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Do you expect to see the truth on stage?

As you may have seen, a controversy has been let loose about Mike Daisey’s performance piece The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs with the influential NPR show This American Life presenting a ‘retraction’ episode following on from their hugely successful episode Mr Daisey Goes to China, which was a cut down version of Daisey’s show.

They have discovered and Daisey has partially acknowledged that some of the details of his interviews with Chinese workers are inaccurate or embellished.

Daisey has replied by saying “My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story…”

The Sydney Morning Herald has published a rather hyped up version of the story and is asking the question “Was it fine for Mike Daisey to lie to his audience about factory conditions because it was theatre?” and not surprisingly, given the framing of the question, 18% are answering yes and 82% are answering no.

In fact, Mike Daisey was not lying about factory conditions, which have been verified by others, and which this American Life acknowledges.  In fact, the problem was that he was not truthful about what aspects of those conditions he had witnessed himself and what he had gleaned from other sources.

At the Sydney Opera House, we presented Mike Daisey’s show as a theatre piece presented by a storyteller.  However, given the way he told the story, in spite of his theatrical panache, most viewers would have assumed that when he said ’I saw xxx in China’ he was relaying something that had actually happened.

As Oskar Eustis, the director of the Public Theatre in New York where the piece has been playing has said “We do not and cannot fact check our artists; we’re a theatre, not a news organisation. The vast majority of what occurs on our stages is fiction. If we didn’t believe fiction could reveal truth, we would have to give up our profession. With that said, it obviously matters a great deal to me that our audience understands what they are seeing,”

So, if you want to find out more about what you saw (or didn’t see!) there are now several slightly conflicting versions of where the boundaries of real events were blurred as well as a massive flurry of commentary.

This American Life has its investigative episode on its site as well as a transcript.

Mike Daisey has posted a response on his blog, which he included in his performances of the show at the Public Theatre before it closed yesterday.

What do you think? Do you expect to see the literal truth on the theatre stage? Or do you think it is reasonable for an artist to shape their narrative to tell a story, even if they present it as memoir? If you saw the show, do you feel that you have been lied to?

Article by Ann Mossop, Head of Public Programs, Sydney Opera House