Mike Daisey on the truth and facts of ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’


Mike Daisey, who made up parts of his show ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,’ says, ‘I wish I could separate my unethical behavior from the conversation about the complexity of truth in fiction.’ (Neville Elder / Corbis)

It’s impossible to gauge precisely how Mike Daisey’s controversial one-man “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” will be different this week when the Apple-Exploits-Chinese-Workers exposreturns to Woolly Mammoth. Daisey, 39, never writes his scripts. Show after show, he extemporizes. Or, as Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz marvels, “He just gets up on the stage and talks.”

But given the public whipping Daisey received this spring over exaggerations in the piece, certain moments are bound to come across differently than they did if you caught the highly acclaimed monologue last year at Woolly. Or during its extended run at Manhattan’s Public Theater. Or if you downloaded the free composite transcript from Daisey’s Web site, as more than 100,000 people have done. (An updated transcript likely will be posted after the Woolly run, Daisey says. He has no plans to take the old transcript down.)

Girls as young as 12 emerging from the Foxconn factory, a man disfigured by a Foxconn metal press: When the radio show “This American Life” asked in March whether those things actually happened after it had broadcast extended excerpts in January, Daisey couldn’t confirm. Then he misled the radio producers when they asked if they could follow up with the interpreter he used while gathering impressions in China.

The pile-on began, and it was severe. Journalists were furious. The theater community was embarrassed. On Twitter, you can still find detractors eager to swat Daisey with “Go away,” and worse.

Daisey is poised for what could be a strong rebound with this Washington re-engagement. Earlier this week, it was announced that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak would join Daisey for a post-performance conversation Aug. 4, with tickets going for $100. Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey’s wife and longtime collaborator, says the revised show is sturdier, with the contested bits excised and a post-scandal perspective worked in.

For more than an hour, over lunch outside at a steakhouse in Daisey’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn, the “scandal” — Daisey’s word, repeatedly — is not the subject. Then it is, for another hour and longer. Eventually, he says, he wants “to be clear” about all the reflection and analysis he has shared.

“I offer these things as points of interest and points of engagement, but they’re not excuses,” Daisey says evenly, working on a second latte and ignoring his roast beef on brioche. “People are very allergic to excuses from me. People will hear anything I say as an excuse. If you live inside of it, and we all talk about it, this is what I think about. But they’re not excuses.”

His topics are broad, and Daisey — dressed in his familiar black outfit of trousers and open collar shirt — riffs through issues like a seasoned but wounded pundit. His primary targets: Apple. China. Theater. Journalism. He says he understands what the endpoint of this particular journalistic exercise will be.

“It will be a piece of fiction,” Daisey says, “woven from the things that happened here, that we said to each other, in an attempt to tell the truth.”

‘I would still do it’

Talking without a break for nearly three hours, the post-scandal Daisey is contrite. But also combative. Seemingly open. Certainly not sounding like a heavyweight ready to deliver his own requiem.

● On “fiction”: “I wish I could separate my unethical behavior from the conversation about the complexity of truth in fiction. That’s aggravating because it’s actually a very complicated, fascinating topic.”

He smiles, and here comes the mandatory asterisk. “But that does not mean that my path through this particular situation is complex and fascinating. A lot of mine is very straightforward unethical behavior.”

He contends that the modern cultural bias that devalues topical issues in fiction — certainly in U.S. theater — lured him toward the “nonfiction” billing for “Steve Jobs.”

“Some facts were injured in the telling of this story. The truth, however, remains unharmed.” So read the acknowledgments page of “21 Dog Years: Doing Time @Amazon.com” a decade ago; thus has most of his work been received.

“There was a lot of talking about it,” Daisey says of the “Steve Jobs” fiction/nonfiction tempest. “I don’t know how much of it was fruitful. That’s the part that kind of bums me out.”

● On the impact and fallout of “Steve Jobs”: “I would still do it. And since I would still do it, I think they should take their best shot at me. Anybody who’s upset, they should go ahead and be upset.”

● On the climate around him: “What is the weather? Because when the people who write the news are the people who are most upset with you, the impression of what the actual weather is like is not always the way it seems.”

Daisey notes that he has performed the monologue in the United States and Great Britain since the scandal broke, without incident. Shalwitz says: “You assume the loudest voices are the only voices out there. But there have been others saying, ‘Stop apologizing. Keep fighting.’ ” (That was true the night Daisey made a lugubrious Q&A appearance at Woolly in March.)

● On apologies: “I’m not capable of being as apologetic for as sustained an amount of time as my culture would like me to be. Because certain parts of my culture would like me to be just kind of continuously apologetic forever, and this is not possible. I’m probably not even capable of being apologetic the minimum amount of time they want, truthfully.”

● On theater and activism: “I really believe that touching people emotionally, piercing the layers of disinformation we have — and I don’t even mean the kind that people would laugh at and say that I spread disinformation; I mean the kind that guards our hearts, so we don’t actually get exposed — in theater, I feel like it’s possible to actually connect with people humanly. And as a consequence, shake them into wakefulness.”

‘He just doesn’t stop’

Much of Daisey’s life story has been chronicled in his bombastic comic monologues, which he has been creating professionally — and performing — since his emergence in 2001 with “21 Dog Years.”

Washington has only seen a handful of Daisey shows, though, all at Woolly, and they’ve been his Big Issue pieces: The Homeland Security-themed “If You See Something, Say Something.” “The Last Cargo Cult,” about systems of money. “How Theater Failed America,” pointing the finger at the lapsed not-for-profit ideal. Now “Steve Jobs” again.

To us, he is Mike the Muckraker. Other monologues have spent more time on such personal matters as, say, his parents’ divorce.

He roughs in the biography: The family settled in northern Maine when Daisey, the oldest of four kids, was very young. The place was cold and remote, which he thinks fueled his imagination, not having much to do but stand in the snow when ordered outside.

By high school, he found a niche competing on the speech and debate team. Dramatic interpretation — monologues — was part of it. The bigger deal for Daisey was extemporaneous speaking: researching domestic and foreign issues, fielding a specific question, talking off the cuff.

By studying headlines, he could pretty accurately anticipate questions. “All the good competitors did that. I really enjoyed it.”

By college, still in Maine, “I loved theater, but I was going to be a poet. I was very certain about this.” Teaching poetry would “be amazing,” he thought, but one class in critical theory killed the English major idea.

“I am very craft-driven,” Daisey explains. “I just want to do things where I do things.”

He created his own major in aesthetics, which boiled down to a combination of English, theater and philosophy. After college, he moved to Seattle and ended up in the busy garage theater scene, which is where he met Gregory.

“Bad theater really bonds you,” Gregory says with a laugh by phone from their Brooklyn back yard. “It’s like war or something.”

Soon Gregory was directing Daisey’s monologues. About his move to a one-man format, Daisey says, “I would fix people with my hoary eye and not let them leave at bars,” he recalls. “Colleagues, other artists, would say, ‘You should tell that onstage.’ ”

He adds, “I wanted to do theater that I can control the variables of.”

The breakthrough was “21 Dog Years,” a stage monologue and delightfully snarky book about Daisey’s time working for Amazon in customer relations and business development. The Washington Post took notice of the book in its financial pages. David Letterman had Daisey on. Daisey’s stage performance got picked up in New York and around the country.

Since then Daisey and Gregory have industriously created show after show, building a unique brand around the informed and inquisitive, riotously over-the-top comic style that has been edging toward activism for some time.

“Mike and Jean-Michele are like a mini-theater company,” Shalwitz says. “I can’t think of a more productive company. He’s got a drive that is just astounding. He just doesn’t stop.”

A lot of preparation goes into the extemporizing — researching, interviewing, and, in the case of “Steve Jobs,” trekking to the gates of Foxconn in China. The pieces inevitably grow in refinement as Daisey performs them, which he does sitting at a desk, with a notepad and a glass of water nearby.

But ask what he has for “American Utopias,” the Disney-Burning Man-Zuccotti Park show he’ll perform at Woolly next spring, and Daisey says, “I have nothing.”

“What we mean,” he elaborates, “is, ‘What’s written?’ And the answer to that is always nothing, until 24 hours before the performance. And that’s been true of every monologue.”

Therefore theaters have no script to evaluate when deciding whether to book him. It also means he has no scripts languishing in regional theater development hell: “I dodge it all,” says Daisey, who has flown an anti-establishment banner throughout his public life. “And that’s actually one of the reasons the shows are so good.”

‘The dark time’

“Steve Jobs” was — is? — regarded as possibly the best of his entertaining and provocative performances. Certainly it’s his most activist, his most ahead-of-the-curve piece. It is debated whether or how much Daisey heated up the news about Apple’s labor practices in China. He and Shalwitz stick to the claim that response to “Steve Jobs” helped move reported stories toward the front pages.

Inarguably, Daisey was timely about injecting himself into a pressing issue, putting himself out front in his own larger-than-life voice. It’s something too few artists can say in the country’s play-it-very-safe theater.

“If anybody’s going to get into trouble, Mike would be the one,” Shalwitz says with a laugh. Daisey, Shalwitz adds, is “an indispensable American artist” who is “only tackling huge topics now.”

The period of vilification led to what Daisey calls a “dark time,” when “everything was on the table” — quitting the theater, getting divorced, worse.

“One could argue easily that I’m still in it now,” Daisey says, picking his words carefully. “But at a certain point, when something is disruptive enough, you’re sort of in it forever, in the sense that there’s a new equilibrium. Part of figuring out where you’re at — you never come back to exactly where you were.”

Last month in Boston, Daisey workshopped a new monologue at the annual Theatre Communications Group conference.

“It was a nerve-racking group,” Daisey says, but Shalwitz, who was on hand to deliver a speech of his own, was heartened: “I saw him starting to get his courage back.”

Gregory says repairing relationships with audiences will take time, but that she feels she and Daisey are “through the tunnel”: “This whole thing, terrible as it’s been, I have a sense that it has renewed a fertility of ideas. I kind of wonder if this won’t be an explosive year where we do four new things. . . . Everything’s getting back on line.”

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

created and performed by Mike Daisey. Tuesday-Aug. 5 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. www.woollymammoth.net.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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