This is a guest post by Alli Houseworth, an independent arts consultant and former marketing and communications director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. I don’t have anything especially interesting to say about Mike Daisey, but Alli does, so I have asked her to do it here. The views and opinions expressed are Alli’s alone.
In 2010 I worked at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, when The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (TATESJ) was “birthed” at the theatre, and the following spring was the marketing and communications director who worked on the show at Woolly. Today, as an independent consultant, I write as a former marketing director who is no longer bound by the public statement of her institution in this matter, and what I would like to say is this: Mike Daisey, you should be ashamed of yourself. And to members of the American theatre: we should be disappointed in ourselves too.
For months and months four major non-profit organizations across the US (Seattle Rep, Berkeley Rep, Woolly and the Public Theater) worked to put TATESJ on the stage, bringing the story we all felt was so enormously important – a story Mike told at least me time and time again was true. He insisted that “This is a work of non-fiction” be printed in playbills. This was to be a work of activist theatre. Staff at Woolly handed out sheets of paper to every audience member that left our theatres, per Mike’s insistence, that urged them to take action on this matter. (I and other staffers would get nasty emails from him the next day if even one audience member slipped by without collecting this call to action.) As the head of the marketing staff at Woolly, my staff and I worked hard to get butts in seats, and it worked. We sold out our houses. As in the other cities where Mike appeared, we got Mike in every major news outlet in DC, and the buzz, hype and importance of the show only grew along the way.
And then what happened? We learned from a radio producer, a year later, that Mike’s facts weren’t true. And what Mike did was apologize to him, to Ira. But he never apologized to us, and he never apologized to our audiences. In fact, what he did in his retraction interview was say, “I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theatre that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.” My answer to that is that “This is a work of non-fiction” is pretty clear language. And how dare you, Mike, how dare you say to Ira Glass that the context in which the work is presented is different. All this time I thought you respected this industry, respected our audiences the very same, if not more than the audience of This American Life. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement.
We are at a crucial moment in theatre history – the relationship between artist and administrator has been a super-hot topic ever since the publication of Outrageous Fortune. The battle to bring in new audiences and retain them is becoming harder and harder to fight. And though I can’t speak for my colleagues in Seattle, or Berkeley or New York – that’s what my staff and I did for you, Mike. We collaborated. We listened to you, the artist. Not a single piece of material left my office without your approval. We, all of us, we brought new people to the theatre, who perhaps have never been to the theatre before. And they – and all of our audiences – paid money, and they sat in seats and their listened to you, and then they took home a piece of paper urging them to take action on this matter. And all along a playbill sat in their laps that said, “This is a work of non-fiction.”
So to the producers of the American theatre, I urge you to boycott this work. Boycott Mike’s gorgeous, amazing piece of theatre that is based on a true story. Boycott it until you get the apology that you deserve and do not ever, ever re-mount it or produce a work of his again until you know for sure what is true and what is not so your audiences are never ever mislead again. Stand by your desire to uphold the truth and value of art, of what you work so enormously hard for day in and day out, until you get an apology from the man who calls himself one of you, who is our field’s “leading man” in the fight for theatre as truth and activism. He let us down and we deserve better. Now is not a time for us to lay down and take this, to pretend “oh, it’s just theatre,” to coddle an artist because he brings in big box office bucks and “sparks dialogues.” It is absolutely crucial that we remain relevant in the world as art-makers. And art doesn’t always have to mean untruth. And if we are going to put this on our stages for our audiences then we need to trust the artist who creates the work in the first place. Until then, don’t do it. Do not produce his work until you get an apology.
And to the tens of thousands of Americans who paid money to sit in our theatres to see this show that was billed as a non-fiction piece of theatre, I am so sorry. You deserve an apology from us art-makers. We should have known better. We should have done our fact-checking. Our dramaturgs should have gone through every fact in that show, just like they do with other plays that go on our stages. We as marketers should have positioned this as “based on a true story.” We should have known better. We all should have stood up against Mike and made sure with 100% certainty that the story he was putting on our stage was true because why, WHY, when we are producing works of non-fiction should we ever be held to a different standard than journalism.
You, the audience, deserve an apology too. You were the groundswell that started this entire movement, and you deserve an apology just like the This American Life audience got. Because you know what? Mike never would have gotten to where he is without you.