Arts Desk

Mike Daisey Returns to the Scene of His Heinous Crime (Now With 60 Percent More Contrition!)

Wait, wait, I'm not done apologizing yet! (Stan Bough/Woolly Mammoth)

For me, the most interesting exchange in Mike Daisey’s hourlong public Q&A at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company last night was the one I've transcribed below. I've indicated where I couldn't decipher a word on my recording.

QUESTION: I think you are a great fabricator, in the best sense of the word and in the worst sense. I can’t believe that this is not a pattern for you that started long before this particular show. I am uncomfortable with the way your apology has evolved. It sounds like a great P.R. job. I feel like this is the Rebirth Tour, not the Self-Flagellation Tour. I don’t think I would trust you again. And I’m sorry because I will miss being exposed to your talent, but I’m not going to be buying a ticket to another show of yours. I don’t understand how the “immutable truth” that you gentlemen [meaning Daisey and the two Woolly executives who introduced him and moderated the event, Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz and Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann] were talking about—why it needs embellishment. How you lose track. It just seemed like it was lie upon lie upon lie, not a mistake. And I just don’t understand why it was necessary. How can this show truly be the first time you have ever fabricated things, or misled an audience, in what seems to be a style?

DAISEY: I don’t think, uh… I don’t think I ever had cause to, in the way this one [inaudible] me to it. But I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I think I have a lot of work to do, from here out, where I'm going to be, in my life. And I’m sorry that this seems too slick for you. I’m sorry. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m not capable of not being slick. Maybe my interactions with people are built and patterned after working with crowds for so long. Maybe I relate to crowds better than I do to individuals, because I’ve spent a lot of time in front of them. I’m not actually capable of taking down my boundaries any further. And either that means I’m very, very open right now or I’m really, really armored. Frankly, after the weeks I’ve had I don’t fucking know the difference.

Finally, this sounds like the po-faced, hat-in-hand “I’ve let you all down” political apology so familiar to us from elected officials and celebrities. Daisey is neither. He’s a brilliant performer. Last night, he spoke very openly about what the psychological cost of that might be, and not in a way that asked anyone to pity him.

At Georgetown University eight nights earlier, he'd introduced the defense that he'd failed to realize that the many, many interviews he'd given about about Apple's manufacturing practices during his various runs of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs around the country were themselves performances, and that at least one of his lies—that he'd personally met with workers who'd been poisoned by the toxic screen cleaner N-Hexane—slipped into the show after he'd first said it in an interview.

I am sympathetic to this line of argument. I'm not defending lying, but I do believe that any time you’re talking to someone who isn’t a close intimate of yours, it’s a performance, in the sense that you present yourself in a calculated way. If you're addressing a roomful of strangers—whether they’re wide-eyed theatergoers who believe everything they’re told without doing any further reading or research, or whether they’re knives-out journalists who abruptly decided you deserved their attention once you started talking about iPhones, as opposed to the trivial subjects your prior shows have explored, like terrorism and global finance—yes, Mike Daisey is performing, as he has his entire adult life.

Last night’s performance was apparently more like what some in the audience were looking for. Daisey skipped the improvised hourlong rationalization he’d delivered at Georgetown last week earlier and simply took questions.

Maybe I was so drawn to the woman who asked the question I’ve quoted above because I’d wondered if anyone like her existed.

You know what kinds of apologies “evolve?” The sincere kind. The kind wherein the sinner comes to understand that he has hurt people.  Daisey has been making monologues the way he made this one for 15 years. Surely he’s been thinking about how stories work for longer than that. When the world lines up to tell him that the no-notes, no-scripts methods by which he has created his entire career are inadequate, you think maybe it might take him more than a day or two to process that?

Now she’s wondering about everything Daisey has ever told her. Whether he took the same liberties with his prior monologues as he did with this one. Nobody asked him this last night, but I am certain that he did.

I do not care.

Sorry, that sounds glib. I mean to say: I care about literal, factual, accuracy in journalism, which—all together now—is not what Mike Daisey does or ever did. I care about whether or not the people who make the things I buy are being mistreated. I care about whether Apple is actually trying to stop any more workers from being killed in explosions at iPad factories, or just trying to get reporters to stop asking questions about it.

But if Daisey resequenced some events or made up some dialogue in the performance of The Last Cargo Cult that I saw two years ago? That's another monologue about Daisey traveling to an exotic place—one more mysterious to audiences than Shenzhen, China, probably—and witnessing remarkable things. It recounts Daisey's February 2009 visit to Tanna, an island in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. I haven't checked, but I would bet $100 that American Public Media's Marketplace does not have a reporter based there.

My assumption is Daisey used what he's been calling "the tools of theater" to make his account of what he witnessed on Tanna a more compelling story. If he did, I'm OK with it.

What does that say about me? Perhaps I have a lot of work to do, in my life.

Daisey said last night that as he prepared to perform The Agony and the Ecstasy again this weekend—and to bring it back to Woolly, the place of its birth, for a full run beginning July 17—he’d removed all of the contested material, which amounted to six minutes of a two-hour show. That would mean that the former Foxconn employee with the ruined hand who plays with Daisey's iPad and pronounces it "a kind of magic," and the current Foxconn employee who tells Daisey she's 13 years old, are out.

My question was the last of the evening, and it was straightforward. I asked Daisey why he identified his translator by her real name in the show. (It’s Li Guiften, but she goes by Cathy Lee when she works with westerners. Daisey refers to her throughout his monologue as Cathy.) She didn’t want to be in the show, he’s lately told us, and she was not comfortable being complicit in Daisey’s false presentation of himself at Chinese factories as an American businessman. For all his exaggerations and inventions, Daisey used her real name, when I think even his most aggrieved critics would allow that he'd have had very sound reasons to give her a pseudonym. But he didn’t. I asked him why.

"I just couldn’t bring myself to change it," he said. "It seemed so right to use her name. That’s not a satisfying answer. I thought about changing it. I mean, if you wanted to get psychological, you could say perhaps I wanted someone…I don’t know. I don’t know tonight. But that was the reason: It didn’t seem right to change it, so I didn't."

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  • RBett

    There was never anything wrong with his performance, and I don't know why he changed it. Theater is theater, and marketing is marketing and it's that we were sold (off stage) in the marketing that the material on stage was factual that's upsetting to everyone.

  • JSA

    I am disappointed with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre's decision to stick by Mike Daisey and allow him to return to their stage for a return engagement of a show in which he previously conned their patrons. I'm all for artistic freedom, and the line between truth and art can be a nebulous one. Daisey's show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, however, was presented as both and turned out to only be the latter.

    According to Alli Houseworth, Woolly's former chief of marketing and communications, Daisey himself insisted that the words "This is a work of non-fiction" be printed in the program for the show. The show was presented as being purely factual. The show was advertised as being factual. Patrons paid money to hear a factual show based on Daisey's experiences and observations. Instead, Daisey made things up.

    Woolly's artistic director said "We think they were mistakes of overzealousness to get his message out. I think he was very incensed by what he saw in China." A pathetic copout. If Daisey was incensed by what Daisey saw in China, he should have presented the things he saw in China that made him incensed instead of presenting falsehoods.

    Controversy may sell tickets, but once one sells out one's integrity, it's gone. For Daisey and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

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