Mike Daisey wants to change the world. The monologuist is back at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company with his latest impassioned, comic-tragic screed, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” through April 17.
His new piece, which was first workshopped at Woolly last July, is about labor conditions at computer technology companies, specifically Apple.
Daisey traveled last spring to Shenzhen, China, where Apple’s and other companies’ hardware is made by subcontractors such as Foxconn. He posed as a businessman to gain access to many factories and used an interpreter to talk with workers.
Daisey was appalled by the working conditions — factory floors packed with 25,000 and more workers, some children, doing 12- and 18-hour shifts or longer, living in cramped quarters and shadowed by factory security people.
“I expected it to be bad. I expected it to be harsh. I was not actually prepared for how dehumanizing it was. I wasn’t actually prepared for the scale of it. . . . That was what shocked me,” Daisey says.
Learning how his beloved iPhone, iPad and other gadgets were made broke his heart, he says. “I miss the pleasure of browsing technology in a world where the consequences didn’t cost people’s lives. I miss a sort of unfettered world where the big questions were what [a device’s] specifications were . . . a sort of techno-libertarian landscape that I didn’t even fully know that I inhabited.”
Daisey tells the story of his techno-enlightenment by zigzagging between gossipy accounts of the rise of Jobs and Apple, comical riffs on his loathing of PowerPoint presentations and his “lust” for Apple products. Meanwhile he “virally” works in details about the Shenzhen workers.
“The only reason to speak the truth is to try and change the world. So if I’m honestly being asked what is the best possible thing that could come out of performing this monologue, it is changing the world,” Daisey says.
What if, for example, people were to stop upgrading their stuff for a while? “I do believe that if people understand, truly understand, the human circumstances under which their things are made, that will move them like a lever to change,” he says. “Consumers have an enormous amount of power . . . but people need to be stirred into consciousness. They need to be woken up.”
Daisey portrays Apple co-founder Jobs not as a villain, but as a tough visionary who has yet to be enlightened about the China issue.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” audiences get information as they leave, including Jobs’s e-mail address. Daisey says some people have forwarded Daisey the replies. One such reply gave him hope. He quotes Jobs as writing, “I don’t think [Mike Daisey] appreciates the complexity of the situation.”
Daisey says, “I thought it was a great response. It actually gives a lot of ground. First, it acknowledges that there’s a situation, which is a big step.”
David Muse, who became Studio Theatre’s artistic director in September, says there haven’t been a lot of surprises as he’s guided the company’s current season, which was largely chosen by his predecessor, founding artistic director Joy Zinoman, who retired in August. Before taking over at Studio, Muse had directed several shows there.
“Of course, you never know what something is like until you really experience it, but I knew a lot about Studio. . . . In large part I knew what I was getting into,” Muse says. Of Zinoman’s longtime staff, now his, he says, “Sometimes people are eager to try something new. Sometimes you do butt up against some idea of ‘That’s not the way we do it here.’ ”
He adds, “I’ve been sort of living through a season as Studio is used to putting things together — and then we come together and talk about ideas of how things might be different.”
Muse puts his stamp on Studio’s next season. It will feature two world premieres — “more newness, I think, than Studio’s seen in the past,” he notes.
Studio’s 2011-12 roster:
l “The Habit of Art” (Sept. 7-Oct. 16) by British playwright Alan Bennett (“The History Boys”), in its U.S. premiere, which Muse will direct. It’s a play-within-a-play about the relationship between poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. Ted van Griethuysen will star as Auden.
l “The Golden Dragon” (Nov. 2-Dec. 11) by German dramatist Roland Schimmelpfennig (translation by David Tushingham) takes place in an Asian restaurant in a European city and is, says Muse, a glimpse of “globalization on a micro-scale.”
l “Time Stands Still” (Jan. 4-Feb. 12, 2012) by Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies, a recent New York hit, examines the life of a female photojournalist sidelined after she’s injured covering a war.
l “Sucker Punch” (Feb. 29-April 8, 2012) by British writer Roy Williams is set during the 1980s London race riots and explores the relationship between two young boxers of Jamaican descent.
l “Bachelorette” (May 23-July 1, 2012) by up-and-coming playwright Leslye Headland won strong reviews off-Broadway last July. It’s a knife-edged comedy about young women partying and talking hurtful trash the night before a friend’s wedding.
Beyond the theater’s subscription series, Muse has added a Lab Series, which next fall will offer the world premiere of “Lungs” (Sept. 28-Oct. 16) by British writer Duncan Macmillan. Muse calls it a “chamber drama,” set in America.
Studio’s experimental 2ndStage troupe showcasing young professionals will premiere “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” (Feb. 15-March 11, 2012), written and directed by Natsu Onoda Power of Georgetown University’s theater department, riffing on the 1960s animation series; “The Big Meal” (April 18-May 13, 2012) by Dan LeFranc, in which eight actors portray five generations of a family; and the satiric-historic rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” (July 11-Aug. 5, 2012), a recent New York show by Alex Timbers, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.