“I’m Going to Lie to Lots of People”: Mike Daisey & Theatrical Fiction

On January 6, 2012, the public radio show This American Life aired an excerpt from monologuist Mike Daisey‘s show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Daisey describes a trip to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, which makes Apple products. During the trip to Shenzhen, he meets underage workers at the factory (“14 years old, 13 years old, 12″). He also meets injured workers at a restaurant, including a group whose “hands shake uncontrollably” due to factory exposure to the chemical hexane, used to clean iPhones.

It’s compelling theatre, and Daisey’s show prompted investigations into working conditions at Apple’s factories in China. Unfortunately, most of the above is not true, and on March 16th, This American Life retracted the episode.

In the “Retraction”, Daisey acknowledges that some of the events which he claimed to have experienced first-hand were either made up or told to him second-hand, and that he included them for dramatic effect. [1]

In response, radio host Ira Glass asks Daisey for “honest labeling”: “The normal worldview is somebody stands on a stage and says, ‘This happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled, ‘Here’s a work of fiction.’”

Why did Daisey’s audiences not see a fiction label on Daisey’s statements, which were made within the context of a theatrical performance?

1) Daisey made the same statements outside the theatre as he did within the theatre. Daisey claimed, to the producers of This American Life, that events which he describes within the performance actually took place. Daisey has also given interviews to and written columns for major media outlets, in which he likewise claimed that these events happened. All these statements were made outside of the context of a theatrical performance.

2) Daisey’s performance style encourages belief. In his performances, Mike Daisey generally sits behind a desk on a bare stage, with nothing but a microphone, glass of water, and his script. He hands out “action sheets” after performances (at least of The Agony and the Ecstasy…) encouraging audience members to take action based on the story they heard. Most importantly, he speaks in the first person, blurring the distinction between himself as a character in his stories and himself as a person in the real world.

In this case, a simple line in the show programme, such as, “This show is based on real events. Some events have been dramatized for effect,” would be sufficient to alert the audience to the need to do more research.  In addition, Daisey’s “action sheets” could include a sampling of the most startling statistics and events that are true both in the story and outside of it. This would serve to increase the impact of the show’s narrative as well as motivate the audience to investigate the facts for themselves.

Both of these suggestions involve taking action outside of the performance itself. They have to do with constructing a sturdy frame around the performance, so that the world inside the theatre and the world outside are not confused. When artworks are presented as spurs to action, the distinction between fact and fiction needs to be made clear either within the work, or outside it. The stronger the frame, the more free the artist can actually be to weave fact and fiction into one seamless story.[2]

Do you think Daisey’s show needed framing? Or is the audience’s job to evaluate what they see? Can “frames” destroy the integrity of an artwork?

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1. In the original excerpt, Daisey explains to his translator his plan to pose as a businessman in order to obtain access to factories. ”‘You will lie to them?’”, she asks. “And I say, ‘Yes, Cathy. I’m going to lie to lots of people.’” “Retraction” makes a point of this anecdote.

2. Daisey has since apologised for allowing his work to be aired on This American Life.

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