“Agony and Ecstasy” Version 2.0
Mike Daisey invited other artists to “hack” his work—and, since controversy has erupted over its veracity, they’re doing just that.
By Rob Weinert-Kendt
When monologuist Mike Daisey released the transcript of his hit solo play The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to the public on Feb. 21, making it available via a restriction- and royalty-free download, he couldn’t have known that less than a month later, it would be at the center of a media firestorm over how much of the piece—a dual-narrative rumination on the cult of Apple and on the terrible working conditions in Chinese factories that make its products—was true and how much was fabricated.
Media attention was sparked by Daisey’s fraught back-and-forth with the public-radio show “This American Life,” which first excerpted Agony and Ecstasy in an exceedingly popular January broadcast, then devoted an entire episode in March to fact-checking and retracting the previous episode. Meanwhile, the play itself has continued a kind of second life. Daisey himself is scheduled to take it to the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt., on March 31; to HighTide Festival Theatre in Suffolk, England, May 5–6; to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., May 31–June 5; and at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company , July 17–Aug. 5.
The Woolly Mammoth engagement is significant, partly because that’s where he “birthed” the play in workshops in summer 2010, and had a hit run there in 2011 before the play’s high-profile run at New York’s Public Theater, and also because Woolly’s artistic director Howard Shalwitz has emerged as one of Daisey’s staunchest defenders, despite voicing concerns about Daisey’s “deception.”
Daisey has pledged to revise the work in future incarnations, not only “cutting about six minutes from a two hour show” but “probing every part of the show, making sure it reflects the complexities and human stories.” Meanwhile, independent theatre artists who downloaded that free transcript in February with plans to perform the play themselves have embarked on their own revisions, like hackers recoding their favorite apps. Cody Daigle of Acting Unlimited Inc. in Lafayette, La., whose first performances of Agony took place the weekend after the “American Life” retraction episode, had to scramble to keep up with events as they unfolded.
“We had 24 hours, basically, to respond,” said Daigle. What he did over four performances was to reshape the show into two parts—the first a trimmed-down version of Daisey’s transcript, the second a mix of material from news reports about the fact-checking controversy, including a performance of part of the uncomfortable on-air faceoff between Daisey and “American Life” host Ira Glass.
Eric Seale, artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington in Kentucky, plans a similar approach with his May 10–20 performance. “At some point in the play, I would just drop the pretense that I’m Mike, and I would then speak as me,” said Seale. “I would tell the story of the controversy and explain why we felt it was important to go ahead with the piece anyway.”
Why, indeed? As Daisey and others have pointed out, he hardly needed to embellish the facts about U.S. consumers’ beloved electronics products, which are made under often onerous, life-threatening conditions abroad. Seale, like Daisey a chastened Apple “fanboy,” worries that “because Mike got a few details wrong, people will think everything is now hunky-dory, and there’s no problem in China or Brazil or anywhere our stuff is made. That attitude really bothers me, and that’s why we’re doing the show.”
Courtney McLean, whose Hacktor’s Collective will stage a similarly revised and remixed six-actor reading on April 13 at the Hack Factory in Minneapolis, put it this way to the Huffington Post: “The bottom line is that we should all consider the entire life-span of our purchases, from the hands that put the gadget together to the moment we unwrap it in our homes.”
For his part, Louisana’s Daigle marveled at Daisey’s “open source” tactics. “The way he’s released the script for other people to perform, but also tell their own stories around it, is very serendipitous. It ensures that this piece won’t disappear. Now you can make it the beginning of a conversation rather than the end result.”
McLean agreed. “Daisey is asking us to think about where our devices come from, and now we, as audience and producers and fans, are being asked to think about where our theatrical pieces are coming from.”