Upstaged: Journalism vs theatre

Upstaged: Journalism vs theatre

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 03/04/12

With Mike Daisey’s controversial show The Agony and Ectasy of Steve Jobs coming to HighTide Festival this summer, our theatre editor takes a look at lies, damn lies and theatrics...

At what point does “storytelling” become simply “fiction”?

It is a question that has vexed me, Jeffrey Archer, journalist Johann Hari and London Road playwright Alecky Blythe alike. Not to mention Bill “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton, Enid “neglected her children to write about an imaginary brood” Blyton and the pianist Glenn “created alter egos to publish damning reviews of his own work” Gould. Because, you see, sometimes the story isn’t only better than the truth: it actually feels closer to that squirming, shifting, un-cooperative mess we call truth.

The prickly problem of truth has burst its way into my brain recently with the exciting announcement that Mike Daisey will be bringing his controversial stage show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to HighTide Festival this summer. For those of you who don’t subscribe to the This American Life podcast (and frankly, you’re all pointless lumps of bean-curd if you don’t) then allow me to explain.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is – and this is where things get muddier than a duck’s undercarriage – a stage show, based on Daisey’s investigation into conditions at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China where many Apple and other electronic products are made. The show described meetings with workers crippled by the nerve toxin in the cleaning fluid they use on iPad screens; Daisey recounts meetings with 13-year-old workers outside the factory gates, we are told about 24-hour shifts where workers aren’t allowed to sit down and we learn about the underground union leaders trying in vain to improve conditions. While the story might, on the surface, seem like journalism – a report created by collecting anecdotes, observations and facts while “in the field” – it is not.

“What I do is not journalism,” Daisey has written. “The tools of the theatre are not the same as the tools of journalism.” In what way does his theatrical show differ from a journalistic report? “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” says Daisey. Therein lies the nub.

For, while all of the things referred to in Daisey’s show do occur – the Retraction podcast broadcast by This American Life pointed out that there are reports of similar things backed up by journalists, although often in other factories – they did not happen quite how Daisey claimed. He did not, in fact, meet 12-, 13- and 14-year-old workers, although we do know that they exist. He did not talk to a man crippled by hexane, though we know that the toxin is used and such injuries occur. We know that there are underground attempts to unionise the workers, but they do not – as Daisey claimed – meet up in Starbucks. He took shortcuts and laid claim to personal experiences he didn’t have in order to communicate a story. His story. His passion.

But, and this is admittedly a Nikki Minaj-sized but, does it matter? If something is presented as theatre, does it have to be entirely accurate? Can we trust audiences to identify and understand poetic license? When a journalist invents a conversation, it is libel. But if a theatre performer does the same, is it simply their right?

Is Mike Daisey a consummate storyteller? Or simply telling tales? You’ll just have to watch it yourself to decide.


You can book tickets for Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs via the Hightide website. To get a special cheap ticket to HighTide Festival, check out our Discounts page.

Illustration by Narcsville.

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