About a month ago, I approached a local theatre company with a project: “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”
Mike Daisey had released the script into the world a few weeks before. I read it. I loved it. I really wanted to do it. And it seemed like a valuable project for our local audience: it was a show in the larger consciousness thanks to the “This American Life” episode in January, Steve Jobs and Apple resonated in any community these days, it was a chance to engage a piece that was taking an unusual route to theatres like ours, and it’s form – the evening-length monologue – isn’t seen often locally, so our audiences could experience something new.
We decided on a four-performance run as quickly as possible: opening night was set for March 17. Our thoughts: “Being current is part of the way we sell the show, so let’s stay as current as possible. Let’s open the thing before Daisey finished his run at the Public.” I’d perform it as a reading, the tech would be minimal, so we could compress the time from idea to opening without much worry.
And anyway, it was the script that was the event. We wanted people to focus on the script.
On March 16, the day before we opened, we got what we wanted. This American Life retracted their episode, citing fabrications in the script as a cause. The firestorm that ensued (that’s still churning on in some corners) is known – no need to detail it here – but while the large part of the theatre world was spinning on its broader implications for the theatre and journalism and ethics and the truth, we had a very different problem.
What in the hell are we going to do with our show?
I figured we had three options:
1. Ignore it. Do the show as written and not address the controversy about the veracity of the text.
2. Acknowledge the controversy in the program or in a short curtain speech, but continue to do the show as written.
We chose to respond. Anything else felt dishonest to us (particularly to me, because I was going to have to perform the thing). If we were going to be faithful to the truth-telling spirit that pervades the show itself, and the spirit of freedom that Mike offered theatre companies and artists when he released the thing and the journalistic “this thing is happening, right now!” quality of the show’s invention, we’d have to respond.
So, we did two things. First, we compressed “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” into a single act, one which focuses the piece on Mike’s trip to China, his visits to the factories and meetings with workers and union members. And we opened that with a short preface about the piece’s history, This American Life’s retraction and the controversy that was occurring around that retraction.
Then we crafted a new second half, one that would unpack the controversy surrounding the work the audience just heard. The second half culled together bits and pieces of the reporting that sprang up in the wake of the retraction, the responses from theatre companies supporting him, Daisey’s response himself and other sources. And we closed the show with a short epilogue that I wrote tying up the piece.
We hoped this would allow audiences to hear Daisey’s work for what it is – a powerful and beautifully written piece of theatre – and for what it isn’t – a journalistically true piece of theatre. And we hoped it would do this without judgment. Because we didn’t want to say, “Mike was wrong! Mike was right! The piece is bad! The piece is good!” We wanted to say, “This is his story. This is the counter story. Somewhere in this is the truth. Let’s talk about it.”
And people did. At both shows, the lobby of our 50-seat house was host to an impromptu discussion circle: the audience gathered, with us, to simply talk through the issues, their responses, their feelings. They did this before the show. During intermission. And after the show.
We have two more shows this weekend. And the show will continue to evolve as the week goes on, reflecting whatever happens between now and Saturday. We’ve talked a lot in the last few days about how this feels like a wonderful opportunity to do something theatre doesn’t often do: respond to breaking news in front of an audience. It’s been an exciting experience.
Here’s a chunk of the epilogue that I wrote the night before we opened, just hours after the controversy broke. It’s an immediate response to the accusations and an attempt to tie up the complicated issues for an audience.
For what it’s worth…
“The way in which a thing is made is part of the design itself.”
There’s more to “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” that you haven’t heard, things that (in light of the doubts cast on the veracity of the material at the show’s heart) didn’t feel right performing. Things that poked fun at Steve Jobs and our technological world, things that were funny on Thursday, wonderful on Thursday, but wrong yesterday, wrong today.
And I think about the truth. How it shifts beneath our feet, how it twists and bends, how it distorts and folds in on itself, how the truth is less sturdy than we think, how the truth is a lot like the ground beneath our feet – we walk on it every day and it seems unchanging and certain, but deep down, in the bones of it, under everything surface, it’s always moving, imperceptibly shifting, reorganizing itself.
And I think about the theatre. The fiction of it, the construct we all agree to when we walk in the door – I’m here, you’re there, we pretend for a few hours that it’s all real – then we let it all go, and what was real is now artifice, memory. But how that fiction, the theatre fiction, done well, FEELS like the truth — more truth, really, than regular truth, a truth that can find its way into the deepest part of who we are and shake us at our core. How, in the artifice, we can reach something more profound than fact, something without a name, something we only KNOW, the way we know love when we see it, grief when we feel it, joy when it sits beside us.
And I think about how I felt when I first downloaded the text of this show and read it, sitting at my kitchen counter, overcome by the power of what I was reading, the elegance of it, reading parts of it out loud and savoring what it felt like to SAY something so gut-punchingly delicious to say, feeling this art form I love reach into my stomach and set an unspeakable truth there, thinking to myself, “wow, I MUST do this show.” How I felt that Daisey’s story could be my story, how I felt compelled to pass along this story in the medium I love, how his call to action set me to action.
And I think about Mike Daisey, creating this thing that must have sprung off the page and hit him square between the eyes like a lightning bolt of fucking goodness, knowing that it was GOOD, that it would do the thing that theatre’s supposed to do to, that it WORKED, that it spoke from a place of passion, conviction, it spoke from his Truth.
How, in front of his Mac, he was making choices that playwrights make, choosing to fudge this detail here, choosing to tell this truth in a different way, choosing to move the facts to make the play tighter, better, more effective for the audience, organizing the reality of the world into a Story, a beautiful Story that does what real life cannot, a Story that works in the Theatre, a story that might change people’s minds, change people’s hearts.
How he decided that the theatre truth was more important than the factual truth.
“The way in which a thing is made is a part of the design itself.”
Note: This post has been edited to correct attribution. This American Life is produced by Chicago Public Radio and PRI: Public Radio International, not National Public Radio.