Mike Daisey, the theater artist behind the controversy
This post has been corrected. See below for details.
It isn't often that a downtown New York theater artist becomes the talk of national media pundits. For the last few days, Mike Daisey, an actor, writer and solo stage performer, has become fodder for commentators and journalists across the country -- and not in a good way.
Last week, the public radio program "This American Life" retracted a story that contained parts of Daisey's one-man show "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," which recently ran at the Public Theater in New York. Ira Glass, who hosts the program, said Daisey fabricated parts of his show, which explores the relationship between Apple and Chinese factory workers.
Glass also stated that Daisey had lied to the "This American Life" staff when producers tried to fact-check parts of his account of meeting Chinese factory workers who have experienced inhumane conditions.
Daisey defended himself on his blog, writing that "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."
Over the weekend, Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, told the Associated Press that Daisey has added a disclaimer at the beginning of the stage show and has "eliminated anything he doesn't feel he can stand behind." (The play is expected to run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington later this year.)
So who exactly is Mike Daisey, and what kind of theater does he practice?
It may surprise people who only know his name from the controversy that Daisey is a highly respected theater performer who has toured the world with his solo shows. He has become a regular presence at the Public, which is one of the most respected theater institutions in New York.
Like the late Spalding Gray, Daisey is essentially a monologist who pens his own material and performs it behind a simple desk. His shows usually tackle current issues from a highly subjective angle, weaving together the topical and the personal into something that isn't quite fiction or nonfiction. He has written more than 15 monologues, which he performs himself.
In many ways, Daisey has been on a roll for the last few years. The Brooklyn-based performer began his professional life in the Seattle theater scene, where he appeared in numerous low-budget stage productions. He eventually got his break with the monologue "21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com," which became a book in 2002.
His stage presence -- heavy-set physically and almost manic in temperament -- is peculiar even by off-off-Broadway standards. His performance style can be abrasive and even assaulting, with vulgarities galore. He fashions himself as a teller of brutal truths who tells his stories brutally.
In Southern California, Daisey performed his shows "How Theater Failed America" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2009, and "Monopoly!" at the Samueli Theatre in Costa Mesa in 2008.
When "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" opened at the Public last year, it was an audience success and received positive reviews from critics. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times described it as an "eye-opening exploration of the moral choices we unknowingly or unthinkingly make when we purchase nifty little gadgets like the iPhone and the iPad and the PowerBook."
On Sunday, Isherwood responded to the controversy by siding with "This American Life." "The problem is Mr. Daisey's particular brand of theater is experienced by the audience as direct and honest testimony to events that he witnessed," he wrote in the Times. "But in his stage shows Mr. Daisey is the sole voice we hear, and while his monologues undoubtedly contain much writing that is obviously opinion, when it comes to describing his experience, we take him at his word."
Which turns out to be a dangerous thing to do. In an article in the Hollywood Reporter, critic David Rooney wrote that Daisey had "an ethical responsibility to clarify" when the stories in his show are embellished. "If artists like Daisey are going to take liberties with the truth, they need to say so up front."
Playing loose with the facts might be the prerogative of the theater artist, but Daisey's brand of stagecraft exists in a hazy nether region where the line between creative license and fabrication isn't always clear. It remains to be seen how the public radio controversy will affect his ascendant stage career.
[For the Record, 11:40 a.m., March 19: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to "This American Life" as an NPR program. While a podcast of the show is available to listen to via NPR's wesbite, the show is distributed by Public Radio International.]
-- David Ng
Photo: Mike Daisey. Credit: Craig Schwartz