Mike Daisey was using an old iPhone the other day from his home in Brooklyn, and the connection with Toronto wasn’t very good – “effectively like using a tin can” was his way of putting it. Of course, what’s “old” these days? The first iPhone appeared less than five years ago – the blink of an eye in geological terms, but in our digital epoch, a device from 2008 or 2009 can seem positively museum-worthy.
In another time and space, Daisey, a self-described former “bleeding-edge guy” and “Apple fanboy,” would have had the grooviest smartphone going. But this would have been before his now-famous life-changing trip in early 2010 to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where hundreds of thousands of workers manufacture Apple products 24/7. Shaken and stirred by the experience, Daisey returned to the United States, vowing not to purchase any more “gorgeous” Apple devices until the working conditions that produced them improved. An acclaimed onstage monologist in the tradition of Spalding Gray and David Sedaris, he also set to chronicling his trip in a searing show he came to call The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Negative reports on the working conditions in Apple-funded factories in China are legion today, of course – but in the summer of 2010, when Daisey began live, two-hour performances of his monologue, he was something of a Jeremiah in the electronic wilderness. At 36, he’s now also something of a pariah, at least for some, thanks to a 40-minute adaptation of the monologue aired in January on the popular U.S. National Public Radio program This American Life that was discovered to contain falsehoods and exaggerations. A debate soon ensued over the obligations of journalism versus the liberties of theatre and the differences between literary truth and literal truth, reportage and storytelling, with an initially intransigent Daisey eventually apologizing in March on his blog for failing “to honour the contract” he’d established “with my audiences over many years and many shows.”
A small number of Torontonians will have the opportunity to get in on the debate starting Saturday evening. That’s when the fledgling Outside the March theatre company presents its adaptation/“curation” of Daisey’s monologue, including a sort of postscript prepared by the production’s star, veteran actor David Ferry, and its director, Mitchell Cushman, titled The Repudiation and Redemption of Mike Daisey. Only five performances are being mounted in an unspecified number of “secret locations” in downtown Toronto, the first, at the HackLab.TO space in Kensington Market, to an audience of just 20. The remaining performances are scheduled for May 10, 11, 12 and 13, in as-yet unannounced venues.
It’s Daisey himself who made the production possible. After his This American Life episode became the most popular podcast in the program’s history, with almost one million downloads, he decided to post a version of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs online, inviting groups and individuals to perform the transcript royalty-free and allowing them to amend it “in any way that furthers the needs of your particular production.” It was a first for the artist, who has never put any of his monologues – they now number at least 12; the first was performed in 1997 – into text before, preferring to adapt their content from venue to venue, audience to audience, as events require.
Daisey continues to perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs on his own. This weekend, for instance, he’s doing it at the HighTide Festival in Suffolk, England. At the end of the month, he’ll be at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, N.C., for four performances, followed by an almost-month-long stay at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, starting in mid-July. In the meantime, he’s striving to bring three or four new monologues to fruition. “I won’t lie, though: The events of the last couple of months have really disrupted the pattern I thought was going to build for the next year and a half.”
Still, he claims never to have been busier. No cancellations followed The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs controversy, he says, and bookings stretch into the next two years. “I’m all set.” Perhaps, he suggested, this good fortune is because “there’s no framing for a theatrical-literary ‘scandal’ like mine. We only have framing for a literary scandal and maybe a journalism scandal. In both those arenas, one of the caveats you live by is that the scandal is absolute, like the person is then dead,” whether you’re Janet Cooke of The Washington Post, who was stripped of a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 after it was discovered her reportage was full of fabrications, or James Frey, whose 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces, was later determined to be more fiction than memoir.
“Traditionally,” Daisey said, laughing, “the framing for this kind of thing is that I move to the Arctic and become a seal hunter or something. I vanish because who could possibly survive four different angry New York Times articles? But apparently I can.”
If anything, Daisey seems, well ... happy and not terribly repentant. Last month, Apple and its Foxconn supplier agreed to improve the working conditions and wages of those producing the iPhones, iPads and other gadgets – the primary aim of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, said Daisey. “If Apple actually this time follows up on what it pledges to do, in the wake of the investigations by the Fair Labor Association, then I may be able to buy something new from them.” Throughout the frenzy, Daisey has held on to his pre-2010 Apple gadgets and resolutely eschewed upgrades. “My stuff works better over all, in fact. Before I used to have the brand-newest things, and [everything]would crash all the time. I didn’t realize how much of my life was dedicated to upgrading my software, to reading and reconciling reports about software incompatibilities. Now I don’t and I feel a lot freer.
“But,” he cautioned, “people forget this: Apple made these kinds of promises before, in 2006, and ignored them. The difference now is there is a lot of scrutiny of them, and if people can take a few minutes out from talking about me and actually look at them, I think there’s a very good chance they’ll be held to them.”
Information about the Toronto production of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs can be found at www.outsidethemarch.ca and www.artsboxoffice.ca. A version of the monologue can be read at mikedaisey.blogspot.ca.