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: I mean, there are factual inaccuracies. You’re not going to meet that many child laborers in any given random sample outside of a factory. But on the aggregate, what it boils down to is that he falsified the memoir parts of this monologue. And we don’t mind falsified memoirs, generally. You were even making that distinction earlier—the difference between facts and personal experiences, you know, the different standards that apply to them. When This American Life has David Sedaris on, and he tells elaborate fantasies about his childhood, full of dialogue and full of completely reconstructed or fabricated incidents…

Steven Cosson: That’s all true. That’s all true. [Laughter]

Adam Feldman: But it’s not, and I think we all sort of know that it’s not, and people have written articles to that effect, but no one cares, because it’s his history. But the parts of this monologue that were fabricated were the parts that were Mike Daisey’s history. So for me the question is, does that issue change, does the bar get raised, when you are dealing with a larger issue like Chinese labor or—and I’ll go there, I’ll be damned—the Holocaust, or something like that. No, but really because…sidetrack, but I got into a little contretemps a few years ago over a play that was on Broadway, that was a nonfiction-based play, which had a lot of stuff that was invented, and which I was offended by. Because I felt like the Holocaust was too important—to lie in connection with a Holocaust memoir, it feeds Holocaust denial.

Jason Zinoman: Doesn’t sound like you!

Adam Feldman: I know. But it feeds Holocaust denial, and there’s already too many people out there who want to believe that, and so you endanger things when you make up stories about the Holocaust. So the question is—I’m genuinely torn—when you’re dealing with big issues, does it mean that you’re no longer allowed to write in a dramatic way, the same way you would write about any other issues? And does that mean that…does that tie our hands?

Jessica Blank: It depends on what your contract with the audience is. It depends on what your project is and what you’re attempting to do. I wouldn’t make a blanket statement that one can’t write about historical issues and riff on them, or make stuff up if you admit that’s what you’re doing and if you’re open about that, at all—I think that would be an absurd thing to say. But if what you’re doing is a kind of activist project with your art, and you have an aim of creating change in a specific way that is going to impact, have real-world consequences, then I think it gets into a lot of what you articulated so well, that, yes: Then you have a larger responsibility to the real people in the world who are going to be affected by the work that you’re doing. Because that’s what you’re trying to do! If I’m writing a documentary play about innocent people who were on death row or civilian Iraqis experiencing the war there, I have a responsibility to those people because I’m taking on their stories, and I’m making something with their stories, and it doesn’t belong to me. So I believe that, yes, then in that case, I have extraordinary responsibility to be really rigorous with my sense of personal ethics about that. I don’t fault Mike Daisey, if he had admitted it, for fictionalizing aspects of the memoir part of his story. The only thing I fault him for, and I say this with respect for his body of work as an artist, is for not being forthright about the fact that he was doing that from the beginning. Like I said, I don’t think the piece would have lost anything if he said, “Look, I compressed the timeline, I put myself in places where I wasn’t there,” because then it wouldn’t have caused people to question what else in this work isn’t holding up. Because he is taking on very serious, and very real things, that deserve the utmost respect and care

Taylor Mac: But…[Laughter] I do think that one of the major debates in this is, did Mike Daisey’s piece ask questions, or did it provide periods and exclamation points? Did we leave the theater questioning the world or did we leave the theater with all the answers? I personally left with more questions, and being inspired to find out things for myself—or maybe I’ll go and take a trip to China, and I’ve actually been thinking about making a piece about China. So as a result, I’m inspired to go find out for myself. And that’s, to me, what theater is supposed to do. If we go to the theater to be told the facts, I’m not quite sure I’m interested in the theater.

Jessica Blank: But I think this kind of theater is doing something that is a combination of those two things. I think it’s asking us to engage with the concrete facts of the world we live in, using a part of our minds than we ordinarily do, and engaging our hearts in a way that we don’t ordinarily do. That’s the storytelling part, that’s the empathy part. And the power of nonfiction theater, which I do think exists, is in its ability to meld those two things, and, as we all can see, it’s a very complicated and fraught territory.

Peter Marks: It’s a problem also if the context is not consistent, and it is not clear to people. I’ve had people say to me, “It’s not theater to me, what he’s doing, it’s a lecture.”

Jessica Blank: Right.

Peter Marks: Which takes it in a whole other way.

Taylor Mac: Lanford Wilson said to me, “It’s a play if the playwright calls it a play.” [Laughter]

Peter Marks: That’s fine to self-define that way, or however you want to define it, but it’s not clear to your audience.

Taylor Mac: Well maybe that’s our failing, as theater artists, that we’re always expecting our audiences to be theater artists.