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The Passions of Mike Daisey

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The Mike Daisey Rehabilitation Tour came to Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theater on Tuesday, in the form of an audience Q and A at Woolly's Melton Rehearsal Hall led by the theater's Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz and its Managing Director Jeff Herrmann.

The evening also featured a repentant Mike Daisey, who offered himself up as a martyr for the sins of theatrical storytelling. In the end, it was hard to tell what to make of his performance.

Shalwitz and Herrmann held the event so they could discuss their decision to re-book Daisey's monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs for two weeks in late July. The discussion, they wrote on the Woolly Mammoth blog, will "allow us to engage with you in a nuanced way about a complicated subject."

What they presented, however, often felt more like a sophisticated bit of public relations mixed together with an awkward and ultimately unfulfilling public catharsis.

The forum began with Shalwitz and Herrmann taking two of the three red club chairs on the stage. Herrmann explained that the theater wanted to hold a "forum on the recent revelations" about Daisey's monologue. He said members of the theater had "complex and still evolving feelings about the serious issues" raised by the fabrications in Daisey's monologue.

Daisey, Herrmann explained, had come to the Woolly Mammoth in the summer of 2010 with his monologue. After rehearsing it at the theater, he staged a first-ever, one-night-only, sold out performance at the Woolly Mammoth, then took his monologue on the road, eventually returning to Washington in March of 2011 for a five-week run.

The rest, as they say, is history. Daisey became an international sensation and a media personality. His rise to fame was capped by an appearance on This American Life, where his report on working conditions at Foxconn's Shenzhen facility was the subject of an hour-long episode, which the program has since retracted.

Herrmann made the Woolly Mammoth's stake in Daisey's story clear: The theater gave birth to a monologue that drew international attention to a compelling human rights issue. Now Daisey, the progenitor of that monologue, had been disgraced for fabricating his encounters with Foxconn workers. What was Woolly Mammoth to do? Abandon the artist whose work it had helped create and the cause that work had championed?

Shalwitz said that he couldn't think of another show the Woolly Mammoth had put on that had a bigger and more meaningful impact on the world. Daisey's performance, he said, struck a nerve. "It made people look at themselves differently. It moved them. It made newspapers run the story on the front page, and it made Apple want to improve conditions in its factories."

"We've sorted through many complex feelings," Shalwitz said. He acknowledged that the theater had become "an unwitting accomplice in a misrepresentation of Apple and Steve Jobs to our audience."

They wanted to invite Mike Daisey back, he said, to discuss his plans for the evolution of his show, and how he had come to mislead his audience and the theater, and to have an open and frank dialogue about theatrical and journalistic truth, and the power and importance of theater as a vehicle for presenting essential truths.

Shalwitz apologized for presenting Daisey's monologue as a work of nonfiction, a designation he later said Daisey insisted in including in the materials that accompanied the show.

And then he offered the kicker: He introduced Mike Daisey and brought him on stage.

It was completely strange seeing Mike Daisey shamble out from stage left, dressed in a green pullover shirt and black pants, and take a seat in the third club chair on stage. He was unshaven. His eyes glistened in the stage lights. He looked tired.

He began by apologizing. He looked down at the well in front of the stage. "Three or four of my monologues were born in this space," he said, as if gazing down on something sacred.

"I failed you. I didn't live up to the standards I held myself to. I understand. I apologize."

The next line in my notes reads: "He looks contrite."

He went on. "I had standards and I didn't follow them. I established a contract with you and then I broke it."

Maybe Mike Daisey has standards he didn't follow, although no one at the Tuesday event seemed to be able to say what those standards were. But the real problem, it seemed, is that Daisey is just too good at telling stories.

He's an exquisite performer. When he speaks, his words and gestures seem perfectly calculated for maximum dramatic effect. As one audience member put it at the end of the evening, "I think you are a great fabricator, in the best and worst sense of that word."

He also can't seem to help making things up.

To take one example, when asked why he lied to Ira Glass by telling him that Cathy was not the real name of his Chinese translator, and saying also that he'd lost her number and had no way to reach her, Daisey had three answers.

First, he said, he didn't want Cathy to be hurt. "She was very skittish about what we were doing," he said. "She did not like what we were doing. She especially didn't like when we were translating the blacklist."

But as Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz and Cathy herself explained on This American Life, reporters in Shenzhen interview factory workers all the time, and Cathy has taken foreigners to the gates of Foxconn and other factories for years. It's her job.

Second, Daisey said, Cathy had told him she didn't want to be in his monologue. "I asked her if she wanted to be in the show, and she said no," he said.

But as one audience member pointed out later, in fact Daisey mentions Cathy throughout the monologue, and by name, although he spelled it with a "K." If Cathy was skittish about what they were doing, and asked not to be mentioned in Daisey's monologue, he chose a strange way to honor her request.

Finally, Daisey said, he had clear memories of things that happened that Cathy said didn't happen. He said he didn't completely understand where these memories had come from. "I've performed this story hundreds and hundreds of times," Daisey said. "Maybe some things from outside the show somehow found their way in. I don't know."

But if Daisey lied to Ira Glass about Cathy's name because he knew she disputed his version of events, it would mean Daisey already knew, before his monologue aired, that it was inconsistent with Cathy's recollection of events, and that he concealed her identity to cover up that fact.

But if that is the explanation, why not just say so? Why make up the part about not wanting to hurt her and wanting to honor her request to be left out of the narrative?

Still, even if Mike Daisey is the Sharazad of documentary theater -- a man for whom fantastical tale-telling comes as a second nature -- it seems unfair to be too hard on him.

He is, after all, working in the theater, a place we go to submit to the spell of an illusion. What Mike Daisey did so well on Tuesday night is, in a way, what all actors do when they take the stage.

Also, based on his appearance on Tuesday night, it looks like Daisey is under a lot of stress. He could probably use a break from the Salem trial he seems to be undergoing on what one audience member called his "self-flagellation tour."

Finally, setting aside the ruckus kicked up by This American Life, which arose, perhaps, from the program's need to scapegoat its most famous storyteller to save its own journalistic reputation, one has to ask how many theatergoers were truly betrayed by what Daisey did. It was, after all, only a monologue delivered in a theater.

Or, as my friend said over dinner afterwards, "Who gets their news about factory conditions in China from theater monologues?"

How much of a responsibility do theatrical storytellers owe to the truth? That seems like the fundamental question. Shalwitz didn't really have an answer.

"The whole field of documentary theater is still relatively young," he said. "The dialogue around this show helps the whole field engage in a discussion of what the ethics and boundaries of that field are. Theater is mostly about illusion, and documentary is mostly about truth, so there is a sort of uneasy balance there, and I guess it's that spectacle that the dialogue is about."

Or maybe the problem is simply, as one audience member argued, that The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is fundamentally an advocacy piece. In it, Daisey takes on the role of a political advocate, and encourages his audience members to become advocates and activists themselves. For Steve Jobs to work as a piece of advocacy theater, it has to be true.

Take away its claim to truth and you take away its essence, and the power that made it engaging in the first place.