When you last heard from us, the transcripts from the retraction episode of This American Life had not been published, and we had yet to hear the conversation between Ira Glass and Mike Daisey about fabrications in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. We made a statement supporting Mike, that the performances of our summer remount of the show were going ahead as planned, and that Mike’s piece had—and continued to—spark conversation and dialogue around a topic of great importance. Many of you have sent us emails, called us, commented on our blog and through social media. Some of you have praised us, and others have expressed anger and disappointment. We value all your responses.
Our initial statement was not our final word on the matter, rather, the beginning of a series of conversations about truth, about art, about activism, and about this particular decision.
Having heard the episode now, we can all admit to feeling discomfort, anger, pity, disappointment, and a whole host of complex emotions. We acknowledge, as Mike does, that nothing excuses his deception of Ira Glass and This American Life. There were so many moments when Mike could have clarified the difference between things he actually witnessed in China, things he only heard in China, and the storytelling inventions he deployed to illustrate each. He could have accurately labeled his work from the outset—to his producing partners in the theatre and on the radio—as something other than a work of non-fiction. He didn’t, and many who saw the piece in the theatre or heard it on the radio felt betrayed.
We have spent every minute of the last several days confronting this issue, and trying to best articulate—for ourselves and you—why we have made the decision to go ahead with our scheduled performances of the show.
We believe in the essential truth of Mike’s storytelling. Mike’s performances fuse fact, memoir, and polemics with healthy doses of bombast and, for comic effect, exaggeration in order to passionately deliver an urgent message. But his account of working conditions in China is not made up out of thin air. He went there. He talked to people and visited factories when few other Americans were doing so. All of the specific conditions he includes in his show have been corroborated by The New York Times and others—indeed, in the very same retraction episode where he was condemned.
We believe in the power and impact of Mike’s work as a theatrical piece. When Mike Daisey made his trip to China, the US was barely focused on the appalling conditions for Chinese workers. We blithely ignored the fact that Apple and many other companies were exporting working conditions that no American would tolerate to millions of people worldwide. The best art opens our eyes and makes us want to take action, and that is what Steve Jobs accomplished. Letters were written, stories reported, and Apple actually committed to revealing a list of its suppliers and investigating its supply chains. The problem was big, and Mike’s show had a significant impact on the way it is now being addressed.
We believe in conversation, discussion, and lively debate. Woolly deeply values active dialogue around vital socio-political topics. After the run of Steve Jobs at Woolly, audiences left the theatre wanting to learn more, ask more questions, and argue. The death of Steve Jobs (after the Woolly run) changed the show and added new layers of complication. Now this episode on This American Life has revealed important new questions about art and artifice and truth that Woolly is excited and committed to explore further. Mike’s shows are not scripted; they are living things that evolve as they interact with audiences and events. We believe the brief run at Woolly this summer will be an important chapter, perhaps the most important chapter, in the evolution of this show and the relationship between the show and the world around us.
We believe there is a difference between art and journalism. We don’t think that the show should have aired on This American Life, and we believe it should have been represented accurately in the theatre. But journalism seeks to be as objective as possible, while theatre and storytelling are more subjective, and they both have an important role to play. Journalism helps us know what we’re looking at, but theatre, and art in general, helps us know where to look. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs did that, and this is something we stand behind.
For Woolly’s part, we want to specifically apologize for including the line “a work of non-fiction” in our playbill. In hindsight, we wish we had interrogated Mike on this point. (In a recent radio interview, we said this line was not included in our playbill, and we were mistaken—a case of bad fact-checking on our own part.)
By his own admission, Mike stepped over some inappropriate boundaries in his zealousness to get his point across in Steve Jobs. We are confident that he will learn important lessons, as we have, from the scandal surrounding this show. We’ve already seen evidence in Mike’s appearance at Georgetown University on Monday, during which he publicly began the process of identifying the choices he made with Steve Jobs, good and bad, with scrupulous honesty.
We have a long-standing history with Mike, and believe he is an artist of passionate commitment and bravery who invests himself in each new piece with a level of purpose and determination that are rare. Moreover, we are committed to our artists, without whom Woolly would not and could not be what it is today. We believe Mike understands the impact of what he has done, and has, and will continue to, apologize. To make mistakes is human. But as a member of our artistic community, we will not abandon him in tough times.
If you have written to us, thank you. We will be responding personally in the next day. If you would like to email us, please do. We would love to talk more deeply about any of this. In the spirit of further dialogue, we will be hosting a discussion at the theatre on Tuesday, March 27, at 7pm. This discussion will be free and open to the public. We encourage reservations with our Box Office (202-393-3939). It will be hosted by the two of us, and allow us to engage with you in a nuanced way about a complicated subject. We’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts in person.
Howard Shalwitz and Jeff Herrmann