The apologetic phone call from Mike Daisey was a painful one, says Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s artistic director, Howard Shalwitz. It came the day before the shattering news was made public, news that served to undermine the veracity of an acclaimed monologue that Shalwitz’s company helped usher into being, and that was scheduled to return — triumphantly — to Woolly for a three-week run this summer.
Daisey’s account of the abuse of Chinese workers in the monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” had moved from the Woolly stage to New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater, and then to the national airwaves in January, courtesy of a segment on public radio’s “This American Life.” In a stunning retraction of the broadcast, host and executive producer Ira Glass said it had been discovered there were “significant fabrications” in Daisey’s recitation of what he had seen and heard in China. (Daisey’s Chinese translator said she did not recall the numbers and variety of aggrieved workers Daisey claimed to have spoken to.) Glass added that Daisey “lied to me” during the fact-checking process for the segment and as a result, a “mistake” was made in ever airing it.
Shalwitz, however, came to a different conclusion, not concerning whether Daisey had made errors in judgment, but in how as an institution Woolly should respond. Amid the gathering furor, as commenters on social media went wild, the company’s former communications director called for a boycott of Daisey’s work, subscribers and others took to Woolly’s Web site to ventand irate theatergoers went so far as to demand refunds for their summer tickets, Woolly’s leadership decided to stick by Daisey and continue with plans for the return engagement of “Agony and Ecstasy.”
“I think our judgment, and we’re still forming it, is that we don’t think the mistakes Mike made were mistakes of malicious intent,” Shalwitz said in an interview Tuesday. “We think they were mistakes of overzealousness to get his message out. I think he was very incensed by what he saw in China.” (Alli Houseworth, Woolly’s former marketing and communications chief, noted angrily online that Daisey had even insisted that the words “This is a work of non-fiction” be printed in the Woolly program for “Agony and Ecstasy.”)
Shalwitz and his staff, however, thought it important to continue their relationship with Daisey, with whom the company worked on other monologues popular with critics and audiences, such as “If You See Something Say Something” and “The Last Cargo Cult.” Acknowledging that Daisey “was not scrupulous” in distinguishing between “things he witnessed in China and what he heard discussed in China,” Shalwitz added: “We have a lot of confidence in him, in his overall integrity as an artist.”
The episode has engendered a passionate debate in both journalistic and theater circles about Daisey’s manipulation of the reality of what he personally observed. In a talk at Georgetown University this week, Daisey copped to having lost his center of ethical gravity over the months of performing the show in what he describes as its “autobiographical, extemporaneous” style. He added that in granting “hundreds” of interviews as his accusations gained a media foothold — and further validated by a series of New York Times articles in December — his recitation of some statistics and other information to reporters became exaggerated.
Still, staying he “never meant to mislead,” he refused to view the attention gained for the issue of how workers are treated in factories making Apple products as a bad outcome. Of his ambition for the monologue, he noted: “It wanted very badly to break out of the theater and change things.”
As someone who’s become passionate in highly positive ways about Daisey’s work, I felt crushed by the revelation that the words he spoke on the stage were not a patently truthful portrayal of his own experiences in China. I never mistook this idiosyncratic man, so gifted in our language, for a journalist: Heck, the ruses he described, like posing as an American businessman to get inside Chinese plants, made him sound more like Sacha Baron Cohenthan Bob Woodward. But he conveyed to me, from that quasi-professorial posture he claimed for himself on the stage, that I could depend that the stories he was telling were as unfailingly his as I could believe that the factory practices he was describing were evil.
Little did I know the professor he most resembled was Harold Hill, the flimflamming boys’ band pitchman of “The Music Man.” And yet, after days of wrestling with what’s been found to be Daisey’s dysfunctional relationship with candor, when I have felt angry and a bit betrayed — you put your own reputation on the line when you embrace someone else’s in a review — I’ve settled on a sense of solidarity with Shalwitz. We need to keep hearing from Daisey. Because I think he’s learning from this. Because I think he’s demonstrated a remarkable ability to speak to a crowd, and maybe even speak in moving and illuminating ways to this transgression. And because it’s good to forgive.
I’ve been following the debate, as it has sought higher intellectual planes, as commentators — many of whom seem never to have seen a Daisey stage performance — opine on “tropes” and “frames” and distinctions between truth as it’s pursued in journalism and “theatrical truth.” I’ve been reviewing theater for nearly 15 years, and darned if I’m able to tell you what theatrical truth is. I certainly know the difference between a truth distilled by Arthur Miller through a character pricking my conscience such as Willy Loman, and a truth delivered by a man staring down at me on a bare stage, and describing, in his own name, his recall of a worker consigned to a dreary, anonymous, possibly torturous life on an assembly line that never seems to end.
I know, too, that there are exquisite subtleties in art, that life is not intended to be reconstructed at the genetic level, as if work on a stage were a clone of “actual reality,” as they refer to it in “Rent.” But in an age in which some theater artists — like their audiences increasingly polarized and skeptical about what they read and see in the mainstream media — are resorting more transparently to the techniques of journalism to present and dramatize stories, a vigorous attempt must be made to allow us all to understand the context. Daisey, in his zeal to forward his cause, seems to have gotten confused about it himself.
“I would agree that the rules are different, but they’re also not different,” said Steve Cosson, the Potomac native who’s artistic director of the Brooklyn-based Civilians, an issues-oriented troupe that engages in what Cosson calls “investigative theater.” Its members do extensive research and interviews.
In productions such as “This Beautiful City,” an exploration of the Christian evangelical community in Colorado Springs, Colo., that was presented at Studio Theatre, actors assume the roles of real people and in many cases repeat their words verbatim.
“Every play that is engaging in real life or real-life subjects or story sets up an explicit or implicit agreement with its audience about the show’s relationship to the real story,” Cosson added. “And I think there’s all sorts of nuances and possibilities in that spectrum. But I think the show itself tells the audience what their expectations should be.”
Maybe in Daisey’s case, this could have been resolved, with a truth simply stated in the program, or somehow, that “Agony and Ecstasy” was in the author’s belief a true expression of events both concretely experienced by him and taken from other sources. Woolly seems committed to obtaining your perspectives on this, as it is holding a public forum on the events of the past week in the Daisey story this Tuesday in the theater. The company is remaining committed for now to Daisey, too. And I suspect that as long as there aren’t other serious unseen revelations to come, that might prove to appear a mature and healthy steadfastness.
A conversation about “Agony and Ecstasy,” 7 p.m., Tuesday at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW. The event is free, but reserve your tickets with the box office in person or by phone at 202-393-3939.