Mike Daisey, who made up parts of his show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve… (Neville Elder / Corbis/ )
It’s impossible to gauge precisely how Mike Daisey’s controversial one-man “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” will be different this week when the Apple-Exploits-Chinese-Workers exposreturns to Woolly Mammoth. Daisey, 39, never writes his scripts. Show after show, he extemporizes. Or, as Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz marvels, “He just gets up on the stage and talks.”
But given the public whipping Daisey received this spring over exaggerations in the piece, certain moments are bound to come across differently than they did if you caught the highly acclaimed monologue last year at Woolly. Or during its extended run at Manhattan’s Public Theater. Or if you downloaded the free composite transcript from Daisey’s Web site, as more than 100,000 people have done. (An updated transcript likely will be posted after the Woolly run, Daisey says. He has no plans to take the old transcript down.)
Girls as young as 12 emerging from the Foxconn factory, a man disfigured by a Foxconn metal press: When the radio show “This American Life” asked in March whether those things actually happened after it had broadcast extended excerpts in January, Daisey couldn’t confirm. Then he misled the radio producers when they asked if they could follow up with the interpreter he used while gathering impressions in China.
The pile-on began, and it was severe. Journalists were furious. The theater community was embarrassed. On Twitter, you can still find detractors eager to swat Daisey with “Go away,” and worse.
Daisey is poised for what could be a strong rebound with this Washington re-engagement. Earlier this week, it was announced that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak would join Daisey for a post-performance conversation Aug. 4, with tickets going for $100. Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey’s wife and longtime collaborator, says the revised show is sturdier, with the contested bits excised and a post-scandal perspective worked in.
For more than an hour, over lunch outside at a steakhouse in Daisey’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn, the “scandal” — Daisey’s word, repeatedly — is not the subject. Then it is, for another hour and longer. Eventually, he says, he wants “to be clear” about all the reflection and analysis he has shared.
“I offer these things as points of interest and points of engagement, but they’re not excuses,” Daisey says evenly, working on a second latte and ignoring his roast beef on brioche. “People are very allergic to excuses from me. People will hear anything I say as an excuse. If you live inside of it, and we all talk about it, this is what I think about. But they’re not excuses.”
His topics are broad, and Daisey — dressed in his familiar black outfit of trousers and open collar shirt — riffs through issues like a seasoned but wounded pundit. His primary targets: Apple. China. Theater. Journalism. He says he understands what the endpoint of this particular journalistic exercise will be.
“It will be a piece of fiction,” Daisey says, “woven from the things that happened here, that we said to each other, in an attempt to tell the truth.”
‘I would still do it’
Talking without a break for nearly three hours, the post-scandal Daisey is contrite. But also combative. Seemingly open. Certainly not sounding like a heavyweight ready to deliver his own requiem.
● On “fiction”: “I wish I could separate my unethical behavior from the conversation about the complexity of truth in fiction. That’s aggravating because it’s actually a very complicated, fascinating topic.”
He smiles, and here comes the mandatory asterisk. “But that does not mean that my path through this particular situation is complex and fascinating. A lot of mine is very straightforward unethical behavior.”
He contends that the modern cultural bias that devalues topical issues in fiction — certainly in U.S. theater — lured him toward the “nonfiction” billing for “Steve Jobs.”
“Some facts were injured in the telling of this story. The truth, however, remains unharmed.” So read the acknowledgments page of “21 Dog Years: Doing Time @Amazon.com” a decade ago; thus has most of his work been received.
“There was a lot of talking about it,” Daisey says of the “Steve Jobs” fiction/nonfiction tempest. “I don’t know how much of it was fruitful. That’s the part that kind of bums me out.”
● On the impact and fallout of “Steve Jobs”: “I would still do it. And since I would still do it, I think they should take their best shot at me. Anybody who’s upset, they should go ahead and be upset.”
● On the climate around him: “What is the weather? Because when the people who write the news are the people who are most upset with you, the impression of what the actual weather is like is not always the way it seems.”