The only applause line during a 75-minute public forum with Mike Daisey on Tuesday at Woolly Mammoth came when artistic director Howard Shalwitz, after what seemed like dozens of apologies for the fictions that Daisey slipped into his billed-as-non-fiction "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," said, "We shouldn't be apologizing for the art that Mike Daisey is capable of."
Otherwise, the civil crowd filling about two-thirds of the hall didn't much give itself away. The contretemps, as attendees surely knew, has been flogged hard for 12 days in print, online, in press releases and in public appearances; perhaps Daisey fatigue has finally set in. Daisey himself seemed the worse for wear – muted, and visibly troubled by the toughest questions. An accurate show about the pugnacious monologist's time in the hot center of scandal surely wouldn't find him as exuberant as usual.
Shalwitz and managing director Jeffrey Herrmann set a contrite tone with prepared statements about the furor and Woolly’s decision to stand by its scheduled return engagement of “Steve Jobs” to its birthplace theater this summer. The purpose of the forum "is to hear from you," Shalwitz told the audience. Then Daisey appeared, greeted with polite applause. Without notes and sounding very abashed, he apologized for roughly a minute. "I'm sorry . . . I failed you," he said. The apology, not quite as uncomfortable as the cross-examinations that exposed Daisey on the March 16 radio episode of "This American Life," was met with a hard-to-read silence.
With questions divided pretty evenly among pro-Daisey camps (“I just have to say keep going, Mike”) and dissenters, the audience asked about how the theater would vet documentary shows. "We don't have an apparatus to do the fact-checking," Shalwitz said, adding that the troupe may have to step up "interrogation of the artist." Would Daisey ever have come clean on his own? Daisey said the lies would have cracked sooner or later.
On being duped: "That hurt," said a woman who had responded to "Steve Jobs"'s call for action, asking how he could have resorted to fabrications in what seemed like a documentary piece. "I'm sorry I put you in that position," was part of Daisey's reply. Repeating what he had posted on his blog earlier in the afternoon, Daisey said that nothing that was contested on "This American Life" will be in the show, which he will perform Saturday in Vermont. Shalwitz stated the troupe wouldn't bring the show back if it were going to "misrepresent conditions" it describes.
On whether "Steve Jobs" is still the asset he hoped it would be for activists, Daisey said, "I offer it as a tool to them . . . And if they ask me to be quiet on these issues, I will be quiet."
The harshest critique came near the end, from a woman who said she couldn't believe "Steve Jobs" was the first time Daisey lied about a piece, and that she wouldn't buy tickets to another Daisey show. "It sounds like a great p.r. job," she said of his soft-spoken responses. "It sounds like the 'Rebirth' tour, not the 'Self-Flagellation' tour."
Daisey paused, said, "I don't think I ever had cause" to cross such an ethical line in previous pieces. "I'm sorry that this seems too slick to you."
Woolly is posting a recording of the full forum on its Web site.
In the lobby afterward, Shalwitz and Herrmann, but not Daisey, took questions one-on-one. Shalwitz made clear that the forum was not a referendum, that the troupe's decision to stick with the July return of "Steve Jobs" is firm. Woolly is also scheduled to premiere a new Daisey piece, "American Utopias," next season. A workshop is planned for the fall, with performances for the full run to begin next March 25.
Shalwitz said his goals for the forum included considering how to repair the damage with audiences. He acknowledged that there were times in the past several days when the piece felt possibly too toxic to bring back.
"But you don't get anything artistically," he said, without embracing the conversation and trying to move it forward. "And the only way to do that is to keep Mike in it."
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