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

March 22, 2012
With Jessica Blank, Steven Cosson, Adam Feldman, Taylor Mac, Peter Marks, Jason Zinoman


Oskar Eustis: I’m Oskar Eustis, the artistic director here, and Adam Feldman called us a long time ago [Laughter]—it was 48 hours ago—and suggested that he would like to put together a panel of people to discuss the various issues that have been raised by “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” and the publicity around it in the last few days, and the Public is the kind of place where we should talk about these things, and so we have made it possible. And I thank all of you for being here tonight. I thank Adam and the entire panel that’s about to follow me, for being here tonight to talk with us, this is an issue of real seriousness and real importance to those of us in the theater community, and I should say the Public is not producing this one, and hence, I cannot tell you with certainty that anything that these people say will be the truth about that [Laughter, applause]. But, however, that kind of speaks to our issue, and I’m going to take the right of the landlord and say just a word or two about the issue before I get out of the way of these fine folks. This was as surprising to us, as it was to most folks. And in the immediate aftermath, those of us said things, I said things, and we’ve been talking about this continuously ever since, and it’s important, I think, right now for me, as artistic director of the Public, to further elucidate. Well, I think, I don’t know what the Public thinks about this, because in my initial responses, it’s not that I disagree with anything they said necessarily, but we were leaning on the distinction between journalism and theater that, on further intelligent reflection, I think does not hold water. We feel, I feel, that this is not a distinction that actually is an appropriate distinction, particularly for a theater like the Public, that has prided itself for half a century on saying, asking and even times demanding that the theater has a place, not just in the entertainment world, but in the discourse of the large civic issues of our time. We don’t get to say that we deserve a place at the table but that we’re not accountable for what we say there. So in light of that, I have spontaneously here, a written statement [Laughter], which I’m going to read to you guys, and please don’t take frantic notes, because we’re going to post it on our website, as soon as we can get our website to work [Laughter]. Really, we do the best we can. And what it’s going to say, when it’s on the website, and therefore becomes real, I’m also going to say to you now, standing onstage.

“Every performance creates a contract, implied or explicit, between the stage and the audience. That contract directs how the audience should view the performance, what the rules of engagement are. It covers everything from the physical relationship between actors and audience to the border between fiction and fact contained in the performance. Our job as a theater is to create that contract anew with every performance, and then to fulfill it. We did not do that with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. We would not have called it nonfiction had we known that incidents described in the piece were fabricated. We didn't know, and the result was that our audience was misled. The piece had a powerful, positive impact on the world, and we are proud of that. But that doesn't relieve us of the responsibility of honoring our contract with our audience. As artists, we know that truths do not always hinge on facts. However, when we present pieces whose power depends on their claim to authenticity, we must hold ourselves to a different and higher standard of accuracy. We must ascertain, to the best of our ability, that the facts presented in the piece are, in fact, facts. We will do so in the future.”

So, I hope that’s the last prepared statement we’re going to have here tonight. And with that, again I want to thank Adam and I want to thank this distinguished group of artists and critics who have come here for this discussion. So thank you for being here. Adam…


Adam Feldman: Thank you, Oskar. So! Some of you may have heard that there was a monologue. And some of you may have also heard that not everything in this monologue was entirely factually accurate, and that parts of this monologue may or may not have been exaggerated or fabricated for dramatic purposes, and that this became a scandal when it left the proscenium and moved onto the radio waves. And that’s what we will be discussing here today. Because a lot of people have been talking about the radio, and a lot of people have been talking about the facts. And I think we need to talk about the theater as well. I’m not sure that the theater is the same thing as the radio, and I’m not sure that the theater is the same thing as the facts. And so I want to talk about that today, and I’m extremely grateful to the Public Theater for making this space available—to Oskar Eustis and Jeremy McCarter, who magically came through with this space that we’re in now. And I want to thank these five amazing people, all of whose work I have admired greatly in the past, for making time and for sharing their feelings, and we’ll see where it goes. I’ll just introduce them briefly. Immediately to my left is Steven Cosson; he’s the artistic director the Civilians, one of my favorite Off Broadway theater troupes. They are the, in my opinion, brilliant makers of such theater pieces in the past as This Beautiful City and (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch and the upcoming You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce. These are nonfiction-based, interview-based works of theater. To his left is Jessica Blank, actor and playwright, most notably for this purpose of a play called The Exonerated, and another play called Aftermath. To her left, Jason Zinoman, theater critic and film critic and other-thing critic for the New York Times. To his left, Peter Marks, theater critic for The Washington Post, and to his left, Taylor Mac, one of my favorite Off Broadway performers, a playwright and a performer, and one who has drawn also on his own experiences in memoir-based theater works including The Young Ladies Of and The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac. So thank you to all five of these people.

So now I should just clarify at the beginning that we had no prior collusion, we have had no time to discuss any of these issues except in a basic Twitter and Facebook exchange—

Peter Marks: We were blindfolded, actually! [Laughter]

Adam Feldman: Yes, blindfolded, nobody even knew the others’ names until we showed up here today. And so what I’m going to try to do is just lead an actual conversation if that’s possible, and we’ll see if anything of interest comes of it—and I can’t imagine it won’t with this group. And I’ll just throw it out there. Oskar alluded to the distinction that Mike Daisey had made in his first response, in his first-level response, when all this scandal/controversy happened. And that response was to say, My mistake was to take this to This American Life, where it didn’t belong because that was a different setup—that was a setup of news. And in fact it was a theater piece, and I stand by it as a theater piece but not as news. And a lot of people have trouble with that distinction, and some people do not have trouble with it, but I want to use that as a jumping-off point because Oskar obviously clarified in his opening remarks that he does not accept that distinction. And I’m not sure that I agree with Oskar—I mean, maybe I do! But I don’t know. I actually don’t know. So I’d like to start with that, and I guess we’ll start with Peter. Do you have any feelings about the relevance of that distinction? Do you think that holds water?

Peter Marks: Hi, everybody. It’s nice to be here tonight, and I’m really impressed with how quickly this came together and how many of you showed up. I’m being completely confessional here: I took every word that Mike said in this piece as gospel. I thought it was all true. I may be an idiot, I may be a dupe—I just believed every word. And maybe that was because partially I am seduced by his work, by his style, by his presentation, by the compelling force with which he tells us things, so I don’t make the distinction between—I don’t even know what—when people say there’s journalistic truth and theatrical truth, I don’t even know what theatrical truth means. For me, truth is truth. And I know the difference, for example, between a playwright conveying through a character some moral force or some idea, like a Willy Loman—I understand why my conscience is gripped metaphorically—and I think there is a distinction in that sense between that and what a person who’s standing before you saying, ‘This is me, and this happened to me,’ what that means. So, no. I don’t buy that there are two standards of truth for us to sort of try to parse.