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Mike Daisey comes back to Seattle smarter than ever

What the storyteller learned from tripping over journalistic rules. And what journalism could learn from his art.
Mike Daisey is in the middle of a special engagement at Seattle Rep.

Mike Daisey is in the middle of a special engagement at Seattle Rep. Courtesy of Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Mike Daisey and his audience go outside the Seattle Rep

Mike Daisey and his audience go outside the Seattle Rep Photo: Hugo Kugiya

Mike Daisey ran afoul of journalistic expectations on public radio's "This American Life."

Mike Daisey ran afoul of journalistic expectations on public radio's "This American Life." Photo montage by Photo Giddy

If you happened to be out late recently, walking the grounds of the Seattle Center around 10 p.m. — from the looks of it, this is not common decent behavior — you might have stumbled into the closing moments of the storyteller Mike Daisey’s new work, “American Utopias,” his one-man show at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and his first post-Apple appearance in Seattle.

The star, a bearded man with a tenor’s pitch, dressed all in black, closed the show on its first night by leading 170 people out of the theater and onto the plaza outside. They gathered close around him in a half-circle, lit by neon signage. Audience and performer, stripped of props, the polite distance between them removed.

“When I built this monologue,” Daisey said the next morning, “and it was largely in my subconscious, and it was clear the show was going to be about Disney and Occupy Wall Street and Burning Man, not long after, it became clear to me … that this gambit of ending this outside would be important. I’ve done it everywhere, regardless of the weather. I’ve done it in snowstorms in Iowa, in driving rain, in high winds. I did it during a tornado warning in D.C.”

His reason for ending his monologue outside is open to some interpretation, but fairly clear from the context of his show, in which he talks about the physical boundaries of live theater and the social contract that sets apart an audience from a “crowd” or a “mob.”

Daisey has put some thought into the meaning of an audience the past year — it was a rough one, and followed one of his best years. He learned that not all audiences are created equal; that he could please one audience, while alienating another. This can be another way of saying he put some thought into the meaning of his own job. It and his audience have widened beyond his expectations.

Daisey is an actor, a comedian, an activist, biographer, historian, a media critic and an accidental journalist. As the latter, he committed the grave sin of bringing fiction into his reporting. The rules are clear on this and rightfully so, because a journalist trades on trust.

Daisey learned his lesson — don’t make up stuff if your audience is expecting investigative journalism — and went back to what he has always done with no less success, leaving journalism in the same state he left it. Which raises the question: Does journalism need the likes of Mike Daisey more than he needs it?

Journalism, now more than ever, needs stories told well and often; accurately of course, but with distinction. The way Mike Daisey might tell them.

"American Utopias," which ended last Saturday, mused on mass gatherings of like-minded souls, aspirational places and temporary communities, built and then disassembled a short time later, often on public land. Ostensibly, they were stories of his travels, his family, life in his hometown of New York, a brief biography of Walt Disney.

His upcoming show, “F…ing F…ing F…ing Ayn Rand,” which runs four nights starting Wednesday, is an ode of sorts to the Russian-American writer, a serious subject lightened by Daisey wit.

In September, he will stage a 29-day monologue called “All the Faces of the Moon” at The Public Theater in New York, performing 90-minute chapters on 29 consecutive days (matching a lunar cycle) on themes of corporatization, games of chance, mysticism, art forgery and the tarot. Each chapter will have its own title and painting (commissioned by Daisey, painted by a Russian artist), unveiled each night on stage, and will be uploaded nightly as a YouTube video and podcast.

“It’s designed to be theater in our age now,” Daisey said.

His most intriguing plans involve an untitled project reminiscent of his most famous/infamous, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” the retelling of working conditions in an Apple factory in China. The piece has been downloaded, translated, made into other productions hundreds of thousands of times — both before and after his very public confession one year ago, when he admitted on a national radio program that some details of his monologue had been fabricated or exaggerated.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, May 6, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm glad you pursued this essay -- we've all been dancing on the increasingly fluid line between unmediated facts like the unedited reporters notes we can see on the PBS website, and docu-dramas where aspects of the truth are edited and crafted to create the best effect. Is there a difference between the hidden "gotcha" cameras used for Food Network restaurant exposes and the dashboard camera footage from the SPD?

sandik

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