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

Taylor Mac: Who’s going to do the fact-checking in theater?

Jason Zinoman: I don’t think that’s something to worry about, for a couple of reasons. One, compare these journalists…

Taylor Mac: You’re not writing it! I’m sitting there at my computer second-guessing myself, and the worst thing you can do as an artist is to be self-conscious. It kills creativity. It’s very different.

Jessica Blank: I think we can get around that—of course, I think that’s absolutely true, but I think that we can get around that trap by just saying that the bottom-line ethical responsibility is to be honest and forthright with your audience about what it is that you’re doing. I don’t think it’s about “Don’t make something up,” I think it’s about if you make something up, say it’s made up.

Jason Zinoman: It’s also not that different. Let me give you an example. Journalists want to tell a good story too; we really do. In fact, we want to be entertaining, too. Last May, I heard about Mike Daisey’s show and I thought there were things that were inaccurate about it, and I e-mailed him about it. We had an e-mail exchange back and forth. A lot of that was off-the-record. I would love to have, when I wrote my story about it…

Steven Cosson: About this show?

Jason Zinoman: About this show, we had an off-record that would have made a better story than I wrote if I could include the off-record stuff, but I wouldn’t do that because that would hurt my credibility. Those are little choices that journalists make all the time, in the same way that an actor, say, may give a great performance but it doesn’t fit into the rest of the show. There’s more similarities than you think. The danger is that as successful as the show was, and as big a deal as it was—and I totally agree with Steve; I remember writing a Facebook thing when Apple made its announcement, saying, “Believe it or not, a theater person had something to do with this,” and I was very proud. But as big as that was, this scandal is bigger. This scandal is bigger. And I think that the more… Theater is—let’s be real, theater is small, and the reach of this scandal is much wider.

Jessica Blank: Why do you think that?

Jason Zinoman: Because the number… It went national in terms of press, in terms of This American Life, and Mike Daisey is now… One of the things I feel the most sad about is, what if Mike Daisey wants to do another show about the real world? Which I hope he does, he did some wonderful things about the real world before. The audience, I think—are they going to trust him again? In the same way?

Taylor Mac: He’ll use his tools to make them trust him, and that may be that he has to lie to them again. [Laughter] Fair enough! I was raised in a Christian family where we were told that truth is a synonym of God, and that it was the most important thing ever, and if you lied, it’s evil for you to lie. And so my whole life, every single day of my adult life, I’ve been confronted with the fact that I have to lie to people—and you too! Every single person here, every day we lie in some way, right? And I always feel guilty about it—every single time, even if it’s to do something good for somebody, I always feel guilty about it. And I got involved in the theater—not because of this, but this is a great benefit—because I can lie and not feel guilty about it! [Laughter] And it’s funny, but it’s not funny, actually. This is the difference between journalism and theater. You did not get involved in journalism so you could lie. I got involved so that I could make up shit! And take people, and get to something inside of them as a result of making something up.

Jessica Blank: Do you call what you do documentary or nonfiction?

Taylor Mac: No, I don’t believe in nonfiction theater!

Jessica Blank: Right, but that’s exactly my point…

Taylor Mac: But I do tell stories that happened, and I change shit all the time.

Jessica Blank: But you admit it!

Taylor Mac: Well, I don’t actually admit it onstage.

Peter Marks: But you admit it now.

Taylor Mac: I wish I hadn’t just now. [Laughter]

Steve Cosson: If you were to see The Exonerated—did you see The Exonerated?

Taylor Mac: I did not.

Peter Marks: He was too busy making shit up! [Laughter]

Taylor Mac: No, it’s good, it’s good. Lots of famous people doing monologues. You started, though, on this. I’m not going to… It’s okay, it’s okay.

Steven Cosson: And without getting into, like, a dull discussion of semantics, but imagine you saw a play, called The Exonerated, where a bunch of people were reading these texts, and you were told these were taken from transcripts, and that the people that these actors are representing are real people who were in jail and who were innocent and were exonerated—you can maybe say that there’s no such thing as nonfiction theater, but would you come away with the belief that those people that were represented, that those stories, were true?

Taylor Mac: I would come away with the belief that [Pause] the questions in the play that I was being asked were true. Does that make sense?