fbpx Can a Solo Performer Act Alone? | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Can a Solo Performer Act Alone?

This is a work of total subjectivity. I want you to know that from the outset. I also want you to know that I’m not tight with Mike Daisey. I mean, I’ve met him. He sat behind me on a plane and we chatted. I think we met briefly another time, too. Not too sure, and I’m not sure who could verify something like that. Of course I’m one of his 70,000 Facebook friends. (This figure may be exaggerated. My favorite fact-checkers are busy on my new book, which is a work of nonfiction. I don’t want to interrupt them.) I’ve seen Daisey perform and think he’s terrific, comparisons to Spalding Gray aside—that’s just a taste thing, very subjective. I missed his recent solo show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, for reasons that aren’t dramatic enough to include here (you know, leave the dull bits out)I wish I had seen it, especially so I’d have some credibility, writing this. Just for the record, though, I have never seen any thirteen-year-olds outside of the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. I don’t recall ever posing as an American businessman in China. I don’t know how to spell hexanne.

These days, I love not being Mike Daisey. That’s the god’s honest, subjective truth. Of course, it would have been great to have had a sold-out, extended run at the Public Theater of my one-man show, if I ever had one, and to have had a smash return engagement there. But who would want this public shaming? Like, wow, the way Woolly’s former marketing director wagged her cyber-finger and called for a boycott of the guy’s work. I mean, she and her staff worked their asses off to get all those “butts in seats.” They “got Mike in every major news outlet in DC, and the buzz, hype, and importance of the show only grew along the way.” They believed in the guy. “We believed you Mike!” (I made that quote up.)

Mike Daisey on stage
Mike Daisey speaking in 2013.Photo by Wikipedia. 

And cripes, to be shunned that way by the Public Theater artistic director, once that shit hit the fan with This American Life. I mean the artistic director didn’t even mention Daisey by name, whereas a month before you’d have thought he’d personally created Daisey out of the rib of Adam. Now it’s just: “We would not have called it nonfiction had we known that incidents described in the piece were fabricated. We didn't know, and the result was that our audience was misled.” (“Our audience was misled.”  Isn’t that what they call the passive voice?)  That’s abandonment. Talk to the hand, Mike. Man, that must feel bad, third-grade-I-just-peed-myself-in-class bad. And who’d want to be slaving away over all those truth-clarifying edits and carefully worded disclaimers before my (Daisey’s) encore run at Woolly Mammoth in DC. (It’s hard enough fact-checking a whole book of historical documents. Did I mention I’ve got a new book coming out? TCG, summer 2012. Watch for status updates on Facebook. I was going to ask Mike to put a link on his blog, but now, no way. I think I should maybe defriend him.)

That’s the patho-tragedy of Daisey. He couldn’t get out of his own way. He couldn’t walk away from himself the way those marketing and artistic director types eventually walked away from him. He knew hard news was the way to go, but he couldn’t turn off that playwright voice, saying, “Dramatize more, Mike! Make it more personal-like!” He was, in the end, Mike Daisey, subjective man.

I guess Daisey got what was coming to him. By now we all know—I mean this approaches the status of fact—Mike Daisey betrayed everyone. He betrayed his audiences, his collaborators, the journalists, the activists, the Chinese factory workers. He even betrayed Ira. (In case you’ve been asleep in a dark forest lately, Ira’s that nasal radio guy from Chicago. I’m a nasal guy from Chicago, too, but I don’t know him and we’re not FB friends. Do you think he’d confirm my request if I friended him? Do you think he’d interview me about my book? Probably not after this Daisey mess.) Worse even than Ira, Daisey betrayed the truth.

You have to admit, though, he made some kick-ass radio. (I listened twice in a row fascinated, appalled, morally confused, and made sure my son and wife listened. Awesome!)  But was it worth all the betrayals? Daisey betrayed the capital T Theater for sure, and, at least the first time around, he betrayed the This American Life gang (MSNBC, the Times Op-Ed, the list goes on). Then it took him so long to apologize. I mean, so long. I raised a family of four during those on-air pauses while Ira was grilling him. (I didn’t really raise a family. That was hyperbole.) First he sort ofapologized. Then, after keeping us waiting for, what, a couple of weeks, he apologized to just about everyone on his blog. His public confession was nicely done, though the guy blogs so much that after a couple hours, you had to wade through a bullload of posts to get to the mea culpa one.

The theaters really rose to the occasion, though. They’ve decided to check facts next time. I mean, that’s heavy. (Thank god, they finally figured out what dramaturgs are good for: fact checking!) Those theaters don’t do much ‘splaining, as Ricky Ricardo used to say. You usually don’t see this kind of out-there contrition when they discover a managing director embezzling or, even, when they caught that pedophile running a children’s theater in the Midwest. They certainly don’t waste their time on “sorry” when the sour economy forces them to kinda fudge their missions (and nonprofit status), taking all that money from commercial producers to do plays and musicals they haven’t even read. But you gotta hand it to them for saying sorry this time out. I guess things are on the upswing. At least subjectively. I guess, too, it makes sense that they sort of apologized to their audiences and attacked or shunned the artist, seeing as how the audiences pay them and they have to spend six or seven percent of what they make at the box office on the artist. What a waste of funds! I hear you can get a good telemarketer for ten percent of the cost of a ticket sold; why do they have to give playwrights nearly the same?

Arrggh. This gets me so confused. It’s exciting and all, but my mind goes all tweezer-like with the parsing of the meaning of truth and lie. I haven’t had to concentrate so hard since Bill Clinton messed up that girl’s pretty dress and called into question the meaning of the word “it.”

And I don’t think it’s over yet. I’m still in suspense. Where’s the smoking gun? I keep thinking that someone or something else was betrayed and no one has noticed. I know this sounds stupid, but I gotta ask: Did Mike Daisey act alone? For such a big betrayal he must have had accomplices, right? I mean people helped him put this piece on. Did they commission him? They certainly encouraged the guy.

Something about this doesn’t smell right, as my grandfather the butcher used to say (I made that up; my grandfather was a druggist). Like why in the first place do we think the theater’s a journalistic medium? Hasn’t anybody read any plays from the last 2,500 years (inexact number, but who has time to Google when you’re on a roll)? I mean, what are facts to him or he to Hecuba, right? Personally, I like my theater subjective. I like that Chekhov fellow, cranky old Albee, and—yes, he was neurotic—Williams. I liked Spalding Gray. They always make a big deal out of things, those theater characters, because all they’ve got is their subjectivity. They’re stuck with themselves, embedded in their ways of seeing things.

But I guess that kind of thing—the way people are—doesn’t cut it any more. Maybe that’s why the people running theaters have been wanting playwrights to write aboutstuff, you know, important stuff, like those rock star journalists do. Clearly it pays off. I mean, man, they’re awesome, especially those guys on TV, CNN, and MSNBC. (FOX not so much, though they’ve definitely got a lot of chutzpah, I mean for Christians.) Talk about creds. Like Ira. Since Bush-Gore, maybe, and certainly after 9/11, everywhere you go you see journalists telling us what’s what. Twenty-four/seven and even on the Internet. Talk about drama. I mean, news guys are born playwrights—like Pulitzer-winner Lawrence Wright, who wrote about Al-Qaeda and the towers and then took it on the road, right to the Public Theater. Instant theater!

The Brits get it. Like David Hare, writing Stuff Happens, just as it was happening! Glad the Public had the sense to snatch him up, too, especially since nothing American playwrights are doing could be called important, at least until Daisey got the message. Arrggh. I’m bummed that he botched it. So bad for American journalists—I mean playwrights.

Wait, that’s it! If we want theater to move to the center of culture, if we want to get out of the margins, we should be like journalists! Awesome. And talk about getting butts in seats! Perfect, what with all the news junkies out there. Journalism solves the marketing problems altogether, because you get issues. You can explain everything to ticket buyers, you can actually let them know the play is about something, as opposed to all those subjective or poetic or domestic or personal or quirky or mythic-whimsical or nonnarrative or just plain weird imagination-y things all those MFA graduates are writing these days. And baby, we need butts in seats to pay our marketing departments and to let us know that the theater is back! We are part of the cultural conversation.

Yes! If the imprimatur of these hot theaters can get a guy on public radio, the sky’s the limit: Op-ed pages! Spreads in New York magazine! Punditing from here to Punjab. Hell, if theater can only change the world, we won’t have any trouble ‘splaining why we have a hundred administrators on staff (and on health insurance) to every one artist. Like when that dude in La Jolla realized that, since he couldn’t be a rock star, he could be like a rock star by staging all those rock musicals and operas. We can do that too, journalist-style, hot off the press and on to the stage. We don’t have to go on Ira’s show; we can be Ira.

Don’t get me wrong, personally subjectively and in the privacy of my own heart, I love all that political theater—that Laramie project stuff, and those Culture Project folks who got all those innocent folks out of jail, not to mention the goofy documentarians like the Civilians. I mean political theater rocks. I’m still a kid, that way: I like all kindsof theater, including activist and documentary (especially Anna Deavere Smith, whom I revere—reavere?—and think of as America’s great Brechtian performer) (I’m blushing now). And Kushner, man, his shit is true and wild. But this Daisey thing has me thinking that subjectivity and maybe even fiction are retro retro retro. You gotta believe that the people running these theaters know what their audiences want. I guess they just want the facts, ma’am, so playwrights get on board. Journalism is the answer.

I think it was Ezra Pound who said, “Literature is news that stays news.”  (Who has time to check this stuff? It’s pretty much what he said, unless it was Ira Glass who said it. No, Pound. I’m 98 percent sure.)  But now I see he had it backwards: News is literature, only faster! Buzzier! Hype-ier! More important!

That’s the patho-tragedy of Daisey. He couldn’t get out of his own way. He couldn’t walk away from himself the way those marketing and artistic director types eventually walked away from him. He knew hard news was the way to go, but he couldn’t turn off that playwright voice, saying, “Dramatize more, Mike! Make it more personal-like!” He was, in the end, Mike Daisey, subjective man. Subjective Daisey made the best theater of the year—even if it was on the radio—the theater of his own unraveling. Could his play of (sort of) facts have been as heart-stopping as it was to hear him lying and covering and hemming and hawing and justifying and falsely testifying (pause) (silence) (way more silence) (Beckett half-smiles approvingly; Pinter smirks)?

Maybe the public agony of Mike Daisey was such great theater precisely because the contradictions and complications of human character are so darn rich, so compelling. I mean, Daisey’s undoing had it all—the private lie, the public coverup, the rise, the fall, the ambition and hubris, and tragic flaw. And like all really good stories, the faults of the protagonist were no less than an extension of the faults in the people—and institutions—around him. I mean push a playwright/performer close enough to the edge and pretty soon he’ll jump. Eyes on the prize, baby! Wait, though, whose hubris is it, anyway?

I was really glad to read Daisey’s heartfelt confession and his vow to “be humble before the work.”  I just hope that the folks running theaters don’t try something like that. They would totally lose their edge.

But like I said: Arrggh. It’s confusing. You gotta admit, though, it was fun while it lasted. And that’s entertainment—or, at least, news

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.



Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Thank you for taking the time to comment on this theatre of the absurd.Do you have any comment on my parents' request that I add in the program to my play Fear&Desire, " This is a work of fiction, all characters are the work of the author's imagination..."

Thanks Todd! I love so much of this, and your point about subjectivity has endlessly long legs. Feel like it's worth adding that truth or no truth/theatre/journalism/whatever Daisey's piece put a spotlight on Chinese manufacturing protocol like nothing else has.

It's true, Todd, and thanks for clarifying it: journalism is fact and truth and objectivity and reality and actuality and photographic evidence and reliable and fair and balanced and good. I was forgetting.

Oh Todd, thank you for your brilliant, fierce and hilarious post. It is endlessly fascinating, these intersections of real life and politics and theatre and questions of who is moral and what is important or worthy. I too was riveted by the Ira and Mike retraction episode, it is incredibly entertaining. Your constant advocacy for the playwright, your celebration of all the variations of wonderful plays that merit production, is deeply appreciated by us all.

Hey Todd - wish you'd been on the panel at the Public. Love your wit in this piece and I appreciate what you're saying. But I don't get a lot of it. I don't think fiction and subjectivity is in any way retro. It seems to be thriving. Which is great. But more importantly the issues with Mike's story ultimately have very little to do with a fictional play by Albee or whoever. And pointing the finger at all the many flaws in our system is just muddying the waters. And I just don't get the criticism of the Public's statement. If we who make and produce theater want to be taken seriously by the (lower case) public then we need to cop to our mistakes, no? Which is what I think Oskar did and Mike did as well. And of course what we all should do when we screw up. I get that your post here is nuanced... and I'm writing this not just in response to you. And I feel like I'm on the same page with you in that this incident can be an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our work and grow.

Todd! Hi, I've been under a rock, or raising children....oddly heard about three minutes of what I think was the original TAL before the kids needed cashews, or whatever the other one had -- then heard another three minutes of the "uh oh" and tried to tell Miles about it....but now we can have a macro conversation about IT ALL - or at least mutually enjoy your writing about it - when I have enough energy to complete a sentence. Thanks!

I appreciate your energizing interplay between Fact and Truth and Playwriting and Journalism. Disturbing, isn't it, how perniciously selective our sources for journalism are as they kowtow to corporate pressures. Ludicrous that they still manage to portray themselves as peddlers of objectivity.

woo hoooooooooo! Happened on this late on a monday night. loved loved loved it. Ditto the green smoothie comment. Thanks for writing, Todd... hope to see you soon.

Todd, as you can imagine, this has been a major point of discussion among drama students, sooooo I'm sending this on to seventeen M.F.A. candidates in playwriting and directing who need to add your voice to the choruses of outraged press and theatre practitioners.

If Daisey is going to be "humble before the work," I am already humble before Todd's post. My artistic integrity and overall moral sense were just forcibly blended into the kind of ungodly green smoothie that beautiful, sweaty people consume at or near yoga studios — i.e., I know it is good for me, and I fear it. In a good way.

This is just the best ever. EVER. I hear the beloved sound of false idols crumbling and brain cells stretching. Thank you, dear Mr. London!

Thanks Todd - This is so entertaining, fun and true. Reminds me of that old adage that's a good reminder to us all: we who live in glass houses shouldn't store thrones.

Todd, you've got me shaking in my boots as a so-called solo performer who never feels alone or sees truth as facts. And, yes, this 'piece of writing' is juicy enough to perform.

Subjectively, Todd, what a great piece of WRITING and OPINION (oh is that too old fashioned) sharing. Congratulations!

Wowsers, Todd. I ignored your advice and read it. Now i have to read it again. Quite the ride. (this post, as well as l'affaire Daisey). I experienced similar ambivalences and confusions when listening to The Retraction. I could imagine a couple of actors performing the verbatim transcription as "Ira" and "Mike." Now that would be some heavy Kakfa-Brechtoid docu-theatre! Maybe with puppets.