from William Franke, Director of Development & Communications
Much has been made in the past few weeks of Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, particularly the truthfulness of it. Perhaps none of this would have come up had it stayed in the theater and not been presented as truth on This American Life, where it transitioned from theatre to journalism.
(Full disclosure: I have not seen the live performance at the Public Theater. But like many people*, I was enthralled with the half hour excerpt of Daisey’s performance presented on This American Life. I was equally captivated by the episode that they ran last week, “Retraction.”)
I know some people who find it ridiculous that Daisey is being lambasted for being less than truthful. They repeat Daisey’s defense that he is an artist of the theatre and that his monologue—a piece of theatre—does not need to meet the same rigors that a piece of pure journalism does.
The reason this sticks in my craw is that it reminds me of a refrain I’ve heard over and over again: that actors = liars. (A few examples: A friend of mine was told by her in-laws “We can never be sure if you’re telling the truth, because you’re an actor.” I was once approached by a former coworker to pose on the phone as her grown daughter’s boss to give a glowing recommendation to a potential employer. When I refused, she said “C’mon, you can do it. You’re an actor.”)
My understanding is that, while Daisey created a theatrical piece, he did so as a storyteller, purportedly relating stories of his actual experiences without caveat, without footnote. Instead, what was brought to light was that he made much of it up to manipulate the emotions of the audience.
Yes, actors in any play are up there on stage saying things they don’t mean, things they may not personally believe, pretending to be people they aren’t. But when actor and audience enter the theater, there is a contract, an understanding between both parties about what is going on. Even with plays based on historical events, audiences understand that liberties are taken: historical personages and events are merged for the sake of dramatic expediency. The irony of this situation is that in a room full of people sharing an evening of these agreed-upon lies, something transcendent often occurs. Greater truths are discovered. That is the power of theatre when everyone is in it together.