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

Mike Daisey Photograph: Stan Barouh

Jason Zinoman: And a failing as, I think, audience members, critics… Look, a story is a powerful thing. I actually think there are some weird parallels between Mike Daisey and Steve Jobs, in that Steve Jobs made beautiful things, that inspired a huge fan base, and in so doing, he created these conditions that are really troubling. He was not transparent, he didn’t want people to know about it, and when he was challenged on it by people like Mike Daisey, he either hedged or he basically said—I don’t know if he said this, but I assume this is what he would say—is that this is the industry standard. Which it was. Mike Daisey makes really beautiful things. The difference is Mike Daisey, and Stephen Glass, is that Mike Daisey is one of the greatest artists in the American theater—that’s why all these people are here. This is a major thing because Mike Daisey has unique gifts. And Mike Daisey’s critique of Steve Jobs is that he should have led because he was one of the few people that could lead. I would argue that Mike Daisey is one of the few storytellers in the American theater who could be 100 percent truthful and be just as powerful, because I’ve seen ten of his shows or whatever, and the guy is very gifted. He could lead. He wouldn’t have to say, “Oh, it’s just theater.” It feels very much like saying, “This is just what everyone else does.” No. Mike Daisey is unique.

Steven Cosson: Piggybacking on that, and I think speaking to what Jessica was just saying, I wholeheartedly agree that when you are working in theater and presenting what you’re doing as nonfiction, and particularly if it’s something that involves other peoples’ real lives, and whatever larger resonances come out of that, you do have a very particular set of ethical standards that in many ways you have to invent. They’re not laid out necessarily,

Jessica Blank: They’re not preexisting.

Steven Cosson: So you do invent, and you make mistakes, and then sometimes somebody tells you, “You really screwed that up,” or, “You got that wrong about me,” and then you have a conversation, and you fix it or you can’t or whatever. But the point I was going to make is that when you are working with the actuality of real life, often times it is not convenient. It doesn’t sometimes fit into a wonderfully moving, impactful drama. And I will say, and this is just my personal thing, but that what I get out of working with real life is that I actually find that I encounter greater complexity in the real-life subject than what I experience most often in the theater. And so many times, the plays that I’ve worked on that do engage real life create a certain dissonance with the audience, because their expectations are confounded or sometimes disappointed, and sometimes people get angry and say, “What is your point of view? What is your point of view? Like, it was there, and then it went there, and I thought this person was that, and then they went over there, and then it was like…” Guess what?

Jessica Blank: That’s life.

Steven Cosson: That’s life.

Peter Marks: And welcome to journalism!

Steven Cosson: And welcome to journalism, and I think there’s something in the backlash, the anger that this incident has caused, I think, from journalists—I’m now speaking for journalists—like I know [Laughter], but I’m guessing!—from journalists and from artists that have maybe worked in some sort of this field, because part of what makes Mike so powerful and his monologues so powerful, and certainly with this one, I think, contributed to the sort of juggernaut of its impact on the culture, was how dramatic and profound and moving some of those stories are. And they were extra-profound, and they were extra-moving because you were fully convinced that they were real. And I think that is why the betrayal feels so strong. And now I just want to throw in another thought—can I do that? I think one of the things that I’m really sad about when it comes to this story is, in watching what was happening with Mike’s show and really liking Mike and really believing in him, and just seeing this artist take a really important story and push it into the center of culture and be on the news and on chat shows and in the mainstream press and be present as a voice in art, social discourse. And he really got himself in a central position as an artist, which doesn’t happen often in our society. And I feel like doors opened because of that piece, and bridges were built that I’m afraid are now, if not completely burned, then smoky.

Adam Feldman: This is why I bring up these questions, and why I keep on returning to them. I’m not sure that I agree with everything I’m saying [Laughter], but I’m throwing them out because I think they need to be said, because I think that they’re important questions. I agree with [Steven]. I think that real life is complicated, and part of the problem with getting big stories like this one out is that it’s too complicated. People read these journal studies that [Jason is] talking about, and even these New York Times articles from two years ago that you’re talking about, and it seems like it’s a wash.

Jessica Blank: That’s right.

Adam Feldman: You know, this one says that, this one says that, and yes, I’ve heard there’s labor there, but maybe the laborers were falsifying the documents because they wanted something, and the Apple people say, well, we’re trying to find out more; and they’re working in good faith, and everyone else is doing it, and it’s an industrializing economy, it’s at the beginning stages, what do you really expect, and what about the Marxist dialectic of progress…[Laughter] You know, all of these things! Really! And that’s why you end up finding all these excuses and complications not to be paying attention to this issue. If you’re smart and you’re interested and you’re engaged, then yes, all these things are fascinating, but for most people, including me, it doesn’t grab you the same way as it does when you see it dramatically, when you think about that hand, when you think about those kids. And whether you agree with him or not, that seems to be what Mike was trying to do. And the alternative to that… And this is why I bring it up, this is why I worry. Because I worry that in the backlash against this, and in the urge to fact-check everything that will come out of this—in theater, not on NPR, but in theater—that we’re going to starve out some of the most beautiful things in this genre.