Mike Daisey is back in town.
The peripatetic monologist-provocateur and his director wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, are bringing two new shows to the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Starting Wednesday, he’ll perform “American Utopias” (about his travels to the “paradises” of Burning Man and Disney World). And next week, Daisey orates “F**cking F**cking F**cking
Ayn Rand,” about the Russian-born author and her cult philosophical novels, admired by such politicians as Republican congressmen Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan.
Daisey jump-started his career here in the late 1990s, coming to prominence with “21 Dog Years: Doing Time at Amazon.com,” his memoir about working for the Seattle Internet giant.
It was all up from there, until last year, when Daisey (now a Brooklynite) triggered a scandal with “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a love letter to Apple products and impassioned exposé of labor conditions in the Chinese factories where the company’s communication devices are made.
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Here and elsewhere, the show initially won raves. But when the “This American Life” radio program confronted Daisey about some fabricated material involving Chinese worker abuses, then retracted the piece, his reputation took a hit. He apologized but also defended the intent of the piece.
That led to a fascinating debate over distinctions between art and journalism, the value of full disclosure and partial exaggeration. How did he withstand the angry news-media drubbing he received?
“I wish the reaction had been more nuanced. But I’m a much better artist now,” says Daisey. “We say adversity is a great teacher, and it’s true. I’m really thankful for a lot of the things I’ve been able to figure out going through that experience.”
Such as? “One thing I didn’t fully reckon with was the power and hunger we have for witnessing. Nothing I talked about in that show is in dispute, everything I talked about existed. But I apologized, in a reasonable manner, because there were some breaches of trust and liberties taken.”
He’s proud, however, to have drawn attention to the factory conditions (which he says have, in some respects, improved). And he’s cagey on how the controversy affects his oeuvre.
“I’m not making any hard-and-fast rules. If anything, I’m promising to do what I did before, with some caveats. I’m trying to be more transparent in some ways.”
“American Utopias” coalesced after he traveled to Disney World, then later attended the freewheeling Burning Man festival and observed the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park.
“A modern utopia can be a heaven on Earth, or to other people it can look ridiculous,” he reflects. “The disconnect between the two things really interests me.”
Ayn Rand has fascinated him since he read her books in high school, and after the tea party “co-opted her work.”
“The basic format of my piece is a pocket biography of Rand, who had a fascinating life we never hear about because her work looms up larger than her own story. I also examine her books ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and her theory of objectivism. Her idea of people becoming so perfectly realized that they have no human faults or weaknesses sounds great. If we found any people like that, it might actually work out!”
The brouhaha over the Jobs monologue seems to have spurred Daisey on, rather than set him back. This fall in New York he’ll perform a 29-night “lunar cycle” of monologues, a different one each night.
“I’m looking at new models, new formats for my work. I’m coming to theaters outside the regular-season schedule, trying to keep ticket prices down, putting monologues online. I feel this strong need to make our work really accessible to everyone, to make people feel that what happens in the theater directly connects to them.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org