During a public forum at Woolly Mammoth with Mike Daisey earlier this year, Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz noted, “One might hope that the dialogue around this show helps the whole field engage in a discussion about the ethics and boundaries of documentary theatre. It combines two words – documentary and theatre – and while theatre is mostly about illusion, documentary is mostly about truth.”
With The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike utilizes real life events and sparks our curiosity about how our electronic devices are made. The production has played a vital role in focusing national attention on labor practices at factories in China that manufacture products for Apple and other US companies. Mike’s piece sits on a continuum of activist art that includes diverse sets of tools, goals, and rules of engagement. Some pieces on this spectrum adhere as closely as possible to documentary truth, whereas others utilize theatrical illusion to make their points in vivid and memorable ways. Wherever on the spectrum a particular documentary theatre artist lies, his or her first task is to help orient the audience as to how literally the story’s words should be taken.
Tectonic Theater’s The Laramie Project strings together verbatim content from interviews with a town’s residents and tries to make sense of the real-life murder of Matthew Shepard. Anna Deavere Smith performs text verbatim from interviews, but creatively weaves them together to create an emotional and intellectual journey for the viewer around a given issue. Ping Chong & Company’s community-specific oral history pieces often cast community members themselves as actors. Peter Weiss’ The Investigation draws liberally from the Auschwitz trial transcripts. In No Child… (performed at Woolly in 2008), solo-artist Nilaja Sun doesn’t draw from verbatim interviews, but performs her own memories as sketches of the children, teachers, and other faces of a Bronx high school. The structure, form and rules placed on each of these works are linked with the desired goal of each artist for what they hope the audience will be thinking when they leave the theatre.
Mike Daisey would describe his work as stories that weave together autobiography, gonzo journalism, and unscripted extemporaneous material that changes with every performance. Rather than utilizing verbatim text, Mike utilizes the lens of the individual. He lets his experiences work on him, simmer (often for long periods of time), and then reemerge in extemporaneous form. While Mike carefully outlines each section of his monologues, every performance is a fresh ‘retelling’ of the story. The type of theatre Mike has most frequently been associated with is the memoir tradition pioneered by Spalding Gray. Gray brought the monologue form into great popularity in the 1980s; in monologues such as Swimming to Cambodia, he made the personal and stream-of-consciousness political, and was mesmerizing doing it. It’s also possible to see some of Mark Twain in Mike’s work. Twain made the irascible raconteur political, and remained pithy and wise even when he was most outrageous. Mike’s works play on the experience-of-the-individual as political, and live in the tension between outrage and wisdom, and between comedy and tragedy.
How literally is the audience to take the words of this particular type of theatre? One notable aspect of Mike’s works is the trope of the bumbling non-expert, our ‘hero’ who will walk us through how he was transformed by a given experience. This hero is a visible investigator. In almost all of the documentary theatre examples given earlier, the investigator is invisible — only the found content is edited and formed into a theatrical whole. The invisibility of that investigator gives the illusion of objectivity – but as we know from documentary film, the juxtaposition and editing of material is always subjectively constructed. The ‘character’ of Mike, however, is front and center in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and Mike’s other monologues – constantly acknowledging the existence of narrative manipulation.
In watching the ‘character’ of Mike onstage, we see one man who has a question, and sets out on a Quixotic mission to answer it. We hear an account of his remembered experiences juxtaposed with the history of a technological innovation giant, Apple. As an audience, what is our reaction? We’ve just experienced a catharsis – we see our relationships with our devices in a new light. We’re also hungry to stock up on more information.The trope of this singular ‘hero’ inspires discussion and leads the audience to find out more beyond the story of this one man.This particular production paves a path for the audience to do that additional investigation – pointing us to those very reports, resources and tools. We, the audience, become the hero in our own quest to understand and take ownership of the most pressing challenges in our world today. The choice is ours.
The controversy sparked by The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has illuminated what happens when an artist falls off course. In his passion to advocate for fair labor practices, Mike allowed the audience to believe each detail of his story was literally true, although it lay squarely in that theatrical zone between truth and illusion. The citizen and activist Mike has a wealth of fact to bring to his craft. In the show, these facts are marshaled for the character ‘Mike’ in a compelling way. In the previous iterations of the production, in a few key instances the character ‘Mike’ was also granted license to report things that happened in the Specialized Economic Zone (the SEZ), though they did not happen directly to him. There was a gap between the facts of preparation and the performance itself. In the performance you are about to see, the six minutes of contested material have been cut, the complexities of the controversy incorporated, and new material added covering developments that have occurred since the production was birthed in 2010. This reframing adds another layer of complexity to how we view this narrative. If we look at the rules and specific form Mike has pioneered over his entire theatrical career, we can see that when it’s applied to the content of this production, a fascinating tension develops. A form built on remembrance of a personal quest can be an uneasy fit with a growing hot-button issue where the masses are clamoring for statistics, evidence, and specificity in order to usher change. It’s a challenge to frame The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as not ‘factual evidence’ of the problem, but as a critical catalyst for the audience to look for more evidence themselves.
A transcript of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is available online, royalty-free, and has been downloaded over 100,000 times. Since late February there have been over 25 productions around the world with different actors and with different sets and stagings, adding another chapter to the life of this work. Last March, Mike traveled to DC to appear on our stage to personally speak with Woolly’s audience about the role of truth and illusion in his work and take questions and comments. In addition to the ongoing examination of labor practices that it helped to spark, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has continued to fuel a rigorous debate about the rules of engagement that govern documentary theatre. The irony can hardly be missed: Mike Daisey has very publicly acknowledged his own specific failure in framing the last iteration of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.Yet it’s hard to think of another work of theatre in the past decade that has been so successful in focusing attention on a critical world issue. This raises the challenging question: what role does truth, and what role does illusion, play in that success?
~ Ronee Penoi, Production Dramaturg and Producer-in-Residence