-can preview, and because of the nature of that, the vast majority had never seen the show before. That room was wildly different from last night’s room, where a large chunk were critics. It changes the tenor of the room immensely if a lot of people have seen the work before.

JCM: Do you miss the six minutes you’ve cut? Were they necessary in the first place?

Daisey: Oh, everything was always necessary. It wouldn’t have been in the show if it wasn’t necessary for the function of the show before. But the shows react to the environment they’re in. Following the TAL retraction, following my own apologies, I really had an obligation to make the show work within a set of standards that people felt they could watch and feel comfortable with. I would argue that the new sections are utterly necessary. I do think the new sections are stronger. But I’m not sure they’re stronger for the reasons a conventional journalist might say. They might say, “It’s stronger because it’s true.” But as an artwork, kind of separate from journalistic concerns, I’m happy.

JCM: There was a moment in the show when you said, “You don’t have to listen to me – you never did.” It made me wonder. Are you mad at us?

Daisey: Do you want the truth?

(NOTE TO DAISEY: In the future, just assume the answer to this question is always yes. That will save you a ton of hassle, I promise!)

JCM: Yes.

Daisey: That line you’re talking about, right before that, there was a loud noise from backstage because the stagehand did not close the door to the left hallway. And the loud noise startled me. And that’s why the emotional balance felt off. I was worried I had struck that too hard, because I was startled.

But the short answer is no, I’m not “angry” with people. Not at all – I’m doing the job of a monologuist. I’m putting out different ideas. I’m using a rhetorical tool.

JCM: One of the questions people have shared with me is why someone should spend money on your shows if they’re going to question you the whole time. Do you have a strategy for regaining audiences’ trust?

Daisey: I do have a strategy. The strategy is that I have no strategy. People are free. If they’re not comfortable and they don’t want to come, they shouldn’t come. Theater’s not an obligation; it’s a ritual that we experience together. I hope they’ll come back, but if certain people don’t feel comfortable, they shouldn’t come. It’s not my job to chase them. I’m not a carnival barker. I’m going to keep doing my work. If they don’t want to participate, they don’t need to feel tortured.

JCM: What about the haters? Is there anything left you’d say to them if you could?

Daisey: No. I mean, let’s be clear. I don’t know why we’re going to assume this, but I assume they’ve read everything I’ve written, my apologies at different points – I have what a lot of people think of as my ultimate apology, which came out six days after the TAL episode. There’s a certain point where words get hollow.

It’s a little revolutionary, because of the nature of the theater. I’m standing, and remaining, and reforming the work that’s been accused of doing so much damage. I’m presenting it openly and honestly for people to criticize or participate in however they wish. I don’t know that they’re going to get that experience from any other public figure.

So there isn’t more apology on top of apology. They’re all still very much meant. If they need an apology, they could re-read the one that exists now if they want to. It’s still valid.

I hate giving caveats, but the caveat here is that this is not an excuse in any way: The apologies have been offered, and the actions have been taken. If people don’t want to accept it, there’s a reason they don’t want to accept the apology. What they really want is for me to follow their preferred narrative arc, and their preferred narrative arc is that I die. They would never say it that way, because they would say that’s way too dramatic. They would say, “No, I don’t want him to die. I just never, ever want to hear of him again.” I would submit that’s actually the same thing.

What’s interesting is that it’s vocal, but it’s not as deep as it feels. I don’t have rocks thrown at me in the street. I’m fine. And the reason I’m fine is that I think I’m doing good work.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs performs now through July 1 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, located at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archive/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-393-3939.

Joanna moved to DC in 2010 knowing she’d love it, and as usual she was right. She enjoys eating fried things, drinking scotch and smoking cigars, and makes up for the damage done by snacking on organic oats and barley and walking long distances to wherever with her dog Henry. Joanna now lives with her husband and said dog in Los Angeles, and they all miss DC terribly. Follow her on Twitter or contact her at joannacastlemiller.com.

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5 thoughts on “Theater Spotlight: What Mike Daisey Thinks of You

  1. Sure.. he omitted the fabrications was called out on, but what about the rest of his monologue that attempts to emotionally manipulate the audience and has no concern with truth. EVERY major electronics manufacturer uses cheap Chinese labor/Foxconn, and while this is briefly (astoundingly so) addressed in the show, he has hoped on the tailcoat of Apple’s success to garner media attention. Well Mr. Daisey, you may be a talented story teller, but you still a liar.

  2. Thomas Jane, since you’ve seen the show you already know a big part of it comes from him having been a fan of Apple products and his own worry about what using those products says about approving those working conditions. This isn’t just someone hopping on the “tailcoat” or coattails of Apple’s fame to get attention. And if other companies use the same factories and cheap labor, does that make it any less true that Apple does? They all deserve criticism for it. Just because “everyone else does it too” doesn’t mean Apple or any of them should get a free pass.

  3. Apple released the commercial ’1984′ to criticize the computer industry for being so conformist and controlling, specifically as an attack against IBM and MicroSoft.

    After 20 years, Apple is now one of the biggest tech bullies, most restrictive ‘Big Brother’ controlled OS on the market, and the least friendly open developer platform. I would argue Steve Jobs became what he feared most, if not one the bigger hypocrites of our time.

    I find that funny, and try to remind Apple fans when I can.

  4. And I assure you, our delight and entertainment is at the exact same level as it was the very first time we heard a free software believer share their measured and restrained opinion of Apple.

  5. He’s a fraud who has made thousands making up stories about a beloved American success story. Why would anyone believe anything he has to say? Why support him in his BS?