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Mike Daisey’s American Utopias

Following the controversy surrounding The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the controversial monologist hits the MCA with a new piece on utopian visions.

 (Photograph: JJ Sulin)
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Photograph: JJ Sulin

Mike Daisey in Zuccotti Park, New York City

 (Photograph: JJ Sulin)
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Photograph: JJ Sulin

Mike Daisey in Zuccotti Park, New York City

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Mike Daisey performs The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Public Theater in New York.

On a blustery late-August afternoon in New York’s Zuccotti Park, it’s difficult to find any sign of the Occupy movement that made this small rectangle of corporate-owned parkland famous. There are no college students in drum circles or hipsters in tents; instead, business types occupy concrete benches, struggling to keep their Styrofoam lunch containers from flying away in the wind.

As the lunchtime crowd thins out, monologist Mike Daisey discusses the genesis of American Utopias, his new piece opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art this month. Though he’s still in the research phase when we speak, ultimately Utopias will weave together his reflections on trips to Zuccotti, Disney World and the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert to explore “what you’re allowed to dream about.”

It’s the 36-year-old’s first new piece since The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a show that went from being the most successful in Daisey’s 15-year career to the most controversial. After Agony became the subject of the most-downloaded-ever episode of public radio’s This American Life, host Ira Glass retracted the coverage, saying that “the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.”

The monologue revolved around Daisey’s visit to the now-notorious Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China—a plant where American companies, most notably Apple, make consumer electronics. “I was on the ground when they were jumping,” he says, referring to workers who he says leaped to their deaths from factory windows. The central events of the monologue—non-unionized labor working staggeringly long hours for low wages, underage workers on the production lines and consumers willfully ignoring the human-rights abuses underpinning their most-cherished gadgets—are generally unquestioned.

But Daisey’s fabrications of some of his firsthand meetings (and lies to fact-checkers for TAL) raised serious questions about the validity of the entire piece.

I first meet Daisey less than a month before our August interview, at his final Washington, D.C., performance of Agony/Ecstasy. A week before, The New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer had experienced his own scandal, for the freewheeling fabrication of Bob Dylan quotes in a new book. By the time of our Zuccotti Park meeting, CNN and Time journalist Fareed Zakaria’s suspension for alleged plagiarism has taken Lehrer’s place in the spotlight.

Daisey is quick to draw a distinction between those scandals and his own, arguing that his was “the sin of propaganda—using emotional resonances” to get people’s attention. “If I had the bullhorn of The New Yorker I might not have needed [to use them],” he concludes, somewhat ruefully.

The research for American Utopias didn’t take Daisey nearly as far away from his home in Brooklyn as the Jobs show did, but the journeys were thought-provoking. Daisey visited Disney World for the first time last year, joining 17 members of his extended family on “their every-three-to-five-year hajj.”

The monologue began brewing, he says, when he “saw the contrast between the Disney facade and the reality of [my] family, who have around 300 people at their house in New Jersey every year for these huge theme parties…[the difference between] building things for yourself versus buying someone else’s vision of how to have fun.”

As for Burning Man, kicking off just a few days after our interview (he’ll attend with his wife of 12 years, Utopias director and longtime collaborator Jean-Michele Gregory), he says he’s “excited to be in a community of sixty thousand people—most of whom are well-to-do—with no Internet or phone access,” though the roughing-it-in-the-desert aspect gives him pause. “My camping history is very spotty.”

Still, the idea of Burning Man’s quarantined locale, and how that changes the public perception of the event, is critical to what Daisey explores in American Utopias. “A gathering of people is only a mob depending on whether or not they’re sitting,” he says. “Fifty thousand people screaming at a football game is fine, but if it happened in the streets of a city, it would be a national emergency.” Utopian visions, he says, are only accepted “as long as they’re somewhere harmless.”

While New York law prohibits camping in the city’s public parks, Zuccotti (owned by a corporation called Brookfield Properties, which has designated the land for public use) was under no such restriction, allowing Occupy to test Daisey’s theory. The protest was legal, yet the protesters, just a stone’s throw from Wall Street, drew negative attention to the banks—and thus were eventually cracked down on by police. This opposition would seem to prove Daisey right.

Utopias will likely explore Daisey’s insights about what made Occupy so special. “The participation by people made the space [into something else]…. It’s like theater,” he says.

I ask how the This American Life retraction affected his preparations for American Utopias. In the program for this show, he says, audience members will find a colophon that explains the ingredients that go into each part of the story.

“It feels like [the retraction] should have an enormous effect, seems like it should change everything, but it doesn’t. Outside the theater there are massive ramifications—the story of me and how I’m perceived. [But] the choices of how you present stuff on stage…to an audience that has chosen to be there… It’s not a transmission, it’s a communion, with people who have made an informed choice to be there. Those who dismiss you choose not to come to the show. No one accidentally buys a ticket.”

When Daisey performs, that communion takes place with no frills. On a bare stage, he sits at a desk with nothing on it but a glass of water and sheets of lined paper—the outline he writes just one day before the first show. Taped-on revisions accumulate throughout the run.

The only moves Daisey makes (apart from daubing prodigious amounts of sweat from his forehead) are emphatic page turns that serve as chapter breaks, sweeping hand gestures and the occasional pounding of the desktop. Audience engagement comes from the story he tells, in a vocal style similar to that of magician Penn Jillette or comedian Lewis Black.

Though Daisey adopted his semi-improvised form of monologue “to allow things to live in the moment,” convincing a theater to present a new work with no preview of its contents might have been a challenge. But Peter Taub, the MCA’s director of performance programs, says that wasn’t a big issue when he considered Utopias.

“It creates [a] variable of…uncertainty,” admits Taub, who has followed Daisey’s work since even before the museum staged If You See Something Say Something, Daisey’s monologue on national security, in 2008. “But when I think about other new works we’ve staged, whether they have scores or scripts, there’s always enormous uncertainty about how it’s going to unfold…. ‘Will it be alive?’ I have much less uncertainty about that with Mike, [having] seen how he works.”

The allegations against Daisey also didn’t seem to be an issue. “[The] commitment had already been made,” Taub says. “As the controversy started unfurling, what we needed to do was affirm our commitment to Mike.… I believe strongly in him as an artist and, in that sense, though the controversy raised a question, it did not affect our decision.”

The MCA debut of Utopias is the show’s first extended run, with a one-night performance in New York and a workshop performance in D.C., both in October, serving as its out-of-town tryouts. The Washington performance was staged as a fund-raiser for low-paid theater workers in what Daisey says is a nod to his monologue How Theater Failed America. I assumed more of a connection to recent reports of “interns” working on Foxconn’s iPhone 5 production line—which would make this the latest case of Daisey using the legacy of Agony/Ecstasy as a soapbox to criticize the consumer-electronics industry’s labor practices—but he says, while it’s “terribly clever,” he hadn’t considered that angle.

Another Daisey target is “the intimacy between the tech media and the industry that it covers,” but the TAL controversy provides his enemies with an easy way to undercut his attacks. Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, cofounders of the tech website AllThingsD, brushed off recent criticisms Daisey made on his website of their handling of an interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook, which included a reference to “fictional” critics of Apple’s China operations. Via Twitter, Swisher posted “your 15 minute[s] were up already, Mike, but good effort to make yourself relevant,” and Mossberg sarcastically claimed that “being attacked by an admitted liar is sort of a badge of honor.”

While Daisey would rather not be known as a liar, he does describe himself as “a noted fabulist” in “version 2.0” of Agony/Ecstasy, a revision he posted on his website in September. The new script excises some elements entirely while clarifying which events he personally witnessed. The text is available free of charge, and is also offered to performers (on a royalty-free license) for their own productions. Actors have played the Daisey “role” in more than 30 such productions so far, including ones in Spain and Germany, as well as at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Regardless of which version of Agony/Ecstasy is being discussed, Daisey stands by the theatrical work as true, if not necessarily factual. Appearing on the retraction episode of TAL, he told Ira Glass: “I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context, in the theater, that when people hear the story in those terms, that we have different languages for what the truth means.”

Though that Clintonesque parsing didn’t do him any favors with his critics, Daisey seems eager to put the subject behind him. In addition to developing Utopias and finalizing an ambitious plan to perform some older monologues in rep, he has several new projects in the works, among them a piece devoted to health care (which was sidelined by the passage of Obamacare), another on veterans’ issues and one on journalism that began gestating before the TAL controversy.

And while he was too focused on performing Agony/Ecstasy at the height of Occupy to spend much time at Zuccotti, Daisey did participate in some related benefit performances. “For all of my own radicalism,” he says, “I wish I had been down here more.”

Daisey says Zuccotti has great significance for Americans’ view of the future, simply by putting forward a protest about transforming the system, rather than just about standing up and being counted. “[We’ve had] a tendency to focus on dystopian futures more than utopian ones. Utopian ones would require movement and pain to bring about change, and that just didn’t seem possible [in the past]. I hadn’t seen protests like this in my own culture…. I think [that’s] the most important lesson of Occupy, more than any specific thing they did.”

Occupy, it can be argued, didn’t succeed in transforming much, just as Agony/Ecstasy didn’t change employees’ woes at Foxconn (though recent worker protests may have improved conditions there slightly). Will Daisey try again? Will he take on another subject that controversial?

“The stories dictate the shape they want to have,” he says. “I had never done a show like Jobs…investigating something I loved and trying to bring about change that would improve the world of millions of people. I don’t know if I’ll ever find another [story] like that. If I do, I hope I’ll be brave enough…hopefully wiser and more savvy in handling it.”

American Utopias opens Thursday 1 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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