Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stage Elsewhere: Daisey Chain

Issues of veracity, of the difference in dramatizing versus reporting, stage vs. journalism, are suddenly up for discussion in the affair of Mike Daisey and his monologue, The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs. It was the centerpiece of a program on NPR's "This American Life," concerning the conditions at a Foxconn factory in China that assembled Apple products, including the iphone.  Very long hours, poor working conditions for very low pay, possible chemical poisoning, underage workers, and various abuses leading to an epidemic of suicides were what Daisey talked about, within the framework of his trip to China.

But producers of the NPR show got wind of discrepancies, then confronted Daisey.  In particular they wanted to talk to his translator, named in the show as Cathy.  He told them her name really was Anna, that he'd had a cell phone number for her, but it no longer operated and he had no way to find her.  When the actual translator--a Chinese woman who used the name Cathy for western clients--was easily found, she disputed his recollection of what he had seen and what people had said to them in China.  All of this led the NPR program to take the unusual step of going on air to retract the entire program.

Responses to all this were various and are still unfolding.  The consumer watchdog organization for example sent out an email pointing out that the matters of fact under dispute didn't alter the basic facts, that "conditions in the factories are horrible, and in some cases illegal."  And the New York Times story that came out around the same time as the NPR broadcast affirms this.  Others point out that these factories, including Foxconn, make electronic products for other U.S. companies as well.  Meanwhile, TPM reported (in a disapproving tone) that the Public Theater was not going to cancel the remaining scheduled evenings of Daisey and his monologue.

Recently Mike Daisey went on stage at Georgetown to improvise a monologue on all of this, and it's an interesting and instructive read.  He spoke about his general process that included this monologue, but also how it was different:

"None of my other monologues are like it. They're all different. This one? This one was driven. It wanted to change things. It wanted very badly to break out of the theater and change things. It wanted very badly to see change happen in the world. It was like that Brecht quote, "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.That's what it felt like. And I always visualized the monologue, for good or for bad, I always thought of it as a weapon. I always saw it that way. Balanced. Well built. Intended to try to get into people, to change us. To fundamentally* connect us to our circumstances."

He talks about how life has demonstrably changed in just a few years because of smartphones, and how art can respond to that change, and change things itself. "And what I'm trying to bring together in the piece is the idea that our whole story is the story of metaphor shifts. And if we can see the world in a new way, if we actually see it differently, that is what makes change happen. There is nothing else that makes change happen. It does not come from money or guns or power. It comes from the change, and when people's minds change, that's what pushes forward. And I believe that's what art can do, is affect that kind of change, create bonds of empathy between us and people on the other side of the world..."

He had been obsessed with Apple products and Steve Jobs (the primary subject of the monologue) but started reading about the factory conditions in China.  He decided to go there, and arrived just as reports of suicides were hitting the media.  But then they stopped, thanks to a crackdown by the Chinese government, and implied laxity and short attention spans of western media.  He felt compelled to talk about what no one else was talking about, and he did so for a couple of years before anyone paid much attention.

He talks about the dramatizing aspects of a work for the stage, but said that he never thought of the monologue as fictional in the sense of being made up. "Because if I wanted to make shit up, I wouldn't go to China. I would stay in my apartment in Brooklyn and make shit up. It's easier."

He kept getting interviewed, and stopped correcting the false assumptions and statements of interviewers.  He admitted that he allowed one such falsity to enter the monologue--that he had met a victim of the chemical poisoning.  He knew he had not, although the poisoning itself was otherwise documented.  But on other points that were contradicted by his translator, he says simply that his memory differs--he does remember that person, he did hear this person say that--and hints that her disapproval of his questions, her siding with China PR, may be distorting her version.

Noone--not "This American Life" nor the New York Times--says that the substance of what he was talking about was false.  The chemical poisoning may have occurred at a different plant in China, but it is documented.

In the Georgetown monologue, Daisey does say that a few of the encounters happened less dramatically than in his show, but they did happen.  (One of the more dramatic images--the guards with guns--that the translator disputes, he still says he really saw.)  All of this does speak to the expectations that the dramatic monologue creates, at least the kind that is represented as the monologist's experiences.  There is some kind of weird reverse fourth wall phenomenon.  The person on the stage who keeps saying "I"--I saw, I heard, I felt, I suddenly realized--is reaching through the fourth wall to say, this is really me and this really happened.  While we in the audience realize that to some extent, since this is being said from a stage, it is using theatrical contrivances.  It's a planned out, perhaps written out, and often performed piece with structure--with narrative but also dramatic effects (building action, misdirection, climaxes, etc.) But while breaking the fourth wall usually signals the artificiality of what's on stage--that it's a play, not reality--in this case, the acknowledgement of the audience by speaking directly to it seems to negate the artificiality of the stage, and adds to the sense that this is a real person talking about real memories and events.

I recall a very powerful autobiographical piece, mostly about childhood, performed some years ago at HSU by a visiting theatre artist from southern California.  And I recall my disappointment when he later admitted that its most dramatic scene was pretty much made up.  I don't think this invalidates it.  But I remain disappointed.  It seems like cheating artistically, though few would probably agree with me on that.  In any case I'd rather see someone make something artful out of real events.  I don't know exactly why adding to a scene seems more like cheating that leaving things out, skipping things and all the other usual elements of constructing a narrative, but it does.

There is of course the additional component of the social change intended by this theatre piece: how does that change the theatre artist's responsibilities, if at all?  I think it still comes down to what the artist signals to the audience it should believe.

In any case, most of what Daisey is criticized for is his failure to truthfully and fully answer questions for the journalists making the radio program. For his stage monologue, Daisey is essentially claiming that, for the most part, he stuck to the truth as he remembers it, and that he pretty carefully checked the facts (though he admits his numbers got inflated in performance.) It will be interesting to see how all this develops.  

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