Further Thoughts on the Mike Daisey Episode

Dear Friends,

When you last heard from us, the transcripts from the retraction episode of This American Life had not been published, and we had yet to hear the conversation between Ira Glass and Mike Daisey about fabrications in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. We made a statement supporting Mike, that the performances of our summer remount of the show were going ahead as planned, and that Mike’s piece had—and continued to—spark conversation and dialogue around a topic of great importance.  Many of you have sent us emails, called us, commented on our blog and through social media. Some of you have praised us, and others have expressed anger and disappointment.  We value all your responses.

Our initial statement was not our final word on the matter, rather, the beginning of a series of conversations about truth, about art, about activism, and about this particular decision.

Having heard the episode now, we can all admit to feeling discomfort, anger, pity, disappointment, and a whole host of complex emotions. We acknowledge, as Mike does, that nothing excuses his deception of Ira Glass and This American Life. There were so many moments when Mike could have clarified the difference between things he actually witnessed in China, things he only heard in China, and the storytelling inventions he deployed to illustrate each.  He could have accurately labeled his work from the outset—to his producing partners in the theatre and on the radio—as something other than a work of non-fiction.  He didn’t, and many who saw the piece in the theatre or heard it on the radio felt betrayed.

We have spent every minute of the last several days confronting this issue, and trying to best articulate—for ourselves and you—why we have made the decision to go ahead with our scheduled performances of the show.

**

We believe in the essential truth of Mike’s storytelling. Mike’s performances fuse fact, memoir, and polemics with healthy doses of bombast and, for comic effect, exaggeration in order to passionately deliver an urgent message.  But his account of working conditions in China is not made up out of thin air.  He went there.  He talked to people and visited factories when few other Americans were doing so.  All of the specific conditions he includes in his show have been corroborated by The New York Times and others—indeed, in the very same retraction episode where he was condemned.

We believe in the power and impact of Mike’s work as a theatrical piece. When Mike Daisey made his trip to China, the US was barely focused on the appalling conditions for Chinese workers.  We blithely ignored the fact that Apple and many other companies were exporting working conditions that no American would tolerate to millions of people worldwide.  The best art opens our eyes and makes us want to take action, and that is what Steve Jobs accomplished.  Letters were written, stories reported, and Apple actually committed to revealing a list of its suppliers and investigating its supply chains.  The problem was big, and Mike’s show had a significant impact on the way it is now being addressed.

We believe in conversation, discussion, and lively debate. Woolly deeply values active dialogue around vital socio-political topics.  After the run of Steve Jobs at Woolly, audiences left the theatre wanting to learn more, ask more questions, and argue.  The death of Steve Jobs (after the Woolly run) changed the show and added new layers of complication.  Now this episode on This American Life has revealed important new questions about art and artifice and truth that Woolly is excited and committed to explore further.  Mike’s shows are not scripted; they are living things that evolve as they interact with audiences and events.  We believe the brief run at Woolly this summer will be an important chapter, perhaps the most important chapter, in the evolution of this show and the relationship between the show and the world around us.

We believe there is a difference between art and journalism. We don’t think that the show should have aired on This American Life, and we believe it should have been represented accurately in the theatre.  But journalism seeks to be as objective as possible, while theatre and storytelling are more subjective, and they both have an important role to play.  Journalism helps us know what we’re looking at, but theatre, and art in general, helps us know where to look.  The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs did that, and this is something we stand behind.

**

For Woolly’s part, we want to specifically apologize for including the line “a work of non-fiction” in our playbill.  In hindsight, we wish we had interrogated Mike on this point.  (In a recent radio interview, we said this line was not included in our playbill, and we were mistaken—a case of bad fact-checking on our own part.)

By his own admission, Mike stepped over some inappropriate boundaries in his zealousness to get his point across in Steve Jobs.  We are confident that he will learn important lessons, as we have, from the scandal surrounding this show.  We’ve already seen evidence in Mike’s appearance at Georgetown University on Monday, during which he publicly began the process of identifying the choices he made with Steve Jobs, good and bad, with scrupulous honesty.

We have a long-standing history with Mike, and believe he is an artist of passionate commitment and bravery who invests himself in each new piece with a level of purpose and determination that are rare.  Moreover, we are committed to our artists, without whom Woolly would not and could not be what it is today. We believe Mike understands the impact of what he has done, and has, and will continue to, apologize.  To make mistakes is human.  But as a member of our artistic community, we will not abandon him in tough times.

If you have written to us, thank you. We will be responding personally in the next day. If you would like to email us, please do. We would love to talk more deeply about any of this.  In the spirit of further dialogue, we will be hosting a discussion at the theatre on Tuesday, March 27, at 7pm. This discussion will be free and open to the public.  We encourage reservations with our Box Office (202-393-3939). It will be hosted by the two of us, and allow us to engage with you in a nuanced way about a complicated subject. We’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts in person.

Yours,

Howard Shalwitz and Jeff Herrmann

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26 Comments

Filed under The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

26 responses to “Further Thoughts on the Mike Daisey Episode

  1. Jm

    I love that you’re hosting a discussion at the theater. Proud of you guys for your transparency & commitment to your communities of artists & audiences.

  2. I honestly believe that your response to this whole situation is a cop out. Mike Daisey apologized to Ira Glass, and to the This American Life audience, but did he apologize to you? Did he apologize to the audiences that he lied to in a fantastic, bombastic way? Yes, this opens up a dialogue about the nature of art versus fact. But that dialogue should have been open a long time ago by your artistic staff and by Mike Daisey himself regarding The Agony and The Ecstasy. Theatre as an artform has a tenuous foothold in today’s entertainment world, and lying to an audience as brazenly as Mike Daisey did is a great way to make that foothold even more tenuous. Most non-theatre people aren’t even taking the time at this point to engage in this conversation, they’ve simply written the entire thing off as a lie; and I fear they may have written theatre off entirely as a lie. As theatre artists, at our core we must strive to shed light on the truth of the world. But that doesn’t mean circumventing our artistic integrity just because it’s easier to do so.

    By allowing Daisey to continue producing at your theatre you’re saying to him the ends justify the means, and that is a dangerous position to take in this world.

  3. Tony H

    You say that Mike Daisey began to describe the choices he made with “scrupulous honesty.” If only he would begin to address all his lies with “scrupulous honesty.”

    If you read the transcript from This American Life, you know how obviously he was contorting his words to try to avoid admitting that he lied.

    At Georgetown, he was still claiming he saw security guards with guns, something that every expert on China and Daisey’s interpreter says could not be true. He was still claiming to see underage workers, also denied by his interpreter.

    Daisey is still lying, and you are enabling him to continue to lie.

  4. Steve

    A few thoughts or questions:
    1. Is Daisey going to continue to claim in his show that he did and saw things he did not do and see? Under the circumstances now known, is that acceptable to you?
    2. If you were to insist to Daisey that his show include the statement, “Not everything I am about to say is true” and he were to refuse, would you go forward with the booking?
    3. Will you gladly refund money to those who have already bought tickets for this summer’s run and no longer wish to support Daisey’s lies?

  5. Ryan

    This is cowardly. Your former Marketing Director boldly took responsibility for the mistakes your organization made and called for a boycott of MD. I wish the organization was as bold.

    The statement of this being “non fiction” is all you should have to hear. You were lied to and you are letting him off the hook.

    Is this a business or artistic decision? Either way, it is a shame.

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  7. This is utterly appalling. I will never go see another production at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre. Apparently the WMTC has such a callous disregard for the intelligence of their audience that they insist on keeping a chronic and professional confabulator on their bill and charge audiences money for his deception.

    So what are you going to do when Mike Daisey talks about how “I met workers that were 12 years old”, or what he “saw” in the dorm rooms of foxconn, or the pivitol emotional moment about the “man with the mangled hands” he allegedly met. Are you going to flash a neon sign about him, one for truth and one for truthy but not true?

    He didn’t just go on TAL to confuse journalism with theatre. He did it on CNET (REPORTERS roundtable), MSNBC, Bill Maher, etc. He was drunk on his own fame and talked about how “I saw”, “I met”, “I was there.” His production of TATESJ was mentioned on each of these appearences. His claims were being equated with this production as part of the same narrative. How is that WMTC isn’t appalled that Mike Daisey’s used this production to weave his web of lies?

    Have some self respect and stand up to Mike Daisey, and be an advocate for the intelligence of your audience. This is just awful. A sad day in American Theatre indeed.

  8. Doreen

    For what it’s worth, I think that it is absolutely irresponsible for Woolly Mammoth to not offer a refund for tickets to this show in light of recent events.
    The reason that many people (including myself) decided to go to this show was due to the episode from TAL. Now that the monologue (that was presented on TAL, but more importantly, on the Woolly Mammoth website during promotion for the show as non fiction and journalism) has been determined to be largely fabricated, many people, including myself, would be not interested in donating money to a liar or to an organization supporting one.
    Please, for the sake of your own integrity, refund money for those who feel duped.
    Thank you

  9. Nathan Sorseth

    Mr. Shalwitz & Mr. Herrmann,

    When I saw that Woolly Mammoth had posted a further statement on the Mike Daisey situation, I felt a measure of relief at what I anticipated to be a demonstration of clear thinking and artistic conviction on the part of the theatre’s leadership.

    I am, in a word, underwhelmed.

    To be blunt, your “Further Thoughts” read almost exactly like your initial “Response”. The journey, other than a short detour through contrition, has the same destination – you are standing behind Mr. Daisey’s work, and are effectively rewarding his lack of integrity (both with yourselves and with the public at large) with a production of his tainted performance. In fact, Mr. Daisey is now beginning his newest work: portraying himself as the aggrieved artist who has been “misunderstood”, and the martyr of “storytelling”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Please forgive my candor, but I am running out of patience with Woolly Mammoth and its peers in the theatre community. Mr. Daisey is an admitted liar and manipulator who got caught “with his hand in the cookie jar”, and who has put on the mantle of “theatre artist” in the hopes that it will deflect a portion of the public’s anger. And it appears that the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is more than happy to afford Mr. Daisey refuge for his mendacity, so long as its box office phone keeps ringing.

    • Ryan

      I couldn’t agree with this comment more.

      To add, MD also benefited financially from these lies. The Woolly patrons and the patrons from several other theaters paid money to hear, what was assumed to be (and in the case of Woolly at least) billed as “non fiction.” It’s appalling you would bring him back.

      As far as your refund policy, it seems quite unfair to many people who may not be aware of these circumstances. You are essentially saying anybody who purchases a ticket after today and then learns about the controversy later is out of luck. That is just lame.

      I thought Woolly was bold. Provocative is not an excuse to placate a liar.

  10. Mike Daisey does monologues about his “real life” and things he has “actually experienced.” The scheduled re-mount isn’t for another few months. How about you ask him to do 115 minutes on what’s happened since Saturday? Now *that’s* something people might pay to see.

  11. Steve

    If Daisey’s work were a book, a respectable publisher would at this point recall all copies and cease distribution. Isn’t Woolly as a presenter in the same position? Isn’t the only honorable action for Daisey at this point to retire the work, and cease performing it? Isn’t the only honorable position for Woolly to decline to present further performances of it?

  12. Truth Patrol

    Mike Daisey got caught lying, and, you called his performance non-fiction. Therefore you are liars.

    If you allow to him to continue to perpetuate his lies, you will do anything for a profit.

    We will not be back to your theatre.

  13. It’s a sad and terrible shame that the Woolly Mammoth leadership can’t muster the courage or find a backbone to publicly take a stand against a performer who intentionally, willfully, methodically, repeatedly, passionately lied and deceived audiences, individuals, and organizations for shameless self-promotion and money.

    I hope your paying attention. Your communication is clear: “it’s ok to lie to audiences and take ticket money – just whine and complain that everyone’s picking on you – weakly mumble a half-baked non-apology – dig your self-righteous heels in – and we’ll happily give you sanctuary and present you in our upcoming season.”

    You said: “… we will not abandon him in tough times.”

    May I remind you Mr. Daisy willfully created these “tough times” himself.

    May I point out that he abandoned **everyone** first, without any remorse – until he was caught. He abandoned everyone in the entire artistic community by willfully lying and taking money for it. The most compassionate thing to do is tough love – cancel Mr. Daisy’s show. Period. He’s broken the trust and goodwill of many, many, many, many people – and does not deserve a public platform. He promised and promoted a show that was “non-fiction” for money – and lied. Bernie Madoff and Charles Ponzi also made promises for money – and lied.

    Yes, I’m certain the Wooly Mammoth administration has a cadre of people who support the idea of presenting Mr. Daisy’s show. These are most likely people who have a financial stake is making more money off of Mr. Daisy’s tarnished “work.” But if you step outside your small, insular circle of yes men – in the real world, around the country – many people view your artistic support of Mr. Daisy as blind, baseless, greedy and opportunistic.

    Your offer to “host a discussion on March 27″ will only have value if it also includes:

    1) A full refund for any patron who attended Mr. Daisy’s Agony/Ecstacy performance – and requests their money back
    2a) An announcement that Mr. Daisy’s show is cancelled.
    -or-
    2b) An announcement that Mr. Daisy is performing the entire upcoming run for free – and donating 100% of his artist fee to a charity for chinese workers.

    Finally, I want to congratulate you as you willingly alienate and estrange future audience members and members of the artistic community by coddling a known liar and plan to present a “work” that is irredeemably stained with shame.

  14. I think the biggest damage was to Daisey’s own reputation. I don’t see how any audience member can claim to be damaged. I saw his talk at Georgetown, and am satisfied. Full thoughts here: http://www.mvjantzen.com/blog/?p=1458

    • Ryan

      An audience member can claim to be damaged because they were unwilling participants in a ruse. They thought they were experiencing a true story (non fiction) and believed it. MD is not falling on his sword, as he should, and the patrons are the ones stiffed in the end. He should be slobbering all over himself apologizing to the people rather than parsing his words in explanation of how he’s truthful in the context of theatre, as if there are different definitions of truth

  15. Thank you all for your responses. Due to the overwhelming amount of comments we’ve received so far we’re going to disable all comments from this point forward. If you would like to reach out to Woolly feel free to email discussion@woollymammoth.net or leave a comment on our Facebook page or tweet as us. We will also be holding a free public forum at the theatre on Tuesday, March 27th at 7pm.

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