How Mike Daisey has changed America
Mike Daisey brought his provocative, withering attack on the state of regional theater, How Theater Failed America, to Woolly Mammoth in 2009. Why are successful actors “traveling like migrant farmhands”, he asked. Why are theatres taking fewer risks? Why is attendance declining even as the need for people to hear the stories grows? The Daiseyquake set off rumbles among the DC theatre community. Theatremakers held discussions, sometimes passionate ones, about what Daisey had said. But the needle of change barely moved. For that, he had to wait two years.
Let’s face it. A monologist barely gets a stage, let alone world wide exposure. This year, Mike Daisey has gained the international spotlight, not for some celebrity prank, but for the content of his latest show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Last March, DC audiences got to see his performance at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, which has been featuring his monologues since the summer of 2008. It began, as all Daisey shows do, with a big man, behind a big desk, a glass of water to his right, a notepad in front of him and a personal story to tell. It was the new iPhone, he said, that started it all. An admitted Apple fan-boy, he read that someone’s brand new, out of the box iPhone came pre-loaded with photos taken in a factory. And from that fact, he discovered that the iPhone was hand-assembled in China, in a factory called Foxconn, notorious for its bad treatment of employees. With very little media attention being given to the issue, he went to Shenzhen, China, spoke to the workers, went inside the factory, and wrote the piece. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, said “I will never be the same after seeing that show.”
On October 5th, 2011, the world learned that Steve Jobs had died. While tributes to the great innovator flowed in, Daisey wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times about the workers’ conditions he had witnessed at Foxconn. “As recently as 10 years ago, Apple’s computers were assembled in the United States, but today they are built in southern China under appalling labor conditions. Apple, like the vast majority of the electronics industry, skirts labor laws by subcontracting all its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn, a firm made infamous for suicides at its plants, a worker dying after working a 34-hour shift, widespread beatings, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to meet high quotas set by tech companies like Apple.”
Steve Jobs could have done better, Daisey continued. “ … with Apple’s immense resources at his command he could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to. If we view him unsparingly, without nostalgia, we would see a great man whose genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world will not be seen again in our lifetime. We would also see a man who in the end failed to ‘think different,’ in the deepest way, about the human needs of both his users and his workers.”
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs opened at the Public Theatre in New York on October 11,2012. Mike knew his commentary would change. But how would the audience accept what he had to say? Thinking about his first performance after the death of Jobs, Mike emailed “I do know that this is the ultimate, best use of the theater: to honestly investigate the essentially human, and discover together the story we must tell.”
The change began to happen. The popular NPR program “This American Life” dedicated its entire January 6th show to an excerpt from Daisey’s monologue, followed by a discussion of Chinese labor laws and a debate between Daisey and New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff. Daisey reported: “In its first week the episode was the most downloaded in ‘This American Life’’s history. The internet exploded, and the story went everywhere—I received over a thousand emails in just a few days; the response was overwhelming.
“That same week news broke that hundreds of Foxconn workers had a stand-off that lasted two days, where they were all threatening mass suicide by throwing themselves off the roof of the plant over their working conditions.
“This is at Foxconn, a company which Apple’s own 2011 Supplier Responsibility Report said was completely up to code, and which Apple applauded for their efforts. This is the company about which Steve Jobs said the employees enjoyed a virtual paradise of movie theaters, swimming pools, and luxury.
“A week after our show was broadcast, Apple made an abrupt announcement. After years of stonewalling and silence, they released the full list of their suppliers, and agreed to outside, independent monitoring of working conditions in the factories they use. It is not everything, but it is a small step down the right road.”
Yesterday, Daisey announced that, on Tuesday, February 21st, he will release the transcript to The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, royalty free, to anyone who wishes to perform or adapt the work in any way around the world. The transcript will be available for download on his Web site at noon on Tuesday, February 21st.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre has just announced that Mike Daisey will return this summer. Woolly’s betting that audiences will once again pack the theatre to see him. After all, as Daisey reminds us, he never finishes working on a show; it’s always a work in progress. And even as performers start doing his piece, that fact remains that he was the man who stood outside the gates of Foxconn, it’s his story and he tells is as no one else can.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs will run July 17 – August 5, 2012. Tickets are on sale now. Call 202 393-3939 or order online.