The Washington Post

Mike Daisey attempts damage control with his audience

In this undated image released by The Public Theater, Mike Daisey is shown in a scene from "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in New York. (Stan Barouh/AP)

The only applause line during a 75-minute public forum with Mike Daisey on Tuesday evening at Woolly Mammoth came when the theater’s artistic director, Howard Shalwitz, said, “We shouldn’t be apologizing for the art that Mike Daisey is capable of.”

That was after what seemed like dozens of apologies for the fictions that Daisey had slipped into his billed-as-nonfiction “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Even then, the clapping was scattered.

Otherwise, the civil crowd filling about two-thirds of the hall didn’t give much away. The contretemps, as attendees surely knew, has been flogged hard for 12 days in print, online, in news releases and in public appearances. And Daisey himself seemed the worse for wear — muted, and visibly troubled by the toughest questions.

Shalwitz and theater managing director Jeffrey Herrmann set a contrite tone with prepared statements about the furor and Woolly’s decision to stand by the 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 by polite applause. Sounding abashed, he apologized without notes for roughly a minute. “I’m sorry . . . I failed you,” he said. The apology, although not quite as uncomfortable as the cross-examinations that exposed Daisey on the March 16 radio episode of “This American Life,” was met with silence.

With questions divided pretty evenly among members of the pro-Daisey camp (“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 might 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.

“That hurt,” said a woman who had responded to the performance’s call for action, asking how Daisey could have resorted to fabrications in what seemed to be a documentary piece. “I’m sorry I put you in that position” was part of the usually pugnacious monologist’s reply. Repeating what he had posted on his blog earlier in the afternoon, Daisey said that, from now on, nothing that was contested on “This American Life” would be in the show, which he will perform Saturday in Vermont. Shalwitz said the troupe wouldn’t bring the show back if it were going to “misrepresent conditions” it describes in Chinese factories where iPhones and iPads are made.

On whether “Steve Jobs” is still the asset Daisey hoped it would be for activists, the performer 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 that 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 PR job,” she said of his soft-spoken responses. “It sounds like the rebirth tour, not the self-flagellation tour.”

Daisey paused and 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 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 March 25, 2013.

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.”

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" came out in 2014.



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