Surely, you’ve heard something about Mike Daisey over the past few days.
In case you haven’t, or haven’t been paying close attention, here’s the quick recap.
Mike Daisey, heir apparent to Spalding Gray, created a monologue called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” based on his visit to Chinese factories to see how Apple products are made. He’s brought the show to festivals and theaters across the world.
NPR adopted the show for This American Life. They made it clear to Daisey that the show had to be truthful. Mike said it was. The show soon became the most downloaded episode in the show’s history.
Mike Daisey quickly superceded performer and became the public face of Apple criticism and a media darling.
Then NPR realized Mike hadn’t been so truthful after all. And This American Life retracted a story for the very first time. This past weekend’s episode is some the most riveting radio I have ever heard.
Since coming back on This American Life to discuss what happened with Ira, he has decided he’s not wrong after all. It’s complicated, he argues.
But Google news “Mike Daisey” and you’ll see he’s mostly, but not completely, alone in this view.
What struck me most about my reaction to the controversy is how quick I was to judge. But then I began thinking about my own shows.
It might be a stretch to call Mike Daisey a contemporary of mine. He is the most talked-about and one of the hardest-working performance artist around, while I’ve been hiatus for a few years. But we’ve shared billing at the PICA TBA festival. We both use monologue as our medium. And we’ve both made corporations the subjects of our work.
I’ve made three full-length shows, all variations on the monologue, two of which involved the blurring of fact and fiction.
The first was called An Evening with Bradlee and was completely fictional. I played an invented character with an invented story. I claimed to be a new age dot.com refugee who moved to Oregon from the Bay Area looking for a fresh start and cheap rent. It was comedic, but it was also a way to talk about and get people to think about xenophobia in a different way.
What did the audience make of it? Well, they knew my name wasn’t Bradlee, and that I was playing a character. And I assumed they knew this was an invented story, but I was surprised by how the audience assumed that parts of the show were true. Californians asked me where in California I was from, and were disappointed to hear I wasn’t. Rather than being dismayed by it, I was actually delighted. I liked the reaction so much that my second show was created expressly to make people question what was true and what wasn’t.
That subsequent show, AC Dickson: eBay PowerSeller, was born out of my own experiences. I was a PowerSeller for years, making most of my income selling collectibles. When I performed my show, I was giving people good, helpful information about selling on eBay. My stories were true, and I used my own name.
But I told these stories in such a way that suggested I might be lying, or making it all up. I was purposefully suspect. I looked, sounded, and acted like someone trying to sell you a juicer at a county fair.
Adding to this ambiguity was my thesis that becoming an eBay PowerSeller was important not just for individuals but also for humanity as a whole. Clearly, this was an exaggeration, but I used facts, statistics, and theories to back up my claim. The entire monologue was told earnestly, but I also played the room for laughs.
The show was 99% true as far as the facts went, but greatly exaggerated as far as my opinions. I delighted in how different people interpreted what I was doing. Some audience members assumed it was all made up, others that there was just a kernel of truth. Even good friends who knew I sold on eBay assumed I had made a good portion of it up. On the other end of the spectrum, I had people who came to later shows with pen and paper, taking copious notes on the practical advice and looking on with confusion during the more motivational bits.
So far so good, I think. But then there’s the matter of the show’s finale. The climax of the piece was 5 of my own eBay auctions finishing right before the audience’s eyes. Spaced to end a minute apart, we watched as the bids jumped from $5 and $10 to $50 or even $100 in the closing seconds. It was in these moments that people, regardless of whether or not they believed me, came to believe in the power of eBay.
For the initial run at the PICA TBA festival those auctions were completely legit. I had hoarded some antique toothpick boxes that I knew from experience would get bid up drastically in the closing minute. But as the show started to tour, I had to find new items that I hoped would create a last-minute bidding frenzy. As time wore on, I started to enlist some help. I had people throw a last minute bid or two in there. I manufactured some drama.
I lied. But to me it’s more of a deception. You see how easy it is to rationalize?
I could argue that I was no longer making auctions jump from $10 to $100, but more like $17 to $25, as if the amount matters.
I could argue that I didn’t feel remorse. But I bet Daisey didn’t either, at least not until he got called back onto This American Life.
I could argue that if anyone asked I was honest, I might have gotten a little help, I’d sheepishly admit. But certainly some people left thinking these bids were legit.
Although other people left thinking the entire live-auction part of the show was a complete fabrication that I had somehow created in PowerPoint.
Clearly, Mike Daisey erred in allowing his work to be used on This American Life. The question is did he err in his stage show.
My discretion, I think, pales in comparison to Mike’s. He claimed to have met people he didn’t, and claimed some of the people he did told him things they never said.
And yet if Mike’s biggest crime concerns, as New York Times columnist David Carr put it, the question of “Is it okay to lie on the way to telling a greater truth?”, to which David emphatically answers “No.”
Then is my infraction so different? I was using false pretense to convince my audience of the power of eBay.
Would I do things differently in regards to those auctions? Not before the Daisey story broke. Now, I might.
But more immediately I’m thinking about this issue in regards to a new show I’m developing. Yes, dear readers, a new show is afoot. Without spilling the beans, it’s a show that, like my previous performances, will be designed to make the audience question what’s real versus what’s invented or facetious.
I’m expecting, and even counting on, the audience questioning my intention, credibility, and the validity of techniques.
Do I owe the audience the courtesy of letting them know I’m intentionally confusing them beforehand? And does this blog entry count?
Or will doing so, to quote a character at the heart of the Daisey story, take some of the “magic” away from the experience?