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The Sin of Activism

By Mike Daisey


EDITOR'S NOTE: The April issue of the magazine, including this essay, went to print before serious questions were raised about the facts in Daisey's monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In a statement he released to American Theatre, Daisey wrote: "The recent controversy over how I constructed my latest piece in no way changes my belief that we need work that breaches the walls of our theatres and shakes and stirs us into action. I wish I'd been more careful, more diligent, and more wise, and I hope fellow artists will learn from my mistakes and make fantastic theatre that reaches out into the world." For a report on the future of the show, go here.

In my lifetime as a theatre artist, activism has always had a bad name. I was taught to associate it with limp invectives, hectoring agit-prop pieces that define the word “dated,” and artifacts of another age. I learned that theatre’s role in labor struggles was part and parcel of theatrical history—something solidly and firmly in the past.

Because of this training, as a young man I never saw activism as a missing element in our theatrical landscape. It was so synonymous with bad art in the vocabulary I heard everyone use, that to ask why there wasn’t more high-profile activist theatre would be tantamount to asking, “Why isn’t there more bad art?”—and frankly, there has always been enough bad art to go around.

Over the years my work became more and more politically conscious, particularly on the issue of corporatism—starting with Monopoly! in 2005, I found that my work circled more and more around the fundamental conflict between the human and the inhuman in our culture.

By 2008 I couldn’t be silent any longer—I staged How Theater Failed America, my monologue about the failure of the American theatre to provide a viable working life to its artists, and our fundamental choice to value real estate over our work. It was around this time that colleagues would take me aside and warn me, gravely, that I risked being seen as “activist theatre”—the implication being that I would then begin to suck. I nodded gravely, but the truth was I was drawn to the topics that obsess me, and I couldn’t stand by as the very best parts of the American theatre burned themselves out—I felt I needed to speak.

The following year I started performing The Last Cargo Cult, which details the international financial crisis and my time on an island in the South Pacific where the people do not universally accept the value of money. Now my activism had spread out into the theatre itself—when audience members entered the theatre, ushers would give them money, which would be anything from one dollar to a one-hundred dollar bill. As I would do the monologue I would talk about the money in their hands, eventually revealing that it was my money—that every dollar I had been paid for that evening had been given away to them. Since I have no other income, I had given them my livelihood. At the end of the show a bowl was placed on the stage, and audience members would have to choose to come on stage, in the lights, if they wanted to see that I was paid, recreating a ceremony reminiscent of the ones I had been describing on this far-off island.

Some colleagues were aghast—now not only was I talking about openly political issues, but I was also giving away my fee to the audience each night, and hoping they would choose to pay me! The theatre is a bad business at the best of times—did I really need to make it even worse? They grew silent when I revealed that we made more money over time—that audiences gave back more than they took, even when large bills vanished, thanks to small donations adding up, bit by bit.

Today I am performing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which examines the life of the Apple founder and the circumstances under which all our electronics are manufactured. Each performance is filled with humor, hand-in-hand with brutal details, making a show that does its best to pierce our illusions about how all our things are made. Every night the show is followed by a reverse program—a sheet that details steps audience members can take if they feel moved to action.

This is straight-up activist theatre. But shouldn’t all theatre be activist theatre? We all learned in early performance classes that the word “act” is a verb, and that the essential element in all acting is “to act”—to take action, to do something. The words “activist” and “actor” spring from the same root. I would argue that too often our theatre is defined by inaction: by work that may be aesthetically pure, but has little connection to the world outside the walls of our theatre, divided from the community and context in which it is staged. Many new plays I see feel brittle and esoteric, designed for hothouse environments that don’t exist outside of a very narrow theatrical context.

I have performed Agony/Ecstasy for 19 months, and in that time I have constantly fought for this story, agitating journalists to investigate, giving my information freely to whomever could help. An adaptation of my work aired on public radio’s “This American Life,” and became the most downloaded show in its history. Two weeks later I delivered a petition with a quarter of a million signatures to the Apple Store at Grand Central Station, and all over the world the same delivery was happening, from Beijing to Sidney to San Francisco. The New York Times investigated and reported horrifying conditions at Apple’s factories in China, and because of these factors Apple bowed to public pressure and has revealed its secret lists of suppliers, and opened its factories to audits from outside companies.

This is far larger than me—I wanted to open this work so other theatre artists could be part of it. I’ve released a transcript of the monologue for free on my website under an open license so anyone can perform it, royalty-free, anywhere in the world. There have been over 60,000 copies downloaded, and there are more than 20 productions going up around the world, from Chicago to Spain to Buffalo to Kurdistan. There’s an incredible power in our theatres, and I can see that reflected in artists everywhere giving their time to this work.

Action is the root of theatre. Activism is the public face of that action. We need an American theatre that recognizes this. Now more than ever.

Mike Daisey is a monologuist, author and working artist. He can be found on the web at http://mikedaisey.com.