Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mike Daisey Insults Both Theater and Journalism

“Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. Whatever kind of power you want. President of the company. Black belt in karate. Spiritual guru. Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up a lot to get it. It has to be very important to you. And once you have attained it, it’s your power. It can't be given away: it resides in you. It is literally the result of your discipline.”

-- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, p. 305.

Mike Daisey has long-ago earned the discipline of being a playwright. One of his plays “How Theater Failed America,” is actually a story about how he learned the act of play production and staging. Daisey knows how to command a stage, how to write a narrative, how to perform it and how to make the staging of such a thing profitable for both himself and the theaters he performs for.

These are incredible skills and Daisey can be proud of them. What they don’t give Daisey, however, are the skills of a journalist. They don’t even give him the difficult skill of interviewing someone, let alone interviewing someone through a translator and getting them to say meaningful things. They apparently don’t even teach him to take notes when you interview someone, which according to Daisey, he didn’t do which is why he doesn’t have an accurate count of how many factories he visited or how many secret union members he met with.

There’s a reason you take notes as a journalist and it’s not just to record what everyone says accurately for quotes. It’s because your memory is faulty otherwise.

Despite all this on some level Mike Daisey still wants to defend his play, at least as a play. As he told Ira Glass:
“I know that so much of this story is the best work I’ve ever made,” he says. “I stand by it as a theatrical work. I stand by how it makes people see and care about the situation that’s happening there. I stand by it in the theater.”
(He didn’t say those two sentences congruently, but he did say them.)

What Daisey wants to say, I believe, is: Look I made everyone care about workers’ rights in China. And I did that in a way that journalism never did. I made audiences care passionately about people they’ve never met or never thought of before. No it wasn’t my actual experience in China, but they were true experiences for other people, just not mine. So that makes it true because somewhere out in the world, it’s true.

Daisey says at least once in his play “I am not a journalist.” But then he goes on to tell the audience about things he says he’s seen and people he says he’s spoken to. I was there and you are not, let me tell you about it, is the definition of journalism. You are “reporting” what you’ve seen, and who you’ve spoken to, and what they said.

The original three-hour version of Daisey’s play that I watched, its debut in Washington, DC, contained an extremely strong critique of the New York Times. Hey I found these people in Shenzhen, Daisey basically said, it can’t be that hard for you reporters.

Mike Daisey doesn’t have the discipline of being a reporter. He doesn’t have the skills to ferret out secret information, to get reluctant sources to talk and to get them to say meaningful things. Maybe he thought all that was easy, that the act of going to China and talking to people made him enough like a reporter to pass.

Maybe he just doesn’t actually respect the work of someone like Charles Duhigg, who spends his career trying to find the stories Daisey invented. Or even the work of the producers of This American Life, who week after week actually do acts of journalism in a similar narrative form that Daisey aped.

But you get the sense that Daisey felt that, as a playwright, he could just pull everyone’s experience into one giant narrative. They did the work, that’s how Daisey knew about some of the things he talked about, so if he just incorporated things he read about, that would be okay. Someone else had done the legwork. It was “true,” wasn’t it? He wasn’t inventing things he’d never read about.

The ironic part of this was if Daisey had interviewed Charles Duhigg, and had stood on stage and pretended to be him, pretended to have seen things that Duhigg has seen and talk about people Duhigg had interviewed, no one would be calling him a liar today. In the world of theater, it’s not lying to pretend to have someone else’s experience. Daisey, instead of trying to ape the discipline of journalism in one trip, could have used work of real journalists work to tell their stories in a way they couldn’t have.

But Daisey’s work is always about himself. And maybe he enjoyed the thought that he could be both a reporter and a playwright (despite what he said every night he was on stage). That he had become a karate master of journalism skills that takes others years to learn. I found these stories, and you didn’t, he was taunted reporters.

Except that we know now he didn’t. He was relying on everyone else’s reporting to inform his own stories.

In the Retraction, one of the most infuriating parts of Ira Glass’s interview with Mike Daisey is that Daisey still defends his work as a piece of theater. While the world of journalists descends upon on Daisey, the world of theater should also feel equally insulted. Theater is supposed to make the audience care; either weep or laugh, or think, just as long as they feel *something* from what’s performed. But it’s harder to make audiences care about narratives they *know* are fiction. Making people weep over things that have not actually happened is hard work, but it happens every night on stages everywhere. Theater can also tell stories that are true, but are not the actor’s stories and incorporating someone else’s experience and portraying it is the very premise of “acting.”

But Mike Daisey isn’t an actor, he’s a con man. He tried to say “this is true, and this is my story.” But we know now it was neither. What Daisey did was no better than a cheap horror film that tries to con an audience into believing that “the events portrayed are real” in order to force them to feel something they wouldn’t otherwise.

And the sad thing is that by perpetuating his con, he’s now convinced everyone that horrors in Chinese factories probably aren’t real enough to be concerned with either.


Russell Potter said...

Indeed, theatre exists, in many ways, so as to "pull everyone’s experience into one giant narrative." And these giant narratives, in their sweeping gestures, will always need to perform the arithmetic of narrative, pulling disparate things together, condensing varied narratives into one, or (even) creating figures who did not exist in order to give focus to the story. Shakespeare's history plays are great examples; as sources of what actually happened in the reign of past monarchs -- be they Richard II or II, or any of the Henrys -- they are full of outright fabrications, demonstrable falsehoods, and suppositions with imperfect historical sources. But Shakespeare wasn't writing history, he was writing plays -- plays about the nature of power, of good and evil.

Of course Shakespeare had to wait -- it was far too dangerous, for instance, to write a history play about Henry VIII while his daughter Elizabeth still reigned. That's what's caught up Daisey here, I think, because the situation he's dramatized is a current one, still imperfectly understood even by the most dedicated of journaists. But I don't think that makes his monologue an insult to the theatre. If I were him, I'd probably work to incorporate the whole controversy into the performance -- in its own way, it's the most dramatic development yet.

One Geek in Gradschool said...

Another interesting aspect here is that there is a tradition of both theatre and fiction telling false stories in order to convey aspects of true ones that are not conveyed by literal ones.

For example Tim O'Brian's The Things They Carried which is a fictional book about a fictional character named Tim O'Brian's experience in and after the Vietnam War. But despite being fiction, where he could just present the narrative he wants to and be done with it, O'Brian instead makes the difference between reality and its fictional telling a central concern of the book.

If presented explicitly as fictional Daisey could have linked together all the stories about China he wanted even with the persona of Daisey. He could have just included info on how this was not a non-fictional presentation, but contains many true accounts.

Steve Myers said...

Well done. My only comment (as a journalist) is that you put ellipses in the block quote from "Retraction." You say that he didn't say those things congruently, and the ellipses will let you show where you put the quotes together.

NewsCat said...

Thanks Steve. I could have used ellipses but in a "belt and suspenders" kind of way, for this post I thought it was almost better to actually spell it out. I get that ellipses mean to readers "these weren't all said in same order" but I'm not sure the gaps in time (be it moments or hours) are always clear when we use ellipses.

JoeBob Obvious said...

Absolutely no way to define his "theater" as anything but self-serving nonsense, propaganda pathologically designed to improve the secret wretched self-image of a glutton with nary the discipline to manage a meal and/or exercise plan, the least a "professional" actor might do in support of his "instrument," let alone to manage the creative synthesis of fact and fiction toward the development of valid, transcendent art. He's bloated himself and his wallet with empty calories, empty stories and vacuous lies, and our unwarranted attention. No more than a hustler.

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