Truth in Theater: The Mike Daisey panel

Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs set off a charged debate at the Public Theater. Here, for the first time, is a full transcript.

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Public Theater

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Public Theater Photograph: Kevin Berne

Adam Feldman: But would we be sitting here talking about them? I’m not convinced that we would.

Jessica Blank: Well, people were in the theater every night, and walking out of the theater after the play every night, absolutely, and he was going on the news, and people were watching that and talking about that with each other, so yes, I do actually think that that process was happening.

Steven Cosson: And I also think that, yeah, we’re here talking about Mike Daisey, but those of us who are making theater out there in the world, and especially going into different constituencies, and going into different worlds, are having those conversations with all sorts of people, all the time. And I have to say, maybe I’ve said this before, I’ll repeat myself, but it does really piss me off that artists are going to be discredited as a whole for some period of time. I think we’re doubted.

Taylor Mac: Oh, we killed Lincoln, it’s okay. [Laughter, applause]

Steven Cosson: Those are actors! [Laughter] An actor killed Lincoln. [Laughter, clapping] Sorry, now I’m up on my soapbox, but I feel like artists who engage with society—we are doubted in this American culture, more so than any other culture that I’ve visited or been in. We do not have credibility, for the most part, when we take on real-world stuff. We are in a safe zone of art, and how we think of art is very separate from society.

Peter Marks: Let’s just remember, the other casualty of this is, Ira Glass is not going to go to another show and go, I want to do a segment on this.

Jessica Blank: It’s true.

Steven Cosson: That’s what I’m saying.

Jessica Blank: I wanted to say though, because I do think that it’s really important, that we have control, as artists working in nonfiction modes, about how much credibility we have also. Individually, I think, if we are rigorous in our practice, and rigorous with how we present our work and how we talk about our work, and rigorously honest about what it is that we’re doing, then I think we earn that credibility and people do trust us.

Steven Cosson: But we’re also invisible to so much of society,

Jessica Blank: Well yes. That’s another conversation, for sure

Steven Cosson: And we were really visible for one moment there.

Oskar Eustis: I just want to add, because I actually think this is a terribly important point, and I’d love to stop talking about Mike for a second, because he did a fantastic job bringing the issue to attention. He fucked up, and we disagree about how exactly he fucked up, that’s a problem. But part of the reason he fucked up is that we, as a field, have not refined our discussion of our practice in such a way that we don’t have standards. So Mike didn’t have any help from a field of artists who have talked about this, and said, this is what our standards are. And with all due respect, here, I think it’s incredibly important—not that all art has to be fact-checked or not all art has to be reportage—but for us to say: We want to have a place at the table, we want to influence the discussion to broader society, and that means we have to hold ourselves to standards, and each other to standards. And now, hopefully, that’s what this discussion is doing. This discussion isn’t about changing labor conditions in China. This discussion is about a group of theater artists saying, if the theater is going to be engaged with the real world and try to change the real world, we have to be sophisticated, and rigorous, and comradely about how we support and critique each other in doing that. Because if we don’t set up those standards, not a board, but internal in our dialogue with each other, we set ourselves up to fuck up.

Peter Marks: Oskar, so are you going to require, for some other nonfiction performance, documentation?

Oskar Eustis: That’s the wrong question, Peter. What I think is, every time—and this has been true for years—every time I’ve done a play that is documentary, we do endless checks on what is true, what is not true, what is verified, what is not verified, did somebody actually say this, did they not say this. Just as Jessica was describing with The Exonerated, or 30 years ago when I did Execution of Justice. That’s what we do. We do fact-check.

Steven Cosson: So why not this case?

Oskar Eustis: We didn’t do it because we didn’t think it was necessary. We were wrong. We will do it in future. That doesn’t mean we’re going to fact-check…Ethan Lipton’s wonderful show [Laughter]—I’m being completely objective—it is a brilliant, brilliant, beautiful show about losing his job, about this economy. It’s completely autobiographical. Ethan’s company moved from New York to Connecticut—relocated, he lost his job. In the story he never says New York City, he says, “our town,” and he’s relocated to Mars, because land was so cheap, a penny a hectare, and the martian taxpayers give great breaks to the company. Just by saying that, he clearly indicates to the audience he’s in the realm of fake, and at that point, we have an entirely different standard. Although 99 percent of what he says is literally true, I don’t care, because it’s fake.

Adam Feldman: This is the interesting thing for me about this particular case, is that I’ve been seeing Mike’s shows for years and I’ve liked them all. This was the one I had the most reservations with. This was the one—I know everyone seemed to love this one—this is the one where I sat there and I thought, Some of this seems phony to me. I said in the review that I felt like I was being yelled at. And there’s a moment in it of real phoniness, where he’s pretending to crack himself up over the business cards, and he’s not a good enough actor to pull that off, and it really felt fake to me, for the first time in a Mike show that I had seen. But I guess I didn’t really have that same experience of it as a pure documentary. Everything seemed so…

Taylor Mac: Exaggerated

Adam Feldman: Exaggerated.

Taylor Mac: Theatrical.

Adam Feldman: In the context of it, I understood that I was watching a compressed and redacted…

Jason Zinoman: I think that’s really interesting, and Adam is absolutely right, I think that this is a conversation that has to go on with artists. How that happens I don’t know, but from a critical point of view, I think it’s really important, because if you look at the last ten years, this genre that these artists have been, I mean, it is becoming more and more important, especially in terms of political theater: I mean, the most exiting political theater, which is a very important part of the American theater, that I’ve seen—and not just American theater, obviously English too, Tricycle…I mean, this is a huge, booming genre that merits some serious consideration, because we want to be able to talk politics in this theater, in the Public of all places for God’s sake. So I think it’s important these discussions and these standards for the art form are set up.

Taylor Mac: Let’s also just say, or I’ll say for me, and I respect you Oskar, but I do think that when I’m onstage, when I make a piece, I’m trying to affect the people in this room, and my goal is not to change the world and the culture, it is not to be at the top of culture, it is to change the people in this room. And what I’m hearing here is that theater artists are somehow supposed to be better than movies, and we’re supposed to be at the top of the culture, and I’m not interested in the competition. I want to affect the people here, so that’s very different from this other conversation.

Adam Feldman: Well, we’re out of time and this conversation has been mostly a lot of philosophical groping, which has been really interesting. [Laughter] I would love to, at some point, have people together again and get more nuts-and-boltsy about what Oskar was saying, and what those parameters might be, and what some of those standards might be. It may not be something that’s best suited to a panel discussion, but it is something, I think, that we have to start thinking about. But in the meanwhile, we are out of time tonight. So thank you all for coming. Thank you to Oskar and to the Public. And thank you to all of you. I’m glad you could join us.


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Q&A: Mike Daisey unchained
Review: Mike Daisey’s Truth
Review: Mike Daisey’s How Theater Failed America
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Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam

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