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.
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Mike Daisey and his audience go outside the Seattle Rep

What the storyteller learned from tripping over journalistic rules. And what journalism could learn from his art.

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.

This summer, Daisey plans to travel to Bangladesh, acting again as a sort of journalist, to see for himself the working conditions in that country’s garment factories, which have been very much in the news lately – hundreds of workers died this year as one factory caught fire, and another collapsed.

“I have no illusions about what I do,” Daisey said. “We live in an age when rules are shifting… I have no editor, I have no deadline. I bring this thing to the stage, 30 to 50 times, and each time is a draft I can change. “

“Journalism is this incredibly hard act. You’re using imperfect tools, in an imperfect world, using words filled with bias to tell the truth, and we pretend there’s a story that has two sides and only two sides.”

Translated memories, extrapolation, hyperbole — they are all part of Mike Daisey’s creation process. Notes are not, not always.

“I would be happier if I had done a better job,” he said of Agony/Ecstasy, “but as an example of activist theater, I’m really pleased with it.”

As a subtle way of acknowledging he has grown from the experience, he has included a colophon in the programs for his new production, a cheeky but substantial accounting of his source material:

“This monologue draws on experiences from journeys to both Disney World and to Burning Man, and experiences relating to the Occupy movement, and as well as interviews with members of OWS, archival film footage of Walt Disney, internet bulletin boards frequented by obsessive followers of the Mouse … The management also wishes to remind you that this is a true story, and like every story being told in every medium, all stories are fiction.”

Another attempt at growth: This spring, Daisey audited a course at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, a graduate-level elective entitled “The Fiction of Non-Fiction,” taught by former New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler.

Weschler called Daisey after the Apple episode, Daisey said, as part of Weschler’s standing policy to reach out to anyone caught in a high-profile literary scandal.

“At the time, I was too screwed up and busy, but we began to correspond, then we met,” Daisey said. “He told me he enjoyed the monologue and asked me if I would audit the course. I’m really glad he did. I would never have thought to take a class like this on my own…It coincided with my interest in how journalists construct stories.”

The premise of the course is that non-fiction writing is not a photocopy of an experience, but something that is intentionally constructed and therefore fiction: “All narrative voices, but especially the voices in true narratives, are themselves fictions,” the syllabus reads, before promising to “examine and upend the myth of objectivity…We will read as if writing mattered, and write as if reading did.”

Daisey (who is in his mid-30s and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, director and collaborator Jean-Michele Gregory) finished the course just before arriving in Seattle — the place his career in theater almost died and then bloomed, about 15 years ago. He moved here in 1996, sleeping on the apartment floor of a friend (who attended "American Utopias" on opening night), arriving in the crease between two cultural surges — one was retreating (grunge) as the other (internet commerce) surged.

“At the time, my life was falling apart and I thought I was never going to perform again or write again,” he said. “I came here to get a normal job and drink heavily on the weekend, and earn some degree of respect. … I’m not sure whom I wanted to impress.”

He got an entry-level job at Amazon, which provided the material for his breakthrough, “21 Dog Years,” staged for the first time in January 2001, at the defunct Speakeasy internet café. He filled the small space every night for months. Just as "Agony/Ecstasy" later tapped into the angst at the height of Apple’s power and zeitgeist, "Dog Years" captured a similar moment in the dot-com orgy, shortly before the internet bubble burst. He moved to New York in 2001 – he still has family ties to Seattle – taking "Dog Years" to the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.

He has since performed many other monologues in Seattle (“The Ugly American” at ACT in 2005, “Monopoly!” and “Invincible Summer” at the Kirkland Performance Center in 2009). He performed "Agony/Ecstasy" in 2011 at The Rep, before adapting it in early 2012 for "This American Life," the very popular show hosted by Ira Glass on National Public Radio, in an episode called “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.”

The scandal was perhaps more of one for "This American Life," whose stake in journalism is much larger than Daisey’s. A few months later, the show aired an episode called “Retraction,” to detail the story’s fabrications, and to interrogate a contrite Daisey.

Since “Retraction” aired, the program seems to have gone out of its way to qualify any claim or assertion made in its stories whose veracity is not self-evident. Glass, the host, often ends stories by stating that its producers could not independently verify certain statements made in the story, leaving it up to the listener to believe them or not.

In practice, journalistic accuracy is more fluid than static, and is often a function of time. The longer I reported stories, the longer I followed them, the more accurate they became. Which is not to say my first-day stories were inaccurate; they were just crude. They did not allow readers to draw meaningful conclusions. They illuminated unimportant details, and neglected important ones. Such stories were not fabrications, but the end result was something that misled, albeit unintentionally. Facts are just facts and do not always lead to the truth.

The success of "Agony/Ecstasy," its factual integrity aside, is indicative of what is rare in conventional journalism and becoming more rare; what we used to call “a good read,” stories with memorable characters, emotional resonance, panoramic and microscopic detail, context and atmosphere. That kind of reporting is arduous and expensive, and far easier to make up or imagine; the conclusion Daisey likely came to as he settled on a dramatized account that illuminated what he sensed was the greater truth of factory life.

Part of what drove Daisey’s instinct to embellish and extrapolate probably stemmed from his perception of the kind of show "This American Life" is — a unique mix of memoir, comedy, confession and news. The show routinely uses contributors from the literary world.

“The show,” Daisey said, “was never all hard journalism.”

Reporters don’t need any advice from Daisey on how to report, but they could use his advice on how to tell a story. Fiction has always been a source of inspiration for reporters who cared about the craft and art of journalism.

In the 1990s, I sometimes suggested to colleagues who wanted to improve their writing the Fox crime drama “New York Undercover,” which opened its episodes with a montage of scenes that culminated with the crime at the center of that episode.

No dialogue, only music, accompanied the montage, leaving to your imagination what the characters might be saying. The exercise, translated to news writing, was to convey with description what you are tempted to describe using quotes — that crutch of news writing. Another object of admiration and source of inspiration for us print types was "This American Life," a rare oasis of pure storytelling.

Much of what passes for journalism these days is snark, opinion, essay (this article falls in that category) and aggregation, because all are less labor-intensive. Doing more with less means journalists have to re-purpose news rather than find original material, re-plating a dish over and over again by changing a garnish or covering it with a different sauce.

Cheap news and fast news drive the media market, and journalism has never been more market-driven than it is today. For the last 10 years, traditional media have played a defensive game, working to avoid losing relevancy rather than winning an audience.

Pre-internet, newspapers had a buffer against market forces. Their monopoly on print advertising returned stunning profit margins. Editors could afford to commission stories out of principle or curiosity, for the common good, or just the pride of the paper. As an operative word, newsworthy has been replaced by buzz-worthy, click-worthy and viral.

Facing obsolescence, newspapers have largely given up on rich storytelling (a challenge even in good times) for speed. Newspapers react more quickly to events, but are no better and probably worse at illuminating the meaning of them. They have elevated the least valuable products they sell (simple information, which cannot be owned or monetized anymore), while undercutting their most valuable products (the voices of writers, and the stories only their reporters find and tell).

Instead of reporting and writing, many journalists spend work days posting content. Journalism has become a profession of recycling rather than creation. (Recently, the website CareerCast rated newspaper reporter the “worst job” in its 2013 survey of 200 jobs.)

Afraid of silence, the worst thing on the 24-hour web, media have chosen a lot of noise over a little music.

Click through most daily newspaper websites these days and you will find lots of predictable, programmed articles, the type that requires only a calendar rather than imagination and footwork — this is one symptom of a thin news staff. You will also read lots of Associated Press reports; essentially the same stories every media outlet posts on their sites, mixed with bits of local news ephemera, coveted for their fresh time stamps, which look impressive on news home pages. They are also cheap to produce.

It makes sense that journalism, desperately in search of storytellers, turned to one, and then felt betrayed when he behaved like one. Never mind that he never claimed to be a journalist. He knew what he was doing, but crucifying him is a little bit like blaming a wolf for not behaving like a dog.

Daisey likened the “Retraction” episode to “breaking up with someone you’re dating on national radio, having someone edit it, and then playing it for everyone.”

Daisey said much of his conversation with Ira Glass was edited out, in particular the portions in which he sounded more “angry and confrontational than cowed … we got into it. That part is absent. That was his call. … One of the reasons I did it was to say sorry to the listeners. I made Ira promise me to leave it in there at least once … I gave him that ammunition.”

“I understand Ira was scared and he needed to carve it off, and protect the show. He was also pissed, and ultimately his decision was that everything will be fact-checked and that will fix everything.”

The experience chastened Daisey, and also freed him from expectations.

“Losing this imaginary authority is liberating,” he said. “I’m just a storyteller. We have wonderful devices now and can look up a lot of factual data for ourselves. Intelligent people will do that anyway.”

Midway through "American Utopias," Daisey talked about dreams and how people reconstruct them later.

Dreams, he said, are fragments. By recalling them, you tell stories, imperfect and fallible. Dreams are fiction.

“You had to be there,” he said.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.