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Truth … in Theater?

Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey in "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs"

When Mike Daisey first began developing his theater piece on the Chinese laborers who make the shiny gadgets that we Westerners hold so near and dear, he probably didn’t anticipate that it would lead to an explosive discussion on truth in theater.  But the last few days have seen Daisey’s acclaimed monologue play The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (which I previously lauded on this blog) come under intense scrutiny as a post-broadcast fact check from the staff of the radio program This American Life has led to the revelation that Daisey invented some incidents described in Steve Jobs.

Reactions from theater fans have been mixed.  Some feel betrayed and angry that Daisey would present his play as non-fiction and then include fabrications, even if the larger part of his tale is accurate.  Others are less concerned about the fabrications, but more worried that Apple acolytes may use this fracas as an excuse to dismiss Daisey’s charges about the techno-giant’s bad labor practices entirely.  [Fortunately there have been a number of legitimate journalistic exposes on the situation in China recently, which will hopefully keep the workers' plight from being forgotten.]  Some people, myself included, weren’t particularly surprised to learn that the show included some invention, given that there is a long tradition of memoirists and monologuists fudging facts in an effort (sometimes self-serving, occasionally totally misguided) to reveal greater “truths”.

That said, I was disappointed by the revelation that Mike Daisey made up and misrepresented some of the events in his nonetheless excellent show.  Personally, I have written off so-called documentary makers like Michael Moore for the same reason.  They underestimate their audience, assuming that they have to play fast and loose with the facts in order to effectively make a point.  Then, when their lies and exaggerations are eventually revealed, they prove themselves untrustworthy and make it easy for their detractors to dismiss their entire argument.  I would have preferred that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs include fewer heart-tugging moments if it meant that the show stuck closer to reality.  Or if the program had simply included a disclaimer that dramatic license was being taken in the storytelling.

But this conversation is far from over.  Despite his recent public grilling, the monologuist continues to defend himself on his website.  Theater enthusiasts are animatedly discussing the issues that this incident brings up on message boards and street corners.  And this Thursday, March 22 at 8pm, the Public Theater (the very venue where Daisey’s show just closed) will host a free panel discussion called “Truth in Theater:  A Conversation” featuring the following participants:  writer-director Steven Cosson (of The Civilians), playwright-performers Jessica Blank (The Exonerated) and Taylor Mac (The Young Ladies of…), and critic-reporters Peter Marks (Washington Post) and Jason Zinoman (The New York Times).  Click here for info on the event and call 212-967-7555 for tickets.  It’s sure to be a fascinating evening at the theater.

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