A monologist whose story about Apple and factories in China has come under fire took questions from the public about the controversy Tuesday night in the Washington theater that held the debut for his piece.
Solo artist Mike Daisey has had plenty to say since it was revealed that he made up some things in “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” his tale of horrid labor conditions inside the Chinese manufacturer that makes Apple products.
A lot of it has been: “I’m sorry.”
The public radio show “This American Life” had run a version of his story, adapted from his theater show, and then retracted it this month after learning that he had fabricated information about his visits to the factories. Daisey has since taken a pummeling in the news media.
He now says his story was theater, not journalism, and that he regrets having represented his piece as journalism. Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theater, which debuted his show last year, billed the work as nonfiction, as did New York's Public Theatre.
So it was something to see Daisey confront his theater audience face to face at Woolly Mammoth. The theater had invited the public to ask Daisey questions about the revelations, and about 150 people attended.
“How do we know that what you say now is the truth?” one middle-aged man in a button-down shirt asked Daisey. “How do we believe you?”
Daisey said that people can decide whether to trust someone even after that person has said he or she has erred. It’s all about trust, he said.
“And when someone lies, that trust is broken,” the man shot back.
Daisey got more sympathy from most of the questioners.
Some people said that they didn’t care that he’d stretched the facts.
One man said Daisey had told “the immutable truth.”
“We can’t all be upset about what you did,” T.D. Smith, 27, told Daisey. “I’m not that upset about what you did. It has to be about a bigger idea – and that bigger idea is the truth.”
Woolly’s artistic director, Howard Shalwitz, approached the event as a kind of cleansing ritual, meant to acknowledge wrongs and seek truth – if not reconciliation – among creator, theater and audience.
“We’re still sorting through this,” Shalwitz told the audience.
In his opening remarks, Shalwitz apologized “for representing the show as a work of nonfiction.”
“This is how Mike represented the show to us, we did not question it, and in hindsight we should have done so, and we will certainly do so in the future,” Shalwitz said. “After exploring this in-depth with Mike, I don’t believe he intended to mislead Woolly or our audiences – in fact, I think he was overzealous to make us hear the full truth of the situation in China, even beyond what he had witnessed himself.
“But the revelations on ‘This American Life’ made many audience members feel betrayed. They have every right to feel that way, and this could have and should have been prevented.”
Shalwitz said the theater isn’t giving up on Daisey. He said that Daisey is too gifted for the theater to do that. The theater has decided to bring back Daisey’s work this summer – billed, this time, as theater.
“We believe in the essential truth of Mike’s storytelling,” Shalwitz said.
But some people said they wouldn’t come to see it.
“I think you’re a great fabricator,” Sara Hope Franks, a social worker and therapist in Washington, told Daisey. “I don’t know how to trust you again. I don’t understand why the immutable truth needs embellishing.”