Lies, Damned Lies, and Theatre
“Some of you are hoping tonight that the rarest of things will happen: that someone is actually going to tell the truth.That’s rare. That’s hen’s teeth.
You should know better.
And so should I. Because that’s what I’m looking for—every time I come back to this place, and all the places like it. Looking for the truth: that rare, random descent, like a feather across the back of your hand.”
– Mike Daisey, from How Theater Failed America
“I also find any assertion that any piece of art (theatre ) is “true” or “completely factual” to be suspect. As soon as we call something theatre (prefixes such as “docu” or “agi-prop” are simply codifiers for marketing) we are moving into the realm of artifice and lies.”
“Do you think these people are mentally ill? Do you think it is possible that they are making all this up?”
– Mike Daisey’s translator Cathy, wondering about the accuracy of FoxConn workers’ claims
This past weekend I finally got to see the Toronto production (and adaptation) of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, produced by Outside the March in association with Theatre Passe Muraille. The history of Daisey’s work is by now infamous: a worshiper at the cult of Mac, he got curious about how Apple products are actually made, went to China, wrote a play about his experience, punched up some details and presented it as a true account, did a lot of media, went on a journalistic radio program claiming it was the truth, and then was publicly humiliated when his fabrications were exposed.
Daisey has chosen to release his play into the wild under a Creative Commons license, so that anybody who wanted to could use it as a tool to proselytize against the evils of Apple. Daisey hadn’t been working from a script, exactly – each performance he tells his story afresh – so he developed a script from transcripts of the actual performances. He encourages people to make any adaptations they see fit; an invitation that feels a little different in the light of the scandal. The Outside the March production curated by Mitchell Cushman and David Ferry, properly titled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (and the Repudiation and Redemption of Mike Daisey), uses much of the text of Daisey’s play, but supplements it with information about the scandal.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (or TATES, which is Daisey’s short-form for it) talks a lot about the metaphors people use to understand the world around them, be that the world of technology and computers or corporate structure. The Outside the March production itself has a dominant metaphor; one that relates the production to the scandal, and even to Apple’s manufacturing policies. To fully understand it, we need to talk a bit about the scandal.
Lies and fabrications are a theatre artist’s stock in trade. The thing that made people (mostly journalists – there’s still considerable disagreement in the theatre community) so upset about Daisey’s work is not that he embellished and made things ups, it’s that he claimed that this partially made-up play was the truth, the complete truth, and nothing but the truth. It claimed to be one thing, but was really something different.
Daisey first got really interested in Apple’s manufacturing process when he saw some photos that had been taken inside a plant where iPhones are made and realized he hadn’t ever thought about the fact that, well, iPhones are made. While Apple didn’t (at this point) exactly claim something that wasn’t true, it had blinded him with their science: by never talking about how their products are made, they allowed Daisey (and the rest of us) to not think about it. They didn’t actually lie, they just weren’t transparent about their practices.
Which leads me to the dominant metaphor of the Over the March Production: transparency. Despite Ferry’s convictions that truth is not really the province of theatre (and if you’re interested in his further thoughts, you really should read the comment section under this article), his production is very transparent about the inadequacies of Daisey’s script as a record of truth (this is probably as good a place to say this as any: it fails as a record of truth, but in my view it’s successful as a piece of theatre). He starts with a discussion of the scandal and an invitation to the audience to think about the nature of the relationship between truth and theatre, and interrupts the progress of Daisey’s script when Cushman hands him cue-cards with commentary on the controversy. There are definitely moments in the production that blur the line between Ferry and Daisey, but because we’re already so attuned to the difference between fact and non-fact, this serves to problematize the transparency of the production instead of occluding it altogether. This dominant metaphor is made physical in subtle ways on stage itself, and even in this fantastic image they’re using for publicity.
For what it’s worth, Daisey has responded to the controversy, on his own blog, and his reflections are definitely worth reading.
While the initial run of this production is over, it sounds like they’ll be scheduling more performances in the future (the venue has changed for each performance). It’s certainly worth checking out, if you get another chance.
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