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Documentary Theater Overload

Sarah Moore considers this genre of performance in the wake of the Mike Daisey scandal. logo

Mike Daisey in The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (© Joan Marcus)

Documentary theater seems like the logical place for my two chosen fields of study, journalism and drama, to combine. Over the last few weeks, I've been reading and writing about documentary theater for multiple classes. I've been working on a research paper about the work of The Civilians (which they self-describe as "investigative" rather than "documentary"), and I was also working on a news piece about Mike Daisey's release of the transcript to The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs for free. My mind has been consumed by theoretical ideas of what documentary theater is, and examples of the genre, and where truth in art comes in to play. This was before it was revealed that Mike Daisey fabricated some of his story, as discussed on an episode of This American Life this weekend entitled "Retraction."

My media criticism professor was very excited for me about these latest developments of the Mike Daisey story. "There's so much here!" Yes, there is so much to say and I don't even know where to begin. Mike Daisey lied to a lot of people, but I don't want to completely condemn him because he did make a powerful work of theater that exposed people to the harsh conditions going on in the Apple manufacturing process at FoxConn.

My desk is covered in printouts and my bookmarks are filled with related articles. All sorts of theater people and journalists are chiming in with their two cents about who is the most wrong here. If you're interested in this topic , I recommend David Carr's column this week (in which he adeptly asks for a comment from former NYT staffer and recent subject of the play CQ/CX, Jayson Blair). Another interesting piece of media on this topic is an Up with Chris Hayes panel from earlier this month, featuring Mike Daisey and playwright Katori Hall discussing the limits of theater in discussing social issues, and where journalism and theater collide.

Daisey says here that as a dramatist dealing with real issues, saying "I'm an entertainer" (in the example that host Hayes gives about Limbaugh) is not an excuse. "People who are in these roles have a responsibility. I have a responsibility." Hall (playwright of the recent The Mountaintop and the current Hurt Village) makes it clear that her work is as a dramatist. "My job is to put stories of people onstage…My job as a dramatist is affect people in the here and now and so whatever storytelling techniques I need to use in order to do that, I do that. But, I do think about the accuracy." Hayes brought up the issue that if the audience walks away with some degree of misapprehension of the facts, then to some degree, the dramatist has failed the viewer. Daisey mentions his story can be the starting point of activism (which is another point entirely). Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, mentions the work of Anna Deavere Smith. It would be also be amiss to ignore Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project as an important work of documentary theater. Adam Feldman of Time Out New York is hosting a panel tomorrow night at the Public Theater to discuss truth in theater (and to continue to the fascinating conversation that began on Twitter over the weekend). The panel will include Steve Cosson of the Civilians and Peter Marks of the Washington Post.

The Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington DC is also hosting a discussion on this topic Tuesday, March 27, at 7pm.

These events are all extremely relevant to what I'm doing academically and my own interests. From now until May, I'm on documentary theater overload.


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