“Dear Reader,” begins the preface to Mike Daisey‘s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, “This document is an experiment.” He had already delivered this monologue to countless audience members successfully for two years, so what, exactly, did he mean by “experiment”? Interest in the story escalated over those years, and more and more attention was focused on the creation of Apple products and the labor conditions in Shenzhen (where most Apple products are made) and monologist Mike Daisey and his director and co-creator Jean-Michele Gregory decided to publish the transcript of his monologue, and invite theatres and artists everywhere to make the work their own. “The truth is,” the preface continues, “that this work is not ours now – it is yours. The transcript is a theatrical blueprint which you can amend or change as you see fit.”
This was a significant change to their process, but the pair affirmed their commitment to share the story. “Since our announcement that this document would be available royalty-free, the response has been overwhelmingly positive from artists everywhere – and confused and wary from the media. We’ve been asked if we are afraid of what will happen when these words are free, and if we’re afraid of what will happen to this work? We’re not afraid at all. We’re truly excited to see what people will make. One of the most powerful forces for humanism is that we are capable of doing things that are not motivated by profit – something corporations are incapable of. We’re delighted to throw away the royalties and control in favor of real openness, so that the work will bloom everywhere.”
And the work has bloomed, keeping alive (or maybe even giving birth to) our awareness of labor conditions around the world. Arguably, articles like the two-part in-depth New York Times story about Apple and Foxconn, released last January (find part 1 here and part 2 here) might not have happened without the public interest generated by Daisey’s monologue. And as we have become more aware of the conditions in the factories manufacturing Apple products, perhaps our awareness of other kinds of manufacturing has increased as well. The fires in textile factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan reveal similar issues with labor conditions – issues that might bring to mind the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 – a travesty that was influential in changing labor conditions in the US.
You might also imagine that our awareness of Foxconn’s practices and of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs itself were helped along by another story – the story of Daisey himself. Artists make choices all the time – choices about how to frame a thought, how to present an idea, how to articulate a point. The story that Mike Daisey tells is of his own investigation at Foxconn in Shenzhen, China, so it’s told in the first person. And when you want to really get a point across, you select the parts of the story that make your case the strongest it can be. Sometimes, you might exaggerate certain elements, as a storyteller, to illustrate an idea. You might make use of hyperbole or metaphor to really let an audience visualize something that is completely outside of their experience. And that’s okay unless you tell people that you’re being 100% truthful. Once people start to see you as a journalist, as an investigator, you have to be clear about the line between fact and fiction. But sometimes that line is hard to pin down. Mike Daisey appeared on MSNBC with Chris Hayes and on HBO with Bill Maher. The popular NPR show This American Life presented an excerpt of the monologue and dedicated a show to investigating labor practices at Foxconn. Daisey delivered a petition with a quarter of a million names to the Apple store, and Apple eventually released the names of their suppliers, and invited auditors to the factories. But then a reporter started to question some of the facts in the show, and revealed some of the places where Daisey used those storytelling techniques to make a stronger story. So then This American Life retracted the story, and Daisey was in the spotlight again – he had to apologize for presenting everything he said as the truth. To be clear, the lies Daisey told seemed to be lies of proximity – he said he had seen something when in fact he had read or heard about it. And he might have made up a character or two to help emphasize the disdain corporate Foxconn has for its employees.
So, Mike Daisey re-issued The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In the preface to version 2.0, he stated “In a manner of speaking it’s similar to what so many have been demanding from Apple—I want them to make it a priority to consider how they are building their devices, and to take real measures to respect human rights and pay living wages in the process of their manufacturing. Just as I expect Apple and other manufacturers to reform their ways, I needed to look to my own house and do the same. If I expect them to build an ethical iPhone, then I needed to build an ethical monologue.”
Geva has taken Mike Daisey up on his invitation to adapt his monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and Mark Cuddy, Remi Sandri, Frank Cavallo and myself have spent the last few weeks in the rehearsal room. It’s an incredible story, and for a piece of theatre about labor conditions, it’s surprisingly fun. Even though I doubt my ability to function without my iphone or ipad, I’m not, by any means, a computer geek (and I mean this in the most loving way possible). But no matter how many times I watch it, I find myself enraptured by this tale of the most technically advanced handmade products – and the hands that make them. Remi and I recently spent some time with a reporter from the Democrat and Chronicle, and talked a little bit about why the piece speaks to us, and I think that he summed up our hopes for the piece very nicely, when he said, ““I hope that this theater piece will lodge in people and open them up to new possibilities…this show encourages all of us to look at our products with new eyes.”