Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lies, Damned Lies and Theatre Criticism

I almost never comment publicly on another reviewer’s criticism. Yes, I’ve sent the occasional snarky note to a critic about a negative review, but having been a critic myself for five years, I know that it’s all just opinion. And arguing with someone about their opinion rarely accomplishes much.

(“I like Earl Gray!”

“Earl Gray sucks! I like Lapsang Souchong!”

“Well clearly, we both can’t be right!”)

But while I dislike arguments about opinion, I was always happy to get factual corrections. Misspelled names, misattributed quotes, wrong dates and places—while a theatre review is an aesthetic reaction to a work, and therefore personal opinion, it still has the fundamental journalistic requirement of getting its facts right.

This Saturday I was finally able to make it over to The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the most recent of Mike Daisey’s monologues, now playing at The Seattle Rep. I’ve been fortunate enough to see most of Mike’s pieces over the years; in fact, I was in the opening night crowd at Wasting Your Breath, his first-ever monologue, back in the old Open Circle Space on Boren. (Fun fact: as part of the show he gave me a lap dance. I still gave him a great review.)

Agony combines a hilarious overview of the career of Steve Jobs, Mike’s own tech-geek fascination for all things Apple, and the story of his trip to the Chinese factory city of Shenzen, where all things Apple are made. This portion includes details gathered from multiple interviews that he did with workers at the factories, many of whom are as young as 12 or 13, and all of whom work in conditions that are frankly appalling and inhuman. I loved the show, and not just because of the content. In the last decade Mike’s abilities as a performer have grown exponentially. To see him hold 900 people as skillfully in his hand as he once did a dozen or so in a black box theatre is personally inspiring.

After the show, I saw him and his wife and director Jean-Michele briefly. I congratulated him, and he thanked me, then said it’d been a tough week. Though I asked what he meant, I knew straightaway: Brendan Kiley’s review in The Stranger.

Now, Brendan says a lot of nice things about Mike in this review. He calls him a “master storyteller” with “a comic precision and conversational eloquence that should be universally envied.” But in the midst of all this, he also essentially calls out Mike for being a liar.

Here’s the passage.

“…Daisey alone knows this truth; Daisey alone has emerged from the heart of darkness of Asian industrialization to bring us the horror. In Shenzhen, he says several times, "there's no journalism." The "BBC fixer" who was supposed to help him out? Useless. The New York Times? It merely reprints press releases from Shenzhen boardrooms. Thank god Mike Daisey has crawled from the maw of capitalism to tell us the truth.

“Except that he's not telling us the truth. After getting home from the show, opening up my MacBook, and wiping the blood off the keyboard, I did a little Googling. In under a minute, I learned some things: The New York Times that Daisey derides as being nothing more than a mouthpiece for Shenzhen corporate interests? It's been writing about labor abuses in the city—child labor, days-long shifts, etc.—for at least five years. The BBC has written several stories about Shenzhen, including the suicides that Daisey talks about. Looks like there's journalism about Shenzhen after all.

“That wouldn't be damning—every good storyteller builds on the foundation of forebears—except that Daisey is extremely disingenuous about the story, his relationship to it, and what his forebears have said about it. And if he's disingenuous with the most basic, verifiable facts, why should we trust him with the complicated, Linkunverifiable facts—like those of his trip to Shenzhen, for instance?”

(a link to the whole piece is here.)

Now, Brendan is entirely welcome to his opinion—in fact, as a critic his opinion is requested. But he’s not welcome to his own facts.

I saw the show on Saturday night. Having read his review, I was listening for the section that Brendan refers to. It doesn’t, in the form that he criticizes, exist. When Mike says there’s “no journalism” in China, he’s referring specifically to a crackdown on Chinese-run media regarding the suicides in Shenzen, not a complete absence whatsoever of journalism. He does have harsh words about a Wired article, written by a “blogger journalist” who conducted some PR-assisted tours of the Foxconn factories and did absolutely no interviews with any of the workers. But to say that Daisey ever gives the impression that he “alone knows this truth” is a grievous and frankly slanderous misinterpretation of what he says.

As Mike said to me in an interview for my Seattle Weekly profile, he assumes that the basic facts about Chinese sweatshops aren’t a complete surprise to anybody. “I don’t think anyone leaves the show saying ‘and here I thought that China was a Worker’s Paradise!’” he said. “Everyone knows this on some level. But we’ve all kept ourselves from thinking about the details.”

While it is true that Mike does extemporize his text each evening, and therefore there may have been slight textual changes between the show Kiley saw and the one I did a week later, according to Daisey himself the script that I heard was the exact same one, regarding this issue anyway, that Kiley refers to. (It's also telling that not one of the commentators on The Stranger website agrees with Kiley's version of events.)

It’s tempting to speculate on Brendan’s motivations. Certainly it’s common for The Stranger to attack an artist that they themselves have helped turn into a star, particularly once they’ve achieved some measure of fame. Daisey’s been a darling of The Stranger for years; hell, they actually supported his recent show How Theatre Failed America by publishing an article by him on the same topic! Or perhaps Kiley’s own recent forays into investigative journalism have made him suspicious of the “professional blundering” that characterizes Daisey’s own work—showing up at the gates of the factory complex with an interpreter and wearing a Hawaiian shirt smacks of a Michael Moore stunt, even if he (as Moore routinely does) mined serious journalistic dirt in doing so. Or maybe he’s jealous. Or a closet Apple fanboy. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter is that in the middle of a review he makes a serious allegation about a performer’s veracity, and as near as I can determine, he’s 100% factually wrong.

But why does this matter? Again, let me pull a quote from my interview with Daisey, which didn’t make it into the Weekly article—but at least I can guarantee that it’s an accurate quote. Mike at this point was drawing a distinction between the people who’ve come to the show, and those who’ve just read about it in media. “To be clear, this is theatre. If they actually come to the show and I get them into the room, then almost invariably what I hear from them is positive. There’s the war in the room, and the war in the media that speaks about what’s in the room. The war in the room is largely lost or won based on my ability to create and who’s there. The war outside is about how I’m perceived and in sound bites.”

Kiley, knowingly or not, has just provided ammunition to the war outside the room. Not only is he helping the wrong side, but he’s doing so with a review that is factually incorrect. As a result, the person who should be concerned about their professional career here isn’t Mike Daisey. It’s Brendan Kiley.


  1. Where the hell is the thumbs up key on this thing?

  2. That is most unusual for you, John - to publicly take another critic to task. That it is on a matter of fact and not opinion validates your concern. I didn't agree with much of anything Brendan said and certainly not with his response to an act of theatre, not a footnoted piece of investigative journalism. Well done.

  3. You held your own in this, without appearing trite or personal, very credible. An important trait for a critic, to manage to base your own critique on the ability of the artist to accomplish his/her task to the audience, rather than whether or not you liked the piece. "Like"