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.

Mike Daisey in The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Mike Daisey in The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs Photograph: Joan Marcus

Adam Feldman: Jason, I guess we’ll start with the two journalists on the panel.…

Jason Zinoman: One reason I think this is a great thing that Adam put together is that most of this discussion is going on between people who have seen very little of Mike Daisey’s work, or know very little of it, or know very little about the theater, and I tend to think that the people who’ve seen his work…we can have a more informed discussion about this distinction. Because it’s actually…I find this distinction unsatisfactory for a different reason, which is that if you say, Mike Daisey, “I’m theater, not journalism”—he is not a traditional theater artist, his process is very different than most theater artists. He doesn’t have a script is the most obvious start, which a lot of people don’t realize; it changes every day. His process is actually much more similar to a stand-up comic than anybody else, in that he builds the show onstage. So within the realm of theater, he is an anomaly. He calls himself not an actor or a playwright; He calls himself a storyteller. And as it happens, I’m working on a story right now about this genre, which is both the oldest genre in the world, storytelling, but is also a fairly new genre, which is a subgenre of comedy and theater—and even within that world, Mike Daisey is an anomaly, for reasons that are varying. What I take from this is that to judge whether or not it was right or wrong what he did, we need to look not at these simplistic labels, although I think labels on how the theaters promote these shows matter. We need to look at actually what his intent is, what his process is, and what is the unspoken contract that he has with an audience, and in that sense, he’s identical to a journalist because journalists and theater people have this unspoken contract with their audience. And if you break it, I know in journalism, as someone who was at the Times right after Jayson Blair, I worked a summer at The New Republic with Stephen Glass, there’s nothing more important. There’s nothing that can be more damaging than losing your credibility of your reader.

Adam Feldman: Okay. When you introduced him, though, you said he works like a stand-up comic. Now if you’re watching Sarah Silverman onstage, and Sarah Silverman tells jokes onstage, in the persona of Sarah Silverman, playing a version of Sarah Silverman that you kind of know is not really Sarah Silverman, if she makes a joke, and we say, “Wait a second, Sarah Silverman’s last boyfriend wasn’t Mexican. She’s lying!”—aren’t we making a mistake about the nature of stand-up comedy? [Pause] Shall we answer that, or…? [Laughter]

Jason Zinoman: I don’t think Mike, in his form, is like stand-up comedy. His process is like stand-up comedy. There are serious differences between Mike Daisey and Sarah Silverman [Laughter]—although they’re both funny, no question. But I think that Mike Daisey’s goal, clearly with this show, or one of his goals, is to say, “I went to this place, I saw these things,” and there’s a certain authority he has from saying that. And he says, in his recent Georgetown speech, “I wanted to take this out of the theater.” This issue of the theater, this distinction, almost seems less relevant a couple days later. I don’t think that’s his main argument anymore. He clearly wanted to make change. He was thinking, as I see it, as much like an activist who was passionate about these labor conditions. And Sarah Silverman just wants to make you laugh.

Peter Marks: Beyond that, I looked at that as that, when he said that as, kind of…that’s kind of the ideal for a theater artist. They want to take it outside the theater. What makes you feel like you’re having an impact on the world more than it moving beyond the theater? That’s what the Civilians' and Jessica’s work does. It’s an absolute attempt to do that. So I didn’t see that as necessarily a damning thing. I thought that was something that ennobled what he was attempting.

Adam Feldman: There are a lot of different branches for this discussion. But in terms of this particular piece, Mike says very specifically in that Georgetown speech, which is available online, he says it was an activist project; he says it was different from other things that he’s done, and one of the things that’s so different about it is that there is a script that he created, and that was distributed, downloadable, through This American Life. And I wonder, if it hadn’t been Mike Daisey giving this speech—I mean, if this play was available as a play, which it was, and if you saw some college student in a college town, saying, “I went to China and I met this person,” wouldn’t you know that it was a play? In a way that you don’t when Mike Daisey himself is delivering it? And is that a factor in this conversation? Sorry, I know I’m throwing it onto a different subject.…

Steven Cosson: Can the artist just answer the first question?

Adam Feldman: Yes! Yes.

Peter Marks: No! [Laughter]

Steven Cosson: I’ll join in as Artist No. 1. I think I basically agree with what Peter said, but then I’m going to say I disagree—which is, I think there are different rules for theater that engages reality and has some overlap with journalism, and journalism per se. And then I’ll get into the nuances. But I think, ultimately, I fundamentally agree with Oskar’s statement, that whatever the work is, that there’s an explicit or an implicit contract made with the audience in the frame of the work that tells the audience the relationship of the work to actual fact. And so within the world of what’s called documentary theater, or theater based on memoir or verbatim theater or theater drawn from interviews or investigative theater (which is how I often describe what I do) or all the many different forms in that world, they all live on a pretty broad spectrum, I would say. From one pole, I would say, that says that theater is really functioning as journalism—I think there’s a pole where the frame of the play, the contract with the audience, is saying, “This actually happened, I witnessed this, this story is true, I went to such-and-such a place, I saw a big blue elephant,” and you want to believe—the agreement is—that big blue elephant was really there. And then at the other end of the spectrum, there is that which is inspired by fact, but has some creative license, or a lot of creative license. And knowing that, I think that’s why it’s very interesting to bring this into the context of theater and to let theater talk about what questions have been raised by this controversy, because I don’t think you can make a blanket statement that says there’s one set of rules for theater and another set of rules for journalism. So, ultimately, I agree in the sense that I think there is theater which purports to take a similar relationship to fact as journalism does, and if it takes that relationship, then it’s made a contract and it should stick to that contract. At the same time, I would say, maybe just to give an example from my own work, I’ve done work where everything in the story is completely true, and at the same time, it would not pass the standards of journalism—because there might be a composite character, there might be something that somebody says that comes out of the voice of the character that’s very subjective, and I think I’ve framed it so the audience is looking at that with a critical eye, but because it’s theater, I don’t then fact-check it immediately after with another character coming on and saying, you know, “That evidence might not be so.” So there’s all sorts of nuance, but I agree that you’ve got to stick to your contract.

Jessica Blank: I think the last point that you just alluded to is particularly important: That one of the standards of journalism is that you’re presenting, supposedly, an evenhanded point of view, rather than a subjective opinion and making an argument. And I think, probably, as the person here whose work is the furthest to the journalistic end of the documentary-theater type…The Exonerated is fact-checked—it’s first-person accounts, but it’s also first-person accounts that are supported by thousand-page court transcripts that we’ve read, and it’s been read by lawyers for libel issues, and we went through all the things you’re supposed to do in the making of the play. It still is absolutely in no way a piece of journalism. It’s making an argument! It’s making an argument through telling a story. And I think that’s something different from what journalists do—even if you’re using the tools of journalism, and even if you’re being really, fully rigorous about the facts.

Steven Cosson: I would throw out, and maybe you guys can help in terms of nomenclature, but there’s certainly journalism that makes an argument that might be in the form of a documentary film or a TV show or even a feature article that is intending to persuade, especially if it’s an exposé or sort of whistle-blowing article—which I think has to hew even more to the standards of journalism, if you’re putting a story out there with a point of view.