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 agree with you. As I said when I was making that point, there are distinctions to be made within that point. I was just trying to make a larger point there. There are factual inaccuracies that are substantive within Mike’s monologue, and those are the things that I found troubling about it, absolutely.

Audience member 2: To add to that, well I guess to explain where this is all from, I’m a writer, I just graduated from NYU, and I’ve traveled to China three times to do research. So I have a lot of contacts who are American and Western journalists who are in China. And when this NPR piece came out, before it was revealed that it was fabrication, it was met with almost, I would say, universal derision among these academics and researchers, and these journalists, because they said, this is another anti-Chinese, it makes China…it feeds into the hatred that ignorant people who don’t really know what they’re talking about, ignorant people in America, have about the Chinese government and the Chinese people. To add to what he said, his portrayal of Chinese factory workers just makes them sound completely simple-minded. There’s this one point where he asks them, “What would you change about your job?” and it seems like it had never occurred to them, or there’s this one part where…

Adam Feldman: I’m sorry to interrupt, and I don’t want to be too rude, but I forgot to say at the beginning of this, that we only have a few minutes, so we have to limit these to questions. I’ll be around. We can talk about this afterwards.

Audience member 2: And it’s true, the translator also seems completely innocent when she finds out all this. So I feel like, to a lot of expats or people—Americans, the Westernized class in China—I bet if you asked a Chinese person, they wouldn’t say that he did a lot of good with this piece. They would say this is offensive, this is neocolonialist, this is racist. And I was wondering if anyone had any comments.

Jessica Blank: I would love to speak to that for a second. I don’t know that I would characterize this piece as racist. I feel like that’s taking… But I do think that the way theater operates is through the process of empathy, right? Where the audience is having an empathic experience with the protagonist who’s taking them through the journey of the piece, and I do think that there are…to me, the politics of documentary work is in the choice of protagonist, and it’s in the choice of who are you asking your audiences to empathize with. In our work, we’re interested in asking our audience to empathize with people don’t usually get empathized with, who are on Death Row, right, and I do think that there is significance in the fact that Mike is asking us—in all of his work, because he’s a storyteller and monologist, and that’s the form he’s working in—to empathize with him. So he’s not primarily actually asking us to identify with the factory workers; he’s asking us to identify with Mike Daisey, American guy who went to China. And that is complicated, and complicates things, and brings up problems that I think you’re getting at well.

Audience member 3: So I was wondering about…something I’ve been struggling with, is this idea of identity and the sacredness of a first-person story, especially having done some self-scripting projects. There is something inherently different about being like, “This is me, this is my story.” It goes to a place within the storyteller, and hopefully for the audience, that another set of stories wouldn’t. But then at the same time, there are stories that aren’t first-person stories that we connect with in that same way, often. So being that there are these small or large details that have been fabricated, but I also sort of don’t doubt exist in various places in the world, there’s a question to me of saying, This didn’t happen to Mike Daisey, but his friend was at the place. And then there’s this degree of separation. I guess I don’t have the question quite formulated [Laughter] but it’s about, what is it about the first-person versus being verifiable, versus second-person, third-person, if it’s true?

Steven Cosson: I’m going to toss back an example. One of the shows my company worked on was about the city of Colorado Springs. And we happened to be there when Ted Haggard, evangelical leader, was busted for having a gay hooker, and maybe a meth habit…and watched all sorts of shit go down around that, and it became a huge story that blew up across the country for, like, a week, but we were there firsthand, experiencing it, and a lot of that fed into the play. And while I was there, I was told things by people in the church about other things that were alleged to have happened that were much worse than what was coming out in the news—don’t you wish you knew what those things were? [Laughter] And like I said, it’s not set in stone exactly what the ethics are, but I feel like some stuff is pretty cut-and-dry. That’s hearsay, and if I then created a character in my play who then showed up and said, “This happened with me and Ted Haggard,” and it would be really moving stuff, and it would be compelling on the questions of what’s going on in the evangelical church, it could do a lot of good, but it’s hearsay, and it would have been a lie, and it would have been wrong.

Jessica Blank: And you could have been sued.

Steven Cosson: And I could have been sued. [Laughter] So I don’t know, that might be helpful. [Laughter]

Audience member Danny C: Thank you for having the panel. My name is Danny C, I’m the spokesperson for Revolution Books, and I do have to agree with something that Jessica and that you said, Adam—that there is a problem in one sense of labeling, and if he’d said this was something different, that he’d fabricated, or that he’d made up certain things for a larger historical truth—but this is not little truths and big truths. We talk about a conscience of artists—what’s our conscience? Who are we responsible to? To me, we are responsible to the fact that there are nets around Foxconn. This is not a lie. People are committing suicide. We are not just responsible to the discredited jerk or the journalists who now may suffer, now that somebody may doubt his article. Do your fact- checks if you’re a journalist. But millions of people are sweating and slaving and dying in factories in India, in China. You want to talk about your cell phone? Talk about where the coltan comes from. [To Jason] You know where it comes from, as a journalist? ’Cause you said you like exploitation films.

Jason Zinoman: Do you want me to respond to that?

Audience member Danny C: That coltan comes from the Congo. No, but I really think we’re not talking about, that really none of the larger truths that Mike has brought to the stage have really been interrogated, including on the question of the guns with the guards. That, I’m not sure is true, that the guards there have guns, but those factories are surrounded by troops. Over and over again, there’s plenty of documentation of that, and Mike brought this issue in front of the world. You want to compare the coverage—that New York Times article was good, but compare all the coverage of Steve Jobs, idolizing him, when that was based on this slave labor.

Jason Zinoman: Can I respond? I guess you’re presenting this either/or, you either care about this labor or you care about the fact of Mike Daisey. And I guess what crystallized it for me today was talking to this person with Human Rights Watch. They care about this issue, okay? They care about it. They dedicate their life to it. [Audience member begins to respond.] Now wait a second, wait a second, we heard you talk. Now, the idea that—it’s a little more complicated idea—that credibility can change. How change is made is a complicated thing, and I think Mike Daisey can play a great role, and he could have played an even greater role if he didn’t cut, as he said, if he didn’t make some shortcuts. What I would like to have is that you have the academics do their thing, the journalists do their thing, Mike Daisey does his thing, and they complement each other. I don’t think we’re at odds. I would argue that—in Daisey’s, his defense, [it’s] not a crime—I think he has been more aggressive in his criticism of journalists and academics, and people who have spent their lives doing this. That’s where I say that’s going too far. That’s a casualty that I think is not worth it. You may disagree. That’s my point of view.

Jessica Blank: And I think what you’re saying about the fact that we all can work together is extremely important. There are so many different ways to make change, and that way that real change is going to be made in the world is by storytellers working with journalists, working with human-rights organizations, working with people, in all different forms. And I think part of that anger and frustration about this is not—certainly there’s been personal public shaming of Mike that I think is just annoying and counterproductive of people being moralistic about it, “Oh, he’s an asshole cause he made something up”—it’s not about that. It’s about exactly what Jason is saying, which is that these larger issues, which are what’s really important here.… The discussion of those has been impeded by this and I think there are a lot of people who are upset because that’s a real problem because the larger issues are really what we should be sitting here talking about, and what we would be if there weren’t these problems with the truth.