Monologist Mike Daisey is currently in the midst of an epic 29-night “theatrical novel” called All the Faces of the Moon. Each night from September 5th through October 3rd, Daisey has performed and will perform a new “chapter” at Joe’s Pub. When I first heard about this ambitious format, my first instinct as someone who (wrongly) considers himself a hardcore theater commentator was that I would go to all 29 performances and put out the most comprehensive coverage of the event that I could. It’s just the sort of thing I probably would have done before the advent of my life as a suburban family man, which includes a wife, a kid, a dog, and an unsympathetic New York home from the 1960’s that demands, like one of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, constant tribute to mollify its primordial wrath.
Needless to say, I’d be lucky to make it to even one of the performances.
Yet Daisey, whose monologues are by design simply told stories without any real visual embellishment, found a perfect 21st century solution – a podcast. He’s running each night’s entry over at his website, in addition to all the major podcasting platforms. For each of the play’s 29 parts, which are designed to follow the nearly month-long cycle of the Moon, Daisey has also commissioned a unique painting by the artist Larissa Tokmakova; these can also be seen at Daisey’s site. I am going to attempt to respond to each episode, with an eye towards attending the final performance in person. These will have to be shorter posts than my usual theater reviews, mostly because Daisey has a 10-day head start on me, but also because 29 posts is roughly equal to the TOTAL amount of posts I have made on this site EVER! But God help me, I am going to try. I believe that Daisey’s work – especially something so daringly long form – deserves to be written about in its entirety. I have been an admirer of Daisey’s work for about five years, after one of his pieces dropped into my life at precisely the moment I needed it.
Daisey’s How Theater Failed America played at the Bleecker Street Theater back in 2008, and some dear friends took me and my soon-to-be-wife to see it. I was at a crucial crossroads in my young adult life – I was about to get married, I was producing a play, I was doing theater reviews, and I was working full time. I went in cold, knowing nothing about Daisey and his magnetically informal style of raconteuring. What I was confronted with was a large man, with large energy and a large voice, dealing in very large ideas. How Theater Failed America is an exuberant memoir of Daisey’s experience in the worlds of regional and independent theater, and also an indictment of the sedentary, institutionally –nurtured cowardice running rampant in both. Rather than try to describe it, I found a set of clips that nicely communicates the core aspects and tone of the thing:
Daisey’s sharp critique of those who move to New York to become theater artists but instead become theater administrators for financial reasons cut pretty deeply with me. After the performance, I found myself in a kind of metaphysical tailspin with regards to who I had become, who I had originally come to New York to be, and what the hell I wanted to do to reconcile the two. So, on the walk from the Bleecker Street Theater to the 6 train, I decided to double down on the Fringe show I was producing – a decision that rippled out through the rest of my life in the best way possible. Eventually I sent Mike an email thanking him for what he’d stirred up in me. He sent me a nice note back and added me to his email list.
Since then I haven’t seen every one of his monologues that came through New York, but I’ve followed his career with keen interest. I did see both If You See Something, Say Something and The Last Cargo Cult. While neither of them impacted me as pointedly as How Theater Failed America did, I still found both to be rich tapestries of life, history, and art that twisted my brain up in a way that I have since determined only Daisey can.
That same twisting of life, history and art drew media scrutiny in Daisey’s next piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which in fairness I did not see. After the opening and initial critical ravishing of this new monologue, which used the atrocious working conditions in Apple’s iPhone factories in China to speak to “the human cost we are willing to pay for our technology,” the NPR program This American Life picked up portions of the show for one of its episodes. Two months later, Ira Glass retracted the story after learning that several parts of Daisey’s account – including the number of factories he visited – had been fabricated. Making matters worse, Daisey attempted to obstruct NPR from contacting a source who would have denied his version of the events. After this, Daisey revised the play into a “2.0” version, excluding the content that caused the controversy, but the rift had already been cracked open; some supported Daisey’s plight as an artist, others railed against him for manipulating and misleading his audience.
Daisey himself had this to say:
“This American Life” has raised questions about the adaptation of AGONY/ECSTASY we created for their program. Here is my response:I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
I have always had a tricky time with material that skates the line between art and journalism. On the one hand, I agree with Oscar Wilde, who said that real life lacks dramatic structure. On the other, I cannot deny that my own admiration of Mr. Daisey was tarnished by all of this. Part of the power in what Mr. Daisey does, I feel, is dependent on our believing his version of the events implicitly. Yet, it seems wholly unfair to publically shame him on NPR the way Ira Glass did for exaggerating facts, but then give an Academy award to a movie like Argo, which played much faster and looser with facts. I suppose the difference is NPR’s involvement – once Daisey’s account was handed over to be used as news, it had to hold up to a different level of scrutiny.
In the intervening time, I find myself more on Daisey’s side of the line. Daisey is an artist telling a story, who cares if the details weren’t precisely accurate? Unlike The New York Times, Daisey has the freedom to massage smaller details in the name of communicating the larger truth he is after. At least he’s drawing public attention to the terrible working conditions at Apple’s factory in China — does it matter if they are not exactly as bad as he makes them sound. As an artist, he absolutely has the right to recontextualize the material to better suit his mission statement. But whether or not it is the right thing to do in regards to Daisey’s audience and to the people in the factories in China, I have yet to figure out.
We’ll see how I feel after listened to him for 29.