Turning History Into Reality
What do Mike Daisey, Tony Kushner, and Sarah Palin have in common? Each has bent history’s facts to serve their dramatic needs. For that matter, nearly every playwright—and politician—does. But Daisey is now taking ethics of non-fiction journalism courses at NYU; Maureen Dowd took Kushner to task; and journalists took to the internet to defend and condemn Palin’s account of Paul Revere’s ride. These high profile (mis)representations of history point to what happens every time theater engages with the past.
In each of these instances, after a faulty depiction of history, we had to accept or reject a new version of reality. The public fought over these portrayals of the world. One can see this in Palin defenders and detractors warring on Wikipedia. This American Life took the unusual step of retracting a story, spending an entire episode delineating its own fact-checking process. A Congressman lambasted the lack of fidelity in Kushner’s script, arguing that “suspension of disbelief” is of a different quality between E.T. and a film “based on significant real-life events.” More virtual ink was spilled on these three contentious representations of history than I can summarize. But, for theater artists, these controversies ultimately signify that stage depictions of history—distant or recent—create a reality onstage with effects offstage.
Recognizing the role public portrayals play, we need to acknowledge the effects of (mis)representing history and carefully think through our aims and methods. I am not advocating a rigid dogma about utilizing history onstage. Every play, every production, is its own organism within a larger ecosystem of theater, and must apply its own particular genetics. But we should examine our art’s relationship to past events, our art’s goals, and how best to accomplish them.
Take, for example, Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9. Its farcical, gender-bending, time-traveling structure is not, strictly speaking, historically accurate. However, its style points to realities about gender, sexuality, and colonialism. It does so in a fashion that clearly sets itself apart from supposedly objective journalistic theater like that of Mike Daisey. Churchill made no attempt at a naturalist representation of British Colonial Africa. Her postmodern techniques nevertheless address historical themes: colonialism’s chauvinism, homosocial relations, and reliance on gender norms, to name an obvious few. One could point to Liz Duffy Adams’ Or,, Naomi Wallace’s Slaughter City, as well as Tom Stoppard’s Travesties as examples of similar strategies.
If, however, a play purports to represent a journalistic account of history, including factual inaccuracies endangers the play’s authority. What if the play’s message is true, but the plot it sets up as historically factual is not? If, for example, the facts in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart were incorrect, its political goals would collapse like a house of cards. That situation may even endanger an accurate knowledge of history itself. After all, the students to whom I teach The Normal Heart weren’t born during the 1980s and take the script as fact. If it were merely liberal propaganda, am I not simply indoctrinating my students with lies? What happens to The Laramie Project if its interviews are fake? What if the history of Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives is so inaccurate that its portrayal of disposable workers in the 1920s is nonsensical? Plays of this nature rely on a plausible relationship to historical facts.
But whose history? Whose “facts”? In this postmodern age, can we even say there are “facts”? Discussing this issue with other playwrights, some suggest that history should not get in the way of dramatic necessity. Others have argued that “facts” are unknowable, and, hence, irrelevant. I disagree. When Sarah Palin asserts that Paul Revere warned the British that Americans would keep their guns, facts are necessary to refute her and her politics. Likewise, when Deroy Murdock, Hoover Institute Fellow, suggests that Reagan acted well when faced with the AIDS crisis, either he is right or Kramer is. The only measurement we have is a multitude of “facts” in Murdock’s article versus “facts” in Kramer’s play. I then turn to historians to help me determine who’s marshaling facts more accurately. If we, as artists, give up the idea that a “fact” can exist, we cede all political legitimacy.
Edward Albee says that, “A good writer turns fact into truth; a bad writer will, more often than not, accomplish the opposite.” There are as many ways to turn fact into truth as there are plays and productions, but we must carefully examine our aims and methods while we create art that relates to history.
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Thank you, everybody, for your wonderful comments on this article, particularly Mike Daisey and Mark Chrisler for really putting time into the conversation. I have little to add that wasn't in my original post, but I do think a quote from Janelle Reinelt's “The Promise of Documentary” might be in order. She writes, “Spectators come to a theatrical event believing that certain aspects of the performance are directly linked to the reality they are trying to experience or understand. This does not mean they expect unmediated access to the truth in question, but that the documents have something significant to offer” (9). I think this quote gets at the heart of the responsibility playwrights have to our audiences. That, in some way, audiences hope to gain an understanding of the world from our words, and that we must take that into consideration when we write.
This is an interesting conversation. I wrote a play about Woody Guthrie and after interviewing Pete Seeger he got angry with me for getting certain facts wrong, particularly dates and the order in which certain events happened. The facts came mostly from 2 different biographies that were sometimes at odds with each other and from my own research.
After thinking a lot about it and having a pretty uncomfortable correspondence, I went with Pete Seeger's version of events. Most likely, he was wrong about some of it. However, it felt silly for me not to consider him the better authority because he was the guy who was actually there when the events happened. However, he is a human being with a faulty memory. This doesn't mean that facts don't exist but it does mean I had to decide which story to tell & which facts to use to tell it.
The other thing is that "facts" just doesn't feel like the right word. And also, I think it is a mistake to think of history as "the thing that happened in the past" because history really is a dialogue with what we think happened in the past. History is more a conversation than a science.
Anyways, interesting article! Got me thinking.
Mike, that's a great little story. I agree that the construct of "the facts" often doesn't seem like the right phraseology when parsing multiple narratives.
Theater and film (as well as journalism and history) will always simplify and selectively edit in order to make one point or another—no event worth dramatizing is simple enough to portray fully—but there are plenty of ways to signal those edits and biases, and we must do so.
I haven't seen Mr. Daisey's piece, so I won't comment on that except to say it's obvious he'sdefensive about that wound being re-opened, but that doesn't mean this article isn't absolutely necessary and way overdue. When you portray a historical event, you have a responsibility to do it justice and not be lazy, which is what each of these writers (including, most likely Mr. Daisey) were. And all portrayed themselves as experts and their artwork as a work of historical fact. When setting up that "authority" they also invested themselves with the responsibility to be truthful.
Argo was bound to be full of fuckeries—there's always going to be a chase scene, and you know the characters weren't all just one person. Lazy. Catering to movie execs. Pimping oneself for an Oscar. But also transparent. I doubt anyone really believed it actually went down that way.
Zero Dark Thirty is much less forgivable—it is a cynical attempt to make a female protagonist palatable to producers and action-film audiences by casting her in the mold of the stereotypical male lone-wolf protagonist. She hurts, but she does her work to save us from our sins blah blah blah—when actually the single most interesting thing about this historical event is the fact that there was a whole group of women who ferreted out this intelligence pre-9/11 and, most likely in large part because they were women, no one took them seriously. Where is the movie in which we see that sexism and short-attention spans got over 3000 people killed on 9/11 and allowed us to enter 2 wars that killed 10s of 1000s more and took down many of our civil rights and our entire economy? That's not your garden-variety laziness—it's actively missing the whole lesson of history and missing the opportunity of a lifetime to actually illuminate something, which is what we, as creative leaders are tasked to do.
As for Lincoln, MaureenDowd went way too easy on them—the lies simply must be fixed if this is to be treated as history and sent to schools. Period. But I'm surprised neither you nor she mentioned the much bigger and completely unfixable problem with this film—Kushner (and also Spielberg, but to a lesser extent), we expect way better from you, bud bc you insist your work is researched down to the last detail. WHERE IS FREDERICK DOUGLASS?!?!? You are so busy congratulating yourself on including Mrs. Keckley (in a peripheral role) that you forgot Frederick Fucking Douglass, who played such a huge role in emancipation and in Lincoln's life that I can't even spell it all out here. Andthen you had the gall to claim in at least one interview that "Lincoln didn't know any black people" when he met with Douglass many times over the years specifically to talk about these issues. You are portraying Lincoln as a person who magically was ethically ahead of his time, when like with ZeroDark Thirty, the actual facts are both much more interesting and much more important: in Douglass' eyes, Lincoln was really only concerned with white man issues, and yet Lincoln listened to Douglass and let his thinking evolve to the point where he was acting in black people's favor, even though it was not his actual inclination. We need to see examples of that ability right now, because it is something our country's "leaders" are solely missing—which in turn is, I think, one of the messages you were trying to give us with the film—so why not actually give it?
Americans are simple-minded and fact-blind because we train them to be so. Theater and film makers MUST adjust their course to portray historical facts with integrity. Historians are available to help you, but you have to let go of the arrogance that makes you think your vision is singular and untouchable. You have to listen and learn if you want to teach others, and there's no reason art has to suffer for truth, so don't make truth suffer for art.
I wasn't lazy.
I won't repeat what else I've written above, or that would be tedious. Please go and read it, but just to be totally clear—there's nothing "lazy" about the narrative choices I made. You can disagree with them, and I've reformed my work because this is an evolving conversation like all my work is, but it's insulting and dumb to think that's what's going on.
You also commit the mistake of thinking that anything is historical. History is written by the victors—it is what ossifies after the struggle over what story will be told.
I get that you don't know my work. It's kind of breathtaking that you don't know it, but then are quick to decide that my problem is laziness...and then end by calling other Americans simple-minded and fact-blind because they jump to conclusions.
Ahem. Just saying.
This is a terribly naive article...and, like all narrative, is bending points to its own needs as well. For example, the fact that I've been auditing a class on "The Fiction of Nonfiction" doesn't mean I am somehow a broken man, or that I am "reformed". In fact, it means that I'm more interested than ever in how *all* storytellers, journalists especially, construct narrative authority.
A better example of how these rules exist in all storytelling forms would be to compare my scandal with the total non-scandal of WIRED magazine's cover story on labor at Foxconn from March 2011, which set the tone for the next nine months, in which their fact-checked journalists never interviewed a single worker for a journalistic work on labor.
The idea that my theater is described without bursting into laughter as "supposedly objective journalistic theater" makes me suspect strongly that the author hasn't the faintest idea what I actually do onstage.
This juvenile fear that acknowledging the great complexities of narrative, voice, authority, and who gets to tell the stories is disheartening. Theater is the most honest form because it has to live in the air as it is spoken, and by its form acknowledges the inherent subjectivity of form.
Mr. Juntunen is right—all the questions he asks are important. But he's too trusting that journalists and historians are somehow exempt from the same narrative forces that affect all our stories.
Mr. Daisey - at what point does Mr. Juntunen claim that you are taking this course because you're a broken man, or because you're "reformed?" (which you put into quotes) Perhaps I'm reading an excised version of the article, but I've read it twice and can't find that anywhere.
Perhaps you assume that this is implied; I disagree. Regardless, it seems in particularly bad taste (or "juvenile," to steal your word) to criticize Mr. Juntunen for misrepresenting your work, and then to do the same to his.
I'm simply invoking the Palin Provocation—namely, that once I get compared directly to Sarah Palin on a theater criticism site, I can not imagine any liberties I have taken rise to the level of Mr. Juntenen's choice to connect me with that woman. Poor Tony is more sensible than I am, and will probably leave well enough alone—but I'm not sensible, so here I am.
And I am, and will continue to be, totally juvenile. But I'm not fucking naive—and juvenilia without naiveté is actually something we need in spades right now.
Well, to be fair, I don't think the comparison was about you--as a person writ large--to her--as a person writ large. It was about a specific thing she said about Paul Revere. And even then, I don't know that he was painting with one broad brush on you, she and Mr. Kushner (though I don't think that's an indefensible conclusion by any means).
But, just looking at that particular Palin comment... is it different? I'm not asking as an attack on you, but more as a probing of myself. The defenders of "The Agony" that I've spoken to (and was speaking about) tend to say "who cares if it was fact, it was true." It was true artistically, or it was true philosphically or it was true politically. And, as I've said, I get where that's coming from. But is my willingness to more easily accept mistakes, fabrications or what-have-you about Apple or about The AIDS crisis or about The Bush Administration just a product of me hearing what I want to hear? Couldn't a defender of Palin's sentiment say it was "true" in that same sort of nebulous sense that I might say this or that questionable detail from "The Agony" was true?
I heard a wonderful story years ago that Douglas Adams told (I don't know whether he originally wrote it or whether he was simply conveying it) that has always stuck with me. It goes like this:
So, one day in 1477, a man fell into a glacier and was frozen solid, only to thaw out and awake today. The first thing he happens upon when he comes to consciousness is a store that sells televisions. He looks at the television and he grabs the nearest person to him and says "Look at this magic box! They've got these little people in it that tell stories on command! Isn't that wonderful!"
And the modern man looks at him and says "Oh, no. You've misunderstood..." and he goes on to explain to our time traveller that there's actually a photoreactive screen and an electron gun that fires into it to create images out of light that are initially recorded through a camera and et cetera, et cetera. And the whole time, the time traveller listens with rapt attention: he nods, he clarifies, he gets his mind around the whole thing.
Finally, when the whole device has been properly explained to him, he says "Okay. Thanks. I get it now. But, between you and me, there are a FEW little men in there, right?"
That's why I question the distinction between this particular Palin comment and other, more liberal issues--such as those in "The Agony." I BELIEVED there were little men. I WANT to believe there are little men. So even when something is proven "not quite right" I'm bound to forgive more easily than I am with Palin, because it's what I already want to do.
I'm not saying there isn't a difference, just that I suspect the difference to be difficult to parse out, given our confirmation biases.
Ugh. Replied on the wrong thread. This comment system really is awful, if anyone's listening.
I would think the difference would be that there is over ten years of NGO reporting that makes vividly clear that every condition reported in every version of the show exists throughout the special economic zone. They just haven't all been directly experienced by me. But in terms of multiple sources, the knowledge that there has been hexane poisoning, and that rampant labor abuse exists has been thoroughly and exhaustively documented for a long, long, long time.
The only reason it was ever "news" is because journalism in our time does a terrible job reporting on labor.
So not only are there little men to believe in—there are a lot more of them than I certainly described in that monologue, in any version that ever existed.
Theater--in what most modern, western audiences might call its "default form"--projects an assumption of authority. Put simply, when we watch characters on stage, speaking and acting with one another and ignoring the group of voyeurs amassed a few feet away, appears to take a God's-eye, third-person omniscient stance.
For those writers uncomfortable with providing such assurance to audiences, direct address has long been a wonderful way to interject uncertainty and unreliability into a narrative. For the monologist, this seems especially the case: Lisa Kron, for instance, makes no bones about giving audiences ample opportunity to disbelieve and doubt her version of events.
But I have both seen and heard Mr. Daisy's performances, and his use of direct address struck me as quite the opposite of Ms. Kron's. The attitude was one of "I was there, you can trust me. This happened and I am a witness to it." Is this the same thing as journalistic theater? Maybe not, but that would be arguing semantics. The point is that he clearly offerred me no reason whatsoever to doubt his version of events, or at least to doubt his version beyond typical issues of fidelity of memory and so forth. There was no indication that I was to "take this with a grain of salt," or "be on my guard." He created an atmosphere of trust, not of unreliability. And that should be clear by the thousands of people who have thought that way.
Were some wise to his "narrative interpretation" and unoffended by being misled? I'm sure. But when such a wide swath of the public reacts the way they have, it just seems patently obtuse to still, a year later, be harping on how everything was on the up-and-up if if we'd only watched the thing how it was meant to be watched. It's not the audience's job to know how to watch a performance, it's the performer's job to teach them.
All of which is giving Mr. Daisy the benefit of the doubt that I find hard to believe he deserves. Because the story is "you should have known I wasn't trying to be factual." But what I saw was clearly meant to be taken factually. I want to take his defense at face value, but what I saw was someone telling me exactly what they'd seen, exactly what they'd done, and (more or less) telling me what conclusion I should reach about it. I don't see anything he stood to gain by embellishing and building events wholecloth other than that I would take them literally. They were not metaphors, they were not microcosmic fables of a greater problem. They were WHAT HAPPENED. And, again, a huge portion of audiences reacted similarly to how I reacted. We reacted that way for good reason.
It is profoundly ignorant and patronizing that even now Mr. Daisy is blaming the rest of us for misunderstanding what he (purposely or otherwise) attempted to make us misunderstand. Just own it, man. Seriously. Stop writing your angry, defensive missives at everyone who analyzes a totally valid interpretation of your performance. Say you're sorry or move on or forget it or whatever you have to do. But don't blame us for what we experienced, or for analyzing that experience.
If for no other reason, it's becoming a bit of a joke. I've long respected your work, considered you a successor to Mr. Grey, even. But you've made that hard to do. First in what happened, but more and more in how you reacted (and continue ceaselessly) to react to it.
Theater does not assume inherently cultural authority at all. If this were true, people would believe that what they see literally on stage is true. People do not.
A great example of this is that with fantastic regularity people whom I speak with in the lobby after my shows ask not if some of what they've heard is fiction: they regularly ask if *all* of it is fiction. For example, wondering very openly in 2010 if there is a Foxconn, if Apple does actually do work in China.
"Is this the same thing as journalistic theater? Maybe not, but that would be arguing semantics."
Isn't that precisely what actual conversations like these are for? Parsing and understanding the semantics? They are rather important.
Pieces where I talk about the nature of truth and fiction are actually central to my work. My series of ongoing one-time performances, since 2003, is called ALL STORIES ARE FICTION. I did an entire monologue about James Frey and the nature of telling the truth in 2006 called TRUTH. My monologue MONOPOLY! has a pivotal scene that hinges on a false narrative that is then revealed to the audience. ALL THE HOURS IN THE DAY, in 2011, revolves around fact and fiction liberally intermixing, with clear attempts to assert that one form of address is true, then subverting that, then watching it surface again. That's honestly just off the top of my head—there are many more.
That doesn't mean you're not entitled to your feelings from the work you've been exposed to, and my measured apology for the first version of AGONY/ECSTASY is open and public. But it does mean that for anyone following my work, the news that storytelling isn't always predicated only on a comprehensive list of facts shouldn't be news.
What I meant by "inherent authority" (although I certainly didn't use the word "inherent" was that, in a typical, kitchen-sink realism play, if a character says to another "I never loved you," and later denies having said it, we know that they're lying, because we have a God's Eye View: we saw it happen. But introduce a narrator through which we see the story and suddenly that denial could be true: maybe the character didn't say that, maybe our narrator got it wrong.
That has little to do with your specific part of this conversation, but it is of great interest to me as a theater practitioner. Generally, the fewer links in the chain between the narrative and the audience, the more reliable the audience takes the narrative to be. That has nothing to do with audiences believing something as factual, and everything to do with audiences knowing their job.
And the audience's job IS what's at issue in "The Agony." That you've got a body of work that has cued audiences to think about what may or may not be true is totally irrelevant to the controversy over this piece. You didn't tell them they should do that IN "The Agony." Saying that the audience should know that's what you do because you've done it elsewhere is, if anything, more arrogant and obtuse than simply telling them they didn't watch it right. Again, it's not the audience's job to know how to watch your play, it's your job to teach them.
And what you taught me, when I saw this piece, was essentially this: "You and I probably both love Apple. We both probably know that there's something fishy in China about the way some of those products are made, but we don't really know what that means, specifically. But, guess what? I went there. I saw the specifics. And it changed how I felt about these products. So, if you'd let me, I'd like to tell you about those specifics."
There was no "But watch out! Because maybe I'm going to make up something about a Chinese man saying an iPad is magic in a rather disturbing, noble-savage sort of way." There was no "But what can we really know?" There was no "be careful of my agenda, because maybe I'm going to lie to sell it to you."
It's interesting that you bring up Frey. If you don't know Lauren Slater's "Lying," I highly, highly recommend it. It's an incredible, beautiful, amazing piece of work. And one can't help but notice that the controversy which surrounded Frey never reached, and never would reach, Slater. The answer to "why?" is right there in the title: Slater cued us into issues of reliability, and she used her own deception and ambiguity to create a grand and wonderful metaphor full of complexity and deep, troubling questions. Frey, conversely, just lied. He lied to sell a book, to sell an agenda. He lied to manipulate. Whether you've acted in Slater's mode throughout the entire rest of your theatre career is totally irrelevant to the fact that you acted far closer to Frey's mode in the play in question.
i think the inherent difference is that it is, first and foremost, a piece of theatre. when Mr. Daisey goes onstage, he does not try to pass himself off as a journalist. he is a monologist, a theatre artist. he has never claimed to be anything else.
when i attend a show at, say, at Seattle Repertory Theatre (my howntown), i enter with the understanding that i am entering a theatre, and am seeing a piece of theatre. there is an inherent suspension of disbelief involved in a piece of theatre that isn't present when i go to a lecture, or a Q&A with a journalist. i don't expect cold, hard facts. i expect drama. i expect something compelling, thought-provoking, hopefully relevant to our society, but i don't get upset when i see something that isn't true, even when it's presented as "truth." because it's theatrical truth. it's dramatic truth. it's truth presented through a lens. sometimes this truth reaches for cold, hard facts, but more often it attempts to find a form of universal truth through dramatic structure.
i'm not saying that theatre artists can say or do anything they want and hide behind their title, nor do i think Mr. Daisey is entirely blameless in that little scandal (though NPR's handling of it left much to be desired, and i'm more often than not defending Mr. Daisey over them), but i think there needs to be an understanding of what we do, versus what journalists do. it's a simple distinction, but a vital one.
Scott: I think you bring up some interesting points, and I definitely see where you're coming from, but I also respectfully disagree with you and I'd like to explain why.
The TAL story is a very different sort of animal from Mr. Daisy's live show. I don't think he'd disagree on that. I understand why people had a queasy reaction to TAL's retraction, but I think they were right to do it. And I say that, at least in part, because I've been in Mr. Daisy's position. TAL was interested in a story of mine back in 2009, and we entered into talks about how to handle it for radio. What people listening to the fight between Ira and Mr. Daisy might not understand is just how absolutely crystal clear the production staff of that show is about how material must be handled. I could have gone along and lied and pretended and done my piece how I do it. But I knew--because they were emphatically, programatically clear--that what I did on stage wouldn't stand for them on the radio. TAL is a great show. I'm a huge fan. And it's a huge audience, which doesn't mean nothing. And I love the people there. But I had to, in good conscience, stand up and say "hey guys: you should know that I'm a monologuist and a playwright. I'm not a journalist. I'm playing with the facts in this story significantly. And I'm doing that in a way that I hope lets the audience know I'm not to be trusted. On stage I'm pretty sure people know not to take me at face value on this stuff, because I tell them--both directly and indirectly--not to."
And they answered back that while they thought that was fine and good on stage, that just by virtue of being on a respected news outlet, the issue was much stickier on their show. We argued and debated this, with me saying "I can cue an audience into my unreliability just as well on radio as on stage," and them saying "what about people who tune in late? How are we going to convey the relative "truthiness" of this story? That's not just your responsibility, it's ours." This negotiation sucked. And it really strained my relationship with the show. I feel really guilty about how it was handled and know that I caused a lot of stress for Julie Snyder, who is a wonderful person who deserved none of that. And in the end, we scrapped the story.
All of which is to say, I don't bemoan TAL's reaction, because I know how much vetting they do and how much clarity they provide on what can and can't be said. This is a seperate issue from the stage version, again, but having been in Mr. Daisy's seat, I know how many times he had to CHOOSE to deceive the Julie and Ira and Sarah or whomever else he was working on this story with. And while it's a seperate issue, I also find it difficult to know that he did that to TAL and to their listening audience, but that he was up to something different on stage.
Theater artists are not journalists. You're right. And they should never, ever be held to the same standard as journalists. If Apple or FOXCONN or anyone else tried to sue Daisy for libel or slander, I'd be first in line to defend him. That would be bullshit. He has artistic license to do as he pleases and I don't want to see that encroached upon in the slightest. But, for me, the question is what ethical burden comes with that license. And while theater isn't journalism, it is not all created equally. If I go to see "Death of a Salesmen" one day and "Laramie Project" the next, do I take them as equally fictive? No. There's a continuum. And I still believe that Mr. Daisy, intentionally or accidentally, framed "The Agony" on a very extreme end of that continuum.
I'm with you, Scott: theater's job is not the same as journalisms. Not usually. And theater has a way of getting to "truth" in a way that "fact" sometimes fails to do. But it's a sticky wicket, because that search for truth v. fact can also serve as an excuse. Every week--hell, everyday--I go on facebook and see someone posting something totally erroneous. I see people quoting Obama saying "I love socialism. I hate freedom. I eat babies. Yum yum yum." And when you say "hey... I don't think he ever said that," people respond, at first saying "yes he did! Yes he did!" and eventually settling on "Well, he might not have LITERALLY said that, but it's what he meant."
There are dramatic liberties to be taken in this world, especially in the arts. I love taking them. God, do I love taking them. But, in that case, the question becomes: what is this for? Is this fictive story furthering a grander truth, or is it propagandaistic? Because, when you believe in The Truth regardless of The Facts, it can become very easy to mistake one for the other.
This ridiculous commenting system--I'm sorry, Mark, I only read (and was responding to) the first half of your first comment. I apologize, as I would have used a different tone had I seen the whole thing.
The shortest thing I'd like to fill in to this picture is that I'm sorry. I was sorry a long time ago. I apologized fully and completely over a year ago, and you can read that post here:
Since then I've reformed the work to make it ethically made, performed it in cities confronting and addressing criticism directly, and given the work away for free so anyone can use it in any way they see fit.
Discussing any of these things is neither apology or defensiveness—it's a discussion. Bringing up how I use fact and fiction isn't an excuse for that scandal—I don't need one, as I owned it long ago. It's just interesting, and this is a theater criticism site, so I'm talking.
My apology stands, it's sincere today even when I want to debate the nature of narrative, and more than simply apologizing—I dedicated many months of real time to working to make right where I felt my work has fallen short.
It's really interesting to hear about your experience with TAL. Mine involved Ira directly, and was strongly influenced by their desire to get the story. There were chances to scuttle the story, but there wasn't a long, drawn-out process of bringing it to the radio, because TAL wanted this to drop before the NYT piece on Foxconn—they wanted it at the beginning of January. While I'm responsible for my decisions, my process with them didn't look like yours did.
And from my side, if my only concern had been aesthetics, I certainly wouldn't have done this. I never would have volunteered to be on TAL. Ira came to me, asked for the story, said he would give it an entire episode. I knew that if it did land early January, it would catalyze an emotional reaction in advance of the big Foxconn story (which I knew was coming).
I thought there was a chance to actually affect change. I knew the risks, and the cost of doing that. And I took it.
And based on what has happened since, in both popular consciousness, on the ground in China, and in the work of people in the electronics labor struggle—it worked.
I'm not saying it didn't come at a price, or that it couldn't be done better, or that I have regrets. I have all of those. But fundamentally, today, it's very clear that the years I spent talking about this issue as an invisible thing are over, and that has changed the ground conditions for this part of the global labor game.
You end your latest piece well, by saying:
"Because, when you believe in The Truth regardless of The Facts, it can become very easy to mistake one for the other."
I guess what I'm saying is that this actually swings both ways. I have lived through watching tech journalism do anything it could to ignore the actual facts of electronics labor, which have been verified for over a decade. I watched Apple get investigated heavily by press in 2006…a huge storm brewed up, which they quieted by making promises they never intended to fulfill. And the press swallowed it, gladly, because it was the narrative they wanted to see.
There was even a cover story in WIRED magazine for March 2011 on the labor conditions at Foxconn where the author NEVER SPEAKS to a single worker. Ever. He's admitted it publicly, and its abundantly clear in the text. Is anyone surprised that the immaculately fact-checked article ends believing that working in electronics labor is the same as spending a summer flipping burgers?
Theater is theater, yes. But journalism is also storytelling, and the labor stories we get sold by the press are severely tilted. The fact is that up until the wonderful NYT piece in January 2012, I believe that even with its dramatic choices AGONY/ECSTASY is a better story, that tells more of the totality of the West's implication in this particular labor situation, than any other I saw in my culture. Since revising it it is even stronger today, which is why it keeps getting produced around the world.
If I have learned only one thing, it is this: all story is struggle. That's why all stories must be fiction, because whoever takes authority constructed it at some cost. And the myth of objective journalism is just that: a myth. Everyone who is telling a story every day has a reason for telling it.
Finally—if I seem defensive, or sharp, I apologize. If you went through what I have with this, routinely watching perfect strangers who will never see your work or know what happens in the room jeer and use your name as a punching bag, you might be more scarred today than you were a year ago.
But I am a better artist now. And I know how to take a punch. And after all the caveats, and the regrets, and the pain—I would not trade away the changes I have lived to see.
Thank you, Mike, for that response. And I have to apologize because I fear I've put words into your mouth, but sometimes your position on this piece has been a little hard for me to pin down. Additionally, I've talked about this issue with lots of your supporters (in case you don't know, you have plenty) who maintained a complete lack of interest in anything but a full and unnuanced defense of the piece, usually coming from a place where they agreed with your conclusion generally and didn't much care what it took to get there. Which, you can probably tell, is the sort of thing I find vexing.
I find myself agreeing with you very much here. I will admit, I don't really have a lot of political sawhorses of the importance to me that this issue holds for you. I mean, I'm a ranty, angry liberal (because, I mean, come on: this is a theater discussion site) but to me issues of objectivity, truth, lies and the like end up being my real main course most of the time. And I don't want you cut out of that conversation because of this controversy, it just makes it hard to seperate your interest from your interests, if you know what I mean.
And I'm sure you do. I'm also sure that there's been plenty of unfairness and hurtful shit hurled your way this last year. And that sucks, of course. I'm glad you feel that the story still was effective, still got told, still changed things, because I honestly have wondered about that--wondered if you were afraid you had become the story and hurt your cause, whether by your own fault or the fault of others.
The one thing that I take umbrage with is your assault on journalism--not because you're wrong! You're definitely not wrong!!--but because, in debates like this, it seems like setting up a false dilemma. Dr. Juntunen doesn't need to talk about the difficulty cum impossibility of objective journalism to talk about your--or anyone else's--theater work and its relation to truth. I know Jacob very well, and your assumption that because he fails in this article (about theater) to take a deconstructionalist argument against journalism he is therefore a lacky to a mainstream media tunnel couldn't be further offbase. In fact, he's argued with me more than a few times on all of this stuff.
And, yes, I'm putting you in a more extreme position than you took. I'm hyperbolizing. And I understand why you might react a little knee-jerk when an article like this comes up. But it does complicate the issue when you seem both to be investigating and castigating, and I do think there's some of the latter in your initial post.
All of that said (at fucking length), I'm glad to be able to have this discussion, and glad to have heard you out more clearly than I've previously gotten the opportunity. And apologies again for any and all unfair assumptions/failures of civility on my part.
"Additionally, I've talked about this issue with lots of your supporters (in case you don't know, you have plenty) who maintained a complete lack of interest in anything but a full and unnuanced defense of the piece, usually coming from a place where they agreed with your conclusion generally and didn't much care what it took to get there. Which, you can probably tell, is the sort of thing I find vexing."
Really? I never hear from these people, honestly. I usually hear something a lot more nuanced—people who are glad that I told that story, and got it out into the consciousness, but would agree I could have done a better job.
For my very first piece of activist theater, I feel I did alright.
I’ll do an even better job in the future.
As for Dr. Juntunen, I will explain the Palin Provocation, which I defined in another thread:
"I'm simply invoking the Palin Provocation—namely, that once I get compared directly to Sarah Palin on a theater criticism site, I can not imagine any liberties I have taken rise to the level of Mr. Juntenen's choice to connect me with that woman."
So if I was unduly harsh, a lot of it was that. But I did think this short essay was naive in that it lets the ground assumption be that theater (and Sarah Palin) twist narrative to their ends, while not acknowledging how that is actually a human condition, inherent to all forms of discourse. If it had delved a little more deeply in that, it wouldn’t have seemed so shallow to me.
Mark, I agree with you on too many people using fact v. truth to excuse erroneous language and falsehoods. I was also taking somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction in responding. I have so often come across people who have blindly sided with TAL--demonizing Daisey in the process--that I usually end up taking his side in the debate, in hopes that the complexities will be brought out and they will realize it is not cut-and-dry on either side. I'm so used to making that argument that it's almost reflex at this point.
Mike, while objective journalism may be a myth, journalist do strive for objectivity (the good ones, anyway) as an endgoal. The fact that they can never achieve it should not diminish the intentions of their own attempts, just as theatre's failed attempts at "Truth" shouldn't lesson the effort. Theatre and journalism are both storytelling, but with different ideals and different paragons of perfection. Neither form can ever achieve said perfection, but the different endgoal requires a different journey. There can of course be crossover, but that's when it gets tricky.
You both make excellent points, and I find myself agreeing with you both, even when it means contradicting myself. I think this just illustrates the complexity of the issue. Thank you both for taking the time to clarify your positions. It's been fascinating.