Early last year, Mike Daisey was getting a lot of attention. His monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in part about the working conditions in the Chinese factories that manufactured Apple products, had been adapted for the radio show This American Life. It quickly became the program’s most-downloaded episode. Two months later, Daisey got a different kind of attention, when This American Life issued an episode-long retraction of the segment after it was discovered that he had invented certain stories in the piece.
The controversy did not temper Daisey’s vigorous work ethic — he continued to perform a revised version of The Agony and the Ecstasy through 2012 while developing new work. He will bring his latest monologue, American Utopias, to the Paramount Center Mainstage on Feb. 15 and 16. The piece kicks off ArtsEmerson’s The Next Thing Festival: a 10-day series of film, theater, music, and workshops that looks at new work and how it is created. The festival is also sponsored by the Center for the Theater Commons and the New York-based Under the Radar Festival.
In American Utopias, Daisey examines Disney World, the music and arts festival Burning Man, and Zuccotti Park, the site of Occupy Wall Street — three places that, before the project, he said he had limited experience with.
“All my monologues are born out of an obsession that I’ve cultivated,” he said. “For this piece, I got an invitation to accompany a large group of my family members to Disney World. This particular group, Disney is their religion. Nominally, they’re Catholic. But really they worship the mouse.”
For reasons he couldn’t put his finger on, thinking about the obsession around Disney World brought Burning Man to mind — and so he began studying the similarities between the two. Around that time, the Occupy Wall Street protests broke out in Zuccotti Park.
“For certain people, it became a very charged environment where a social experiment was taking place. It really spoke to a lot of the things I was becoming fascinated with,” Daisey said.
In each performance, he will flesh out connections and comparisons among the locations extemporaneously — he improvises his storytelling based on prepared notes.
“It’s built and composed the same way a jazz piece is,” he said. “It’s refined over time, but fundamentally it’s living in the space.”
David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s director of artistic programs, has been familiar with Daisey since his 2001 monologue-turned-novel 21 Dog Years, about his time as a customer service representative during the early years at Amazon.
“He’s a very astute cultural critic. He has a real knack for crafting a story, and a knack for crafting the story of himself,” said Dower. He said that Daisey’s extemporaneous style adds a thrill to his performances. “Each time, no matter what place you come into the process, it’s something of a high wire act.”
Dower said he had always known Daisey made up stories in his solo performances. But he was surprised when Daisey claimed the stories in The Agony and The Ecstasy were true outside of the context of the performance.
“I have always known that Mike had the capacity to create a fiction that helped to market his shows, that he was exceptionally good at that,” Dower said. “The sadness is that it got to that level. I wasn’t expecting him to take it that far. My sense watching it was that it got away from him.”
But when programming the festival, Dower said that he did not want to ignore Daisey as an artist because of his handling of The Agony and the Ecstasy.
“The issues that were created in the way he handled the press aren’t controlling what he does next,” he said. “How many different ways would we be without an artist if there was only a concentration on behavior?”
Daisey said the controversy with This American Life made him think about how he frames his work, but that it has not affected the way he researches or tells a story.
“It made me think about the fundamentals of fiction and non-fiction, which is an obsession of mine,” he said. “In a sense, it’s affected a lot of the work in that it took a huge amount of my energy and time; and in another very real sense, it hasn’t changed anything about the way the works at its core. All the things that truly matter were unaffected.”
Though the show’s posters label Daisey as a “controversial monologist,” Dower said that as a programmer he did not find the controversy attractive.
“It’s actually the opposite. We had to think about why are we programming this piece in this context, and we had come to a place of saying, ‘Yes, let’s program Mike Daisey and his next piece in spite of that fact that he’s still working on the problem that he created,’” he said. “Controversy isn’t in and of itself something tantalizing as a programmer. This is not a pleasant controversy.”
Junior Dylan Manderlink, who studies Investigative Theatre for Social Change, an interdisciplinary major, said that while she is skeptical of Daisey’s actions in the past, she is looking forward to seeing his work.
“I would just like to see another perspective on documentary-style theater. It’s supposed invoke a dialogue,” she said. “I’m not going to have my own preconceived notions. I’m going to go in as blindly as I can.”
Senior journalism major Grace Gibson said that she does not have a problem with Daisey’s work as long as it is not positioned as anything other than theater.
“I’ve heard a lot about him, but I’d like to actually see him,” said Gibson. “I wouldn’t know what in a monologue should be taken as fact. I think if you just view it as entertainment, it becomes more enjoyable.”