Mar 20, 2012

A Few Last Words (For Now) on Daisey

The onslaught from all quarters has become tedious, I know, but I want to direct attention to three thoughtful pieces by folks who actually know Mike Daisey's work in the theater, whose views on this I privilege over the gajillion other tech and media pundits, not to mention assorted armchair outrage peddlers, who feel they duty-bound to weigh in.

First, the reliable Jason Zinoman, who's followed Daisey's work with admiration for years, and even sniffed out the problems with Agony and Ecstasy while it was still on the road to New York. Jason nails what went right, then wrong, with Daisey's storytelling art:
If there is one thread that ties together all of his solo shows, it would be this: His work locates the human spirit at the heart of institutions that are inevitably dehumanizing. By focusing on the sacrifices of the poorly-paid actor in a theater system that puts its resources elsewhere, or on how innovators like Nicola Tesla or the woman who made the prototype of the board game Monopoly were eventually marginalized, Daisey reminded us of how essential—and disposable—one life can be...

[With Agony and Ectasy,] Daisey didn’t just take a journalistically unethical shortcut. By inventing events that audiences thought were real, Daisey turned Chinese workers into abstractions, means to an end. He became a dehumanizing storyteller. Daisey doesn’t contextualize these people historically or socially. He doesn’t portray them at home, or show us their other employment options. They were described in just enough detail to send the audience home outraged. This was my main problem with the show when I finally saw it, that its portrait of Chinese workers seemed remote. Now I understand why.
Alli Houseworth, the p.r. maven who flacked the show when it was "birthed" at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth (where it's set to return this summer), is much blunter:
We are at a crucial moment in theatre history...The battle to bring in new audiences and retain them is becoming harder and harder to fight. And though I can’t speak for my colleagues in Seattle, or Berkeley or New York – that’s what my staff and I did for you, Mike. We collaborated. We listened to you, the artist. Not a single piece of material left my office without your approval. We, all of us, we brought new people to the theatre, who perhaps have never been to the theatre before. And they – and all of our audiences – paid money, and they sat in seats and their listened to you, and then they took home a piece of paper urging them to take action on this matter. And all along a playbill sat in their laps that said, “This is a work of non-fiction.”

So to the producers of the American theatre, I urge you to boycott this work. Boycott Mike’s gorgeous, amazing piece of theatre that is based on a true story. Boycott it until you get the apology that you deserve and do not ever, ever re-mount it or produce a work of his again until you know for sure what is true and what is not so your audiences are never ever mislead again. Stand by your desire to uphold the truth and value of art, of what you work so enormously hard for day in and day out, until you get an apology from the man who calls himself one of you, who is our field’s “leading man” in the fight for theatre as truth and activism. He let us down and we deserve better. Now is not a time for us to lay down and take this, to pretend “oh, it’s just theatre,” to coddle an artist because he brings in big box office bucks and “sparks dialogues.” It is absolutely crucial that we remain relevant in the world as art-makers. And art doesn’t always have to mean untruth. And if we are going to put this on our stages for our audiences then we need to trust the artist who creates the work in the first place. Until then, don’t do it. Do not produce his work until you get an apology.
Finally, turning inward is Polly Carl, the American theater's conscience, with a ruminative post on HowlRound:
Daisey’s undoing is all of our undoing. He was the theater artist we could bring into our spaces and assuage our liberal guilt, cover over our own activism gone dormant. We could live vicariously through his citizen/artist persona. We could take cover behind his truth, make it our truth, and feel we had done our part.

I’ve been undone by this. I’ve been exposed as a complacent passenger on his lying train. I handed over my own responsibility as citizen/artist. I was happy to let Daisey do the hard work of responsible citizenship for me. In exposing himself, he’s also exposed all of his supporters. We all have some blood on our hands.

1 comment:

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

OK, interesting points, all. But I'm bummed by the fact that the Daisey molehill is obscuring the Apple mountain. Harping on Daisey's tactics is pushing to the side the very real issues his show raised -- and I wasn't even a huge fan of the show to begin with.
Once again, hand-wringing and self-flagellation -- solipsistic concerns -- are getting in the way of the much larger problems.