There are two kinds of light: the glow that illuminates and the glare that obscures.
— James Thurber

In the rush to parse statements and assign blame this weekend, it seems like we’re missing the point. This isn’t–or shouldn’t be–an attack on Mike Daisey’s art or his ability. What’s on the stage–and on the page, in this case–is a dynamic, compelling, electric piece of theatre. Download it and read it, or go see it if you’re near a production of it. If you want to produce it, use that Creative Commons license as creatively as Cody Daigle did and open your audience up to a larger conversation.

There’s been a lot of talk of “factual truth” and “theatrical truth” and even serving the “greater truth.” But shows like Lynn Nottage’s Ruined or Anna Deveare Smith’s monologues, pieces like The Exonerated or Embedded, the Civilians’ documentary work or Tectonic’s Laramie Project aren’t any less powerful for being theatrical retellings of interviews & stories. They embrace the tools of theatre to shine a light on reality, and their research can back up their work. No one took them for literal truth or journalistic fact, but the productions are able to point audiences toward further information and calls to action.

The problem here isn’t what’s on the stage in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. It’s the context in which the show was placed even before appearing on This American Life.

“There wouldn’t be a scandal if we didn’t have the frame of the journalism, the frame of the theater. Context is everything.” — Mike Daisey

The audience was never given a chance to think of this as anything other than nonfiction. The program disclaimers at both Woolly Mammoth and the Public Theater are identical.

That one line prepares the audience to accept everything as nonfiction even though it’s being performed in a theatre. It’s boilerplate text, included at the performer’s request.

The post-show handouts further that impression.

“…a single voice telling a story of a single experience.”

Thanks to Alli Houseworth, we know what could happen if audience members got out without this handout.

Interviews, television appearances, an op-ed piece in the New York Times, criticizing news organizations for shoddy reporting, all of these elements worked together to create the context for the show as a true story. (Please note, I’m not even bringing This American Life into this.) Within that context, forget about the average audience member, I know plenty of experienced theatre people who couldn’t separate Mike Daisey from “Mike Daisey,” or what happened to him from what happened to “him.”

As audience members, we trust the theatre, we know what to expect. We know that magicians don’t really saw women in half, we understand that Roy Cohn wasn’t visited on his deathbed by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. But when a theatre program says in no uncertain terms that “this is a work of nonfiction,” we’re going to take that at face value. When that idea is reinforced at every turn, we’re going to accept it. We have a reasonable expectation of what the word “nonfiction” means. Not implies. Means.

So where do we go from here? What of “documentary theatre”?

We don’t–and shouldn’t–need full time, on-staff fact checkers. But, to borrow a phrase from math class, you do need to “show your work.”

Do take notes, record what you can. Ironically enough, it’s very easy to use an iPhone to record interviews quickly and simply.

Do like Anna Deveare Smith and put your recordings online–true, they’re primarily for performers appearing in their own productions, but they do serve as proof of what’s transformed into the art. When I’ve done shows inspired by true stories, I’ve tried to put as much of the research material online as I can, either as embedded videos, links to articles and books, etc. This also makes it easier to point your audience to that information and provide a call to action, if that’s part of your goal.

Do use all the theatrical tools at your disposal, even if it means the art could be considered fiction.

Don’t be afraid of the label of fiction.

Don’t forget the reality of the issue at hand.

Don’t mislead the staff of the theatre–they have to maintain their credibility within their community after you leave.

Don’t get in the way of the story.

Don’t frame the work as something it’s not.

Context is everything.


Adam Feldman and Time Out New York are hosting a panel about truth in theatre this week. Participants include writer-director Steven Cosson of the Civilians, playwright-performers Jessica Blank (The Exonerated) and Taylor Mac (The Young Ladies of…), and critic-reporters Peter Marks (Washington Post) and Jason Zinoman (The New York Times). Act now if you want to see it in person. We’re working together to record the audio for release as a podcast. (Unfortunately, there can’t be a livestreamed video for this event.)

A quick roundup of posts and articles

Alli Houseworth on marketing Agony and marketing agony.

Jeremy Wechsler on not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Seth Duerr on defending Daisey and the work itself.

Polly Carl on what cannot be undone.

Chris Klimek on forgiving Mike Daisey.

Howard Sherman on how Daisey failed theatre.

Aaron Bady on the Jimmy McNulty gambit.

Glenn Fleishman on the past.

Jason Zinoman on doing a disservice to the art.

Jack Shafer on answering difficult questions.

  • March 20, 2012
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