Arthur Miller demanded an American theatre that would “raise the consciousness of people to their most human possibilities.” Indeed, his words have largely been taken to heart, as socially engaged theatre has become one of many recent trends embraced by theatre companies all over the country. Simply getting an audience to attend is no longer the only end goal—the audience must now be asked to viscerally respond to the work that they are observing. These expectations therefore place a greater responsibility on the theatre artist to be upfront about the work they are presenting with regards to truth and artistic interpretation, especially if they are serving as a throughway for information that an audience is expected to take at face value. This past week, I observed both an excellent execution of presenting an aspect of society on stage, and one that ended dreadfully.
The latter is a subject that has been discussed ad nauseum on several very public platforms for several days now, and shows no sign of letting up. I am writing, of course, of monologist Mike Daisey’s The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a piece so controversial that it has broken out of the usual ranks of theatre community gossip and grown into a highlighted topic on major national news outlets. Agony is a one-man piece written and performed by Daisey chronicling his investigation into the Apple company’s questionable manufacturing practices overseas, and features Daisey tearing into the corporation’s lack of concern for worker welfare and human rights. This small show garnered enormous attention when it was featured (in an adapted form) on NPR’s This American Life, after which it became the radio show’s most popular podcast download. Daisey, it seemed, was breaking new bounds artistically and certainly reaped in the results, with engagements immediately contracted with several notable theatre companies to bring his performance around the country.
However, the great height certainly resulted in an even greater fall. Last week, This American Life presented an episode entitled “Retraction,” during which host Ira Glass announced that closer fact-checking on the part of NPR employees revealed several fabrications, exaggerations, and outright inventions within Daisey’s claims about the company and its actions. This launched a media uproar, with journalists and theatre practitioners alike expressing their outrage for audiences being “duped” by Daisey’s false storytelling. After an initial defense of his artistic freedom for interpretation, Daisey yesterday issued an apology, stating:
“[The recent public discussion] made me reflect upon how lucky I have been to call the theater my home all these years, the only place I can imagine this kind of discourse happening. It made me grateful for the great privilege it has been to be able to call myself a storyteller and to have audiences come and listen to what I have to say, to extend their trust to me. I am sorry I was careless with that trust. For this, I would like to apologize to my audiences.”
Additionally, Daisey claimed to have since removed false information from his piece…at least as far as we know.
Whether or not Daisey is truly in the wrong will no doubt continue to be a hot topic for quite some time, and the lasting repercussions have yet to be discovered. Particularly, has Daisey jeopardized the ability of other artists to count on an audience’s trust? Will other creative projects need to publish their sources and fact-checking policies so that the audience knows that it can rely on the information presented? (And, should this have been a practice from the beginning?) Only time will tell, but the media attention of the past week has certainly thrown other theatre companies for a loop.
One such company that also finds its subject matter in the greater American society is Universes, who only just brought their acclaimed original production Ameriville to Boston. Using spoken word, movement, projections, and song, four performers presented a 90-minute exploration of recent human injustice around the United States, covering everything from the lack of governmental support post-Hurricane Katrina and reaching events as recent as Rush Limbaugh’s tirade against Sandra Fluke. Similarly to Daisey, Universes spares no offense, calling out nearly every major religious institution, political party, entertainment artist, and corporation for lacking the integrity to curb the indifference that led to human suffering.
So, why was there no demand for the company members to include a list of works cited in their program? They certainly discussed similar themes and drew on similar events. Both productions demand a change of consciousness. Both hoped to persuade an audience that the current state of affairs will lead to disastrous repercussions. Both used innovative techniques to reach their audience. If The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs had remained on the small scale, Daisey almost certainly would have escaped controversy—indeed, Universes has concluded their tour of Ameriville and have retired the piece from their repertoire, essentially guaranteeing their safety from scrutiny at this point. The fairness of those different results is a topic much to great for one column.
I chose to highlight these two projects because I believe that they accurately illustrate two different outcomes of the same goal. As an audience member, I certainly had strong reactions to both, and as a theatre artist, I was inspired as well. Socially engaged theatre is certainly on its way to becoming a hallmark of 21st-century American theatre, though it’s clear that we still have some kinks to work out. Perhaps the controversy will inspire another work of theatre some day…which, after all, is the point, right?
by James Kennedy
Mike Daisey performing
See a glimpse of Ameriville here.
Listen to This American Life‘s retraction of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs here.