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If you know only one thing about Mike Daisey, it’s probably that he’s a liar.
Daisey lied in his hit one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a monologue that bears witness to the harsh conditions endured by workers who assemble Apple products, when he exaggerated the number of factories he visited and workers he interviewed during a trip to Shenzhen, China.
Daisey lied in the same show when he said he met a girl near the Foxconn factory in Shenhzen who told him she was 13 years old, that she and other underage workers were employed at Foxconn, and that their IDs were never checked.
Daisey lied when he said the factory worker with the mangled hand he met told him he worked at Foxconn, and when he said the man handled his iPad and pronounced it “a kind of magic.”
Daisey lied to the staff of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company last spring, when he insisted that the program of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs include the phrase, “This is a work of non-fiction.”
And Daisey lied to the producers of This American Life when they attempted to fact-check The Agony of the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to build a January 2012 radio program around the monologue: He had seen these things, he said. He didn’t know how to contact his Chinese translator, he said. “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” became the most-downloaded episode in the 17-year history of This American Life.
This is how Mike Daisey became the most polarizing theater artist in America. In a March 16 episode of This American Life titled “Retraction,” host Ira Glass said the program could no longer stand by “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.” In an agonizing interview with Glass and Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, the journalist who uncovered Daisey’s perfidy, Daisey owned up to his deceptions.
Outrage followed—from journalists, from theater professionals who had worked with the monologist, from activists. And Daisey, first defiant, then something closer to reflective, embarked on an apology tour.
Then and now, Daisey has maintained that while he was wrong to allow This American Life to present an abridged version of his monologue as journalism, and wrong to bill it to his own theater audiences as nonfiction, the work remains valid because it made people care about the grueling conditions under which their iStuff is made. The New York Times’ “iEconomy” series from last January bore out Daisey’s descriptions of 60-plus-hour work weeks, cramped dormitories, and workers made to stand until they waddled when they walked.
That’s Daisey’s rationale, anyway, but the implications aren’t just academic. Next week, Daisey returns to D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth—a company with which he shares a long history, and the stage where he “birthed” The Agony and the Ecstasy in 2010 and performed it to plaudits a year later—to remount his disgraced Apple play.
Daisey says all the material that This American Life challenged, roughly six minutes’ worth, is gone. This revision, which Daisey has already performed at the HighTide Festival in Suffolk, England, and at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., adds “12 or 14” minutes of new stuff, some of it directly addressing the outrage over Daisey’s inventions. (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak will join a post-play discussion on Aug. 4.)
The controversy might have proven disastrous for Daisey, who has earned acclaim for his monologues about social issues and matters of life and truth—performances that are bombastic and kinetic even though the imposing, round-faced Daisey tells them sitting down. And it has placed Woolly Mammoth, the New York-based performer’s home in D.C. for the last several years, in the unusual position of sharing future blowback. To Daisey’s detractors, the brouhaha has raised journalistic questions about Daisey’s brand of fact-based theater. To Daisey, it’s raised broader questions about how the truth is presented by everyone, including the journalists whose standards he could not meet. These are queries Daisey engages in another, new monologue that addresses his own controversy. One point of Daisey’s work is that we are all narrators of our own stories: In other words, everything can be examined, and re-examined, through the prism of Mike Daisey.
But the most pressing question is the simplest: Why is Daisey still performing a play that brought him so much disgrace?
“Before we go any further, I wanted to tell you—just this once—that I am an unreliable narrator. I am made of dust and shadows. I am telling you things now, and I will tell you more things. You will never know my secret heart. You will think you hold it in your hand, that you know the depths of me. And you know nothing. You will never know me. And I never wanted you to. That’s not why we’re here. That’s not why we ever came here to this place. And you should know the truth: That there are no reliable narrators.”
—The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure), June 22
If you know two things about Daisey, the second one might be that he performs his monologues from an outline but never a full script. In theory, at least, each performance is unique. That makes it difficult to determine which of the fabrications contained in the version This American Life aired were present in the versions of the show he created at Woolly Mammoth in 2010 and performed there last year.
A royalty-free transcript of the show Daisey posted on his personal website in February for anyone to adapt or perform has been downloaded more than 100,000 times. By my accounting, seven pages of that 53-page transcript contain material that This American Life challenged. In March, when the scandal broke, Daisey pledged to compile a source document providing citations for each of his claims. He changed his mind about that. “My desire to do that was more ego-bound than it was useful,” he says now. He chose to pour his energy into figuring out how to make the show work for a theater audience without the contested portions.
“I don’t care about people’s opinions about whether they now feel the work lives up to their standards,” Daisey says. “I’m learning not to care. If by not hearing about [the revisions], they assume the work is deeply fraudulent, then they should exercise their awesome ability not to show up.”
Framing the scandal without losing people who haven’t followed it was a thorny process, Daisey says: “Because despite the media’s love affair with itself, I know from performing it all over the place that only about 50 percent of my audiences have any idea that there was a scandal.”
Maybe he’s right, but it didn’t stop The Public Theater—the august New York playhouse that hosted a successful run of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs this winter—from distancing itself from Daisey, the one who professed to speak verifiable truths, while standing up for Daisey, the one who makes art. “Mike is an artist, not a journalist,” the theater’s statement read. “Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”
With its remount of The Agony and the Ecstasy already scheduled, Woolly Mammoth was less equivocal in its own statement. The same day the scandal broke, Woolly announced it would bring back the play this summer as planned.
Howard Shalwitz, Woolly’s artistic director, says the “Mike Daisey vortex” consumed his attention for weeks following This American Life’s retraction, even though the company never seriously considered canceling the show. Shalwitz maintains that the decision to stick by Daisey was made on principle, without regard for ticket sales or the potential problem of blowing a hole in his company’s summer slate. Woolly could’ve replaced Daisey’s show with four months’ notice if the company believed it necessary, Shalwitz says. (Daisey says no other venue pulled out, either, with one exception: This American Life canceled a one-night engagement it had scheduled for April 7 at The Chicago Theatre.)
All along, Shalwitz says, Woolly’s board supported the decision—which one board member, David Alpert, confirms. Alpert, a smart-growth activist who runs the website Greater Greater Washington and joined the board in 2011, says Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann kept Woolly’s watchdogs informed of his and Shalwitz’s deliberations in the wake of the scandal.
Ticket sales were strong after the remount was announced, says Woolly spokesperson Brooke Miller, but dipped following This American Life’s retraction. They’ve rebounded now that the theater is promoting the show heavily. (One ad calls The Agony and the Ecstasy “the most notorious and controversial play of the decade!”) A week before opening night, the play has sold more tickets than all but one play in Woolly’s current season.
The cliché about bad publicity seems to hold true in this case: Restaging The Agony and the Ecstasy is no financial risk. But is it a risk to Woolly’s credibility? Shalwitz says he had “some very painful conversations” with Daisey and Jean-Michelle Gregory, the show’s director and Daisey’s wife. He says he’s satisfied with the steps Daisey has taken to make amends.
While Shalwitz says he would have prefered for the conversation to remain about labor conditions, he insists that the fact that the show now invites discussion of the ethics of storytelling along with the ethics of global manufacturing only makes it a richer experience. “This notion that there’s a strict boundary between pure truth and art is completely false,” Shalwitz says. “We all know that that’s false. It’s false in journalism. It’s very false in theater, which is often based on illusion. And it’s false in art in general.”
But Shalwitz acknowledges that Woolly values its relationship with Daisey, who has performed runs of four of his monologues at the theater since 2008. (Daisey is slated to open another new monologue, American Utopias, at Woolly next March.) “We had gotten to the point in our relationship with Mike where we were basically saying to him, ‘What do you want to do next?’ That’s just how much I believe in him as an artist,” Shalwitz says.
“I looked into [Ira Glass’s] eyes and what I saw was fear—which made sense. I’d endangered everything. I’d endangered everything he had. I looked into his eyes and I was certain that I was the story. I was the story. And he is a very good storyteller. I’m very familiar with how much power a storyteller can have. They can make a whole universe. They can erase it, too.”
—The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure), June 22
If the decision to carry on with the remount was easy for Shalwitz, it wasn’t for Daisey and Gregory, who has directed all of his monologues—and whom Daisey also misled, he’s said. I asked Daisey if he ever considered breaking up their artistic partnership. The couple has been together since 1997, and married in 2000.
“At different points during the course of this, pretty much every option that people would consider was on the table,” Daisey says. “The idea of not ever performing again was on the table. The idea of divorcing was on the table. The idea of killing myself was on the table. But the idea of continuing but not working together was not.”
Daisey phoned Shalwitz in advance of the This American Life retraction to warn him it was coming. On March 27, Daisey joined Shalwitz and Herrmann onstage for a public forum at Woolly, where Daisey expanded upon the public apologies he’d begun at a talk at Georgetown University the week before. (He first met privately with Woolly’s staff to apologize to them.) Patrons expressed support and disgust for him in roughly equal measure.
One woman told Daisey she found his rationalizations slick and insincere, and that she was ending her relationship with his work for good. Daisey, who said at the earlier Georgetown talk that some of the lies entered his monologue gradually over time, responded, “I’m sorry that this seems too slick for you. I’m sorry. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m not capable of not being slick. Maybe my interactions with people are built and patterned after working with crowds for so long. Maybe I relate to crowds better than I do to individuals, because I’ve spent a lot of time in front of them. I’m not actually capable of taking down my boundaries any further.”
Alli Houseworth, a former Woolly Mammoth staffer who was heavily involved in marketing The Agony and the Ecstasy, wrote a piece for ArtsJournal in March urging theaters to boycott the monologue until Daisey apologized. In addition to his public meas culpa, Houseworth says Daisey phoned her to offer a personal apology “within a week” of the March 27 Woolly event.
Houseworth was a huge fan of Daisey’s monologues prior to working with him on Steve Jobs. The scandal soured her: She says there was a time when she would buy tickets for anything he did, but she won’t be attending the remount and can’t imagine working with him again. But she doesn’t rule herself out of the audience for Daisey’s future monologues. “I am actually sort of curious if he becomes humbled by all this,” she says.
Still, it was unclear to Houseworth exactly who the March 27 forum was for. “You were invited to go discuss the matter with them, but they had already made up their minds,” Houseworth says. “It was like, ‘Sorry, guys: We’re going to do the show anyway, no matter what you say.’”
Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the New York-based “investigative theater” company The Civilians, whose Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play just closed at Woolly, was a panelist alongside Daisey at a June 23 discussion called “Theatre’s Role In Activism” at the Theater Communications Group conference in Boston. He isn’t convinced the theater community has reckoned sufficiently with the lessons of Daiseygate. “I think the majority of the field would want him to continue to write and perform and be presented by theaters,” Cosson says. “I think a lot of people felt like I did—that the quality of discourse and reflection and just looking at ourselves when something goes wrong didn’t happen at quite the level of depth that it should have.”
Cosson rejects the rationalization that no code of conduct exists for theaters whose work combines theatrical and journalistic techniques. “One [suggestion] that came up that was that if theatres are going to be producing or presenting this kind of work, then the norm should be that they should be fact-checking the work, as if the theaters were like publishers,” Cosson says. “I don’t think that’s the answer. I can’t imagine how that would work. But it’s something the field has to talk about.”
“To reliably narrate a travel story is to talk about horrendously boring shit. The art of travel narrative is in the excision of reams and reams of pointlessly dull material, removed to only allow the glassy pebbles of a perfect experience to sit next to each other.”
—The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure), June 22
To some, the litany of apologies and explanations that Daisey embarked upon in March were the desperate reflexes of a charlatan hoping to salvage a 15-year career as monologist that until four months ago had brought him far more acclaim than condemnation. But I found myself defending Daisey, and I believe his argument that The Agony and the Ecstasy still has merit.
In the monologue, Daisey marshaled his tale-spinning gifts for an unforgettable condemnation of the world’s most iconic—and most profitable—technology company. And for the first time in his career, he urged his audiences to do something when the show was over. He distributed handouts encouraging people to email Apple CEO Tim Cook and to scale back the pace at which they upgrade their Apple devices.
But he didn’t upgrade his story-building methods to withstand the scrutiny to which they’d eventually be subjected. He went to Shenzen, but he didn’t take notes or make recordings of his interviews, the way a reporter would. When Marketplace’s Schmitz phoned the translator Daisey had hired and she refused to support Daisey’s account of events he said they’d experienced together, Daisey admitted he’d taken major liberties in his descriptions of what he personally witnessed.
I can understand why at this point journalists, especially, wanted Daisey to shut up and go away. They spend their professional lives trying to craft narratives that have a powerful emotional impact, bound by stricter rules than the ones Daisey feels he must observe. For them, cutting the corners Daisey did would be career-ending.
I’ve long admired the ability of the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten to conduct reportage that moves with the grace and pathos of the best prose fiction, so I asked him what he thinks of Mike Daisey. “It bothers me that people want to find excuses for Daisey, and are doing so in ways that confuse the issue,” writes Weingarten in an email. He says he only knows Daisey’s work from the January This American Life episode and subsequent fallout. “Think about the underlying reality here: Mike Daisey has such contempt for his listeners that he is willing to invent facts—powerful, evocative, central facts of his narrative—to make people believe what he thinks they should believe. He is saying: I, Mike Daisey, believe a certain truth about the world. I want you to believe the same thing, so I will distort reality to make you believe it, and not tell you I am doing that. It is so dishonest, and so manipulative, it is essentially intellectual totalitarianism.“
The line on Daisey has been that he committed a journalistic crime—duh—as well as a theatrical one: He took his power from claims of personal witness even though he did not witness everything he described. But I don’t think it’s right to blame Daisey for falling short of our expectations. Rather, I think we expect the wrong things from the medium.
In my view, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs remains valuable not for the specific facts it imparts but for the way it makes us think, at least for two hours and hopefully for much longer, about the human cost of the devices we carry with us. Daisey lied about what he saw and heard, but he didn’t lie in portraying the circumstances within Foxconn as hellish.
I was outraged that Daisey would risk the reputation of This American Life by lying to Glass and producer Brian Reed (a former Washington City Paper staffer) so they wouldn’t discover his monologue did not hew to their standards. But I never felt outraged as a member of his audience. Unlike many of Daisey’s critics, apparently, I’ve never assumed that anything a stage storyteller tells me is as rigidly factual as what I read in the New York Times. I reserve those expectations for Charles Duhigg, David Barboza, and Keith Bradsher, whose “iEconomy” series I might not have devoured when it hit the Times in January had I not seen Daisey’s show nine months earlier.
Now Daisey is the story as much as Apple. It’s a notion compelling to the team at Woolly. “Why would we walk away from a conversation that’s only getting richer, more complex and more interesting?” says Shalwitz. He says Daisey is a one-of-a-kind talent, that no one matches his almost hypnotic power to interweave personal reflections with explorations of big themes like terrorism, currency, and—even before this scandal—the porous nature of the line between fact and fiction.
For his part, Daisey has lashed out at journalistic coverage of his controversy. And he’s criticized the technology press, which he says is still too soft on Apple. His biggest target may be the notion of unassailable truth itself. “Objective journalism is an illusion that’s comforting to many of us,” Daisey says.
He’s already started to talk about it in his native language: as a stage story.
A day after our first telephone interview, Daisey sent me an audio recording of his June 22 workshop performance of The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure) at the Theater Communications Group conference. (The piece is in progress.) In it, Daisey crosscuts between recounting a European vacation he and Gregory took in May to escape the heat of media scrutiny, and his direct reflections on the scandal. Because it’s a Mike Daisey story, the parallel narratives dovetail and intersect elegantly. He speaks of sleepless nights and heartbreak. He mentions Paul Farhi’s Post story examining whether it would now be appropriate to fact-check the many humorous David Sedaris essays that have aired on public radio over the last 20 years. He points out that none of us will ever be offered a time machine to reward our perfect hindsight.
Mike Daisey, whose Twitter bio now describes him as a “noted fabulist,” is once again playing the character of Mike Daisey.
“I respond to story with story,” he says. “I actually think that’s the human way to do it. But it takes longer.”
Mike Daisey performs The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs July 17 to August. 5 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. $40–$67.50.
The article originally contained two reporting errors. The title of the work Mike Daisey performed at the Theater Communications Group conference, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure), contains a comma and parentheses. And the article misquoted Daisey’s Twitter profile. He describes himself as a “noted fabulist,” not a “known” one.