Mike Daisey says his 'Steve Jobs' episode has done some good

Since the revision of his 'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,' the monologuist says it's played some part in bettering conditions in China.

February 19, 2013|By Rob Weinert-Kendt
  • Mike Daisey revised his “Steve Jobs” theater piece after a “This American Life” retraction.
Mike Daisey revised his “Steve Jobs” theater piece after… (Craig Schwartz )

Is the ecstasy and agony of Mike Daisey finally over?

It's been nearly a year since the monologuist was first feted, then pilloried, for his solo play "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." This mix of tech-geek autobiography and labor exposé was running at New York's Public Theater in January 2012 when the popular public-radio show "This American Life" aired a scalding excerpt in which Daisey described brutal working conditions he said he witnessed at Foxconn, a Chinese plant that manufactures Apple products.

Then, in mid-March, the radio show hosted by Ira Glass took the unusual step of retracting the earlier episode in its entirety after it discovered that Daisey had fabricated or exaggerated some key details of his reporting.

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A repentant Daisey subsequently revised his show in performance at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., excising the contested portions, and released that revised transcript online, offering it for free to anyone to perform in any version they wanted.

It's in one such adaptation that L.A. audiences will finally get the chance to see "Agony and Ecstasy," in a production starring solo performer Alex Lyras ("Unequilibrium") that opens Wednesday at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood.

"At the time, it was clear to me that I'd committed an infraction," says Daisey of the controversy. "I still think the jury is out about whether it was a speeding ticket or a misdemeanor, or if it should have been a death penalty."

In the ensuing year, Daisey has worked on other, less activism-oriented solo shows, including a new one called "American Utopias," which ties together stories about Disneyland, Burning Man and Occupy Wall Street.

"I was backlogged pretty hideously," he said of other shows he was eager to launch. " 'Agony and Ecstasy' was never supposed to go on as long as it did."

And he's been auditing a class at New York University on the ethics of nonfiction journalism taught by the New Yorker's Lawrence Weschler. Above all, he says he's heartened that his own story hasn't eclipsed developments on the ground in China.

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"I shared the concern that everything I'd done would actually cause more damage than good, but I spent a lot of obsessive time tracking all of it, and it's clear at this point that that's simply not the case at all," Daisey says, citing reports that pressure from Apple, and agitation by Chinese workers, has improved their lot.

Among activists and labor monitors he's spoken to, he admits that "no one is psyched that there was that retraction episode, no one is happy that things went that way — neither am I. But no one actually would deny that we are in a quantumly different position than we were a year ago."

And Daisey still sees his solo show, scandal and all, as having played a role in that change. "I'm really proud to have been part of something — however hard it is to lock down what part that was, it was clearly a large part. I'm happy about what I see as a big seismic shift."

News of that shift may be traveling more slowly to the West Coast. Lyras, who says he'll perform a slightly condensed version of Daisey's show "like a TED Talk on Red Bull," still finds that "even in California, where people are tech-savvy, people have no idea" about the labor practices behind their beloved gadgets.

Daisey's conscience, for one, is apparently clearer: He reports that when his iPhone 3GS recently died, he upgraded to an iPhone 5.


'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs'

Where: Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays, through April 10

Price: $20

Information: (323) 962-1632


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