Mike Daisey is startling the customers.
Dressed all in black and sweating visibly, the large, cherubic man is sitting in a small Vietnamese restaurant two blocks from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where he is finishing the first run of his latest one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Daisey is taking a break between the Saturday matinee and evening performances to chat about what has quickly become his most talked-about show to date. But even in the restaurant the New York-based monologuist is still delivering material, loudly.
“There is so little known about labor conditions in China in a world that has so much information through the Internet,” he says, slapping the table in disbelief. “I can find 4,000 versions of Keyboard Cat, but I can’t find any actual information about how our shit is made.”
By “shit,” Daisey is talking about the gadgets we all use—in particular, the iPods in our pockets and the MacBook in his tote bag, the iPads we cherish and the iPhone he calls his “baby.”
Daisey is actually very open about his love for Apple. In the first moments of his show, he lays out his obsession, telling the audience that he likes to relax by dismantling his MacBook, methodically breaking the machine into its 42 component parts, then cleaning it with compressed air and putting it back together.
“Technology is my only hobby,” he says onstage, seated at a long table. “I am of the opinion that if you haven’t thought deeply about why you chose your operating system, you may be leading an unexamined life.”
In the parlance of geekdom, Daisey is an Apple fanboy. In the world of theatre, though, he is a skeptic, one whose work casts a keen eye on the modern American lifestyle. His earliest monologues, borne in Seattle’s vibrant garage theatre scene in the late ’90s, centered on harrowing personal experiences and culminated in 21 Dog Years, a hilarious account of his time working customer service at Amazon. That production launched him onto the national stage and into an apartment in New York, where he and his wife and director, Jean-Michele Gregory, have since produced more than a dozen plays.
With The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey’s skepticism is trained on the questionable labor practices of one of the world’s most cherished companies. At stake, he says, is the moral character of a nation. The show is a chance to save our collective souls and prove that, in this increasingly digital age, the very analog American theatre can still make an impact.
“Theatre is the only place for this work,” Gregory says. “Nowhere else offers the focus that is needed to truly tell this story, to connect emotionally to the subject matter. Theatre is the only place this can happen.”
Daisey has proven that he can put butts in seats. Here in Berkeley, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has had a successful monthlong debut run, and for good reason: The two-hour monologue is a guided tour of an ethical dilemma made real by a dynamic performance that never preaches—or loses its thread—as it weaves together three detailed narratives.
The first thread is about Daisey’s lifelong Apple enthusiasm, the second about the history of Apple and its enigmatic founder Steve Jobs. The third is a furious and funny story of Daisey’s journey to Shenzhen, China, where he witnessed the working conditions of the 450,000 laborers who make more than half of the world’s consumer electronic goods, including all Apple products. Each night has brought a packed house filled with the theatre’s longtime subscribers, curiosity seekers and Silicon Valley cubicle jockeys. And they are listening.
“I’ve never seen a piece that was so charged by the audience’s desire to know about its subject,” Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone says. “Steve Jobs clearly has captured the imagination of the American public in a way that surprised me.”
For the first few weeks of the run, buzz grew at a steady pace. The show received positive reviews in the Bay Area press and an increasing number of mentions on popular tech blogs. Then things started to get crazy. The buzz transformed into an actual conversation.
Throughout its run in Berkeley, Daisey’s show attracted curious Apple employees. But in its final week, Daisey played to an übergeek: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Reports surfaced that Woz, as he is affectionately known to Apple fans, wept at the performance and declared that he was forever changed. “The things that Mike said which brought me to tears were so [shocking] because they came as a first-person story,” Wozniak told The New York Times. “Mike was living the pain of what he was describing as he told it.”
Three days after he saw the play, Wozniak invited Daisey and his wife out for dinner. “Nobody can solve the giant intractable problems of the world that come with a giant economic system over dinner,” Daisey says. “That said, it was a good first meeting.”
Daisey’s choice of Berkeley Rep for the official premiere of this show was strategic: the theatre is 40 miles north of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino. By the time the show opens in Seattle, it will have just finished a three-week run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., where he hopes to ignite chatter among the political class.
They may be chattering already.
In the middle of February, Wired magazine, the must-read publication for tech geeks and dilettantes alike, appeared to have beaten Daisey to the national stage with its March cover story. The report, by Joel Johnson, purported to be an investigation of Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturing plant where Mike Daisey researched much of his monologue. But it wasn’t.
Daisey characterizes the article as a travesty, a puff piece written by an inexperienced blogger who never once interviewed an actual worker, failing to question any of the claims made by PR flaks at Foxconn. It is a prime example of “American denialism,” Daisey says—our refusal to recognize the very human cost of convenience in our technological lives and to accept that we are partly responsible. The most severely afflicted, Daisey says, are tech journalists, who count on these companies for their advertising and content.
“I am already so tired of it,” Daisey says of the media’s inattentiveness, a chopstick in his closed fist. “I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do next. Maybe I’ll give them bullet points? Go to Hong Kong, get on the subway, take the subway north, to its end, get off the subway, go over the border into Shenzhen, get on the Shenzhen subway, get to the center of Shenzhen in a goddamn taxi, go to the front of Foxconn, stand there and fucking talk to people. It’s not that hard to verify; just go and start interviewing these fucking people. I did. The first two hours of my first day, I met 14-, 13- and 12-year-old children who work at the fucking plant, so it doesn’t fucking take much.”
Troubles at Foxconn are well known to anyone searching for them. The usually quiet company made international news in early 2009, right before Daisey arrived in Hong Kong with his wife for a monthlong fact-finding mission.
“I’ve wanted to do a show about Steve Jobs my entire life,” he says. “But I don’t do monologues about things I am obsessed with unless they are in collision with other things I am obsessed with. This show started to really germinate in 2008 when I saw these pictures online taken with an iPhone from inside the factory. And I started thinking about where these devices come from in a way I have never thought about before, and I wanted to investigate them. I actually thought this was going to be a very light piece.”
Then the stories started to emerge: Workers at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen were committing suicide in an unsettlingly similar fashion, jumping from the roofs of the gigantic buildings where they worked. The news came at such a steady pace—nine suicides in three months—that Daisey thought his project was doomed, that the press would descend on Shenzhen.
“I thought I would actually run into a reporter,” he says, laughing. “I thought, hey, maybe we will get together and share stories about what we found. That never happened. I should’ve known better.”
Mike Daisey’s performance style has drawn comparisons to that of Spalding Gray, a New York performer who died of an apparent suicide in 2004. Gray developed the monologue style on which Daisey has built his career: a spare set with just a chair, a table, a glass of water and notes; personal material; and a direct, conversational performance.
Despite those similarities, Daisey doesn’t see himself as part of any lineage. He has no affinity for Gray and, though he has a long history in theatre, Daisey says he developed his style in the bars of 1990s Seattle. Retired from the local garage theatre scene following a harrowing production of Jean Genet’s Balcony, Daisey still went drinking with his fellow thespians, who would ask the Maine native how he ended up in Seattle.
“I would tell the whole story about my life falling apart,” he says. “It was like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where I would fix them with my hoary eye and they would be trapped there and I would just be, like, mah-mah-mah-mah, and I would tell them all about Maine and my life collapsing.”
That story, about his attempt to escape his life of theatre and misery in Maine for a more normal life in the faraway world of Seattle, was so entertaining that his friends urged him to take it to the stage.
So he did, renting out the Open Circle space in Belltown for a short run. That first monologue, Wasting Your Breath, was a humorous and heartbreaking remembrance of Daisey’s road trip from Maine to Seattle, interwoven with the crushing tale of a failed relationship. The 15 monologues he has produced since have been fundamentally the same—unscripted, extemporaneous performances spiked with insight and humor.
The monologue 21 Dog Years launched Daisey into the national spotlight, prompting him to move into more challenging territory. In 2005, he produced Monopoly, a monologue that relates the history of the eponymous board game, the tribulations of inventor Nikola Tesla, the role of Walmart in his family’s life and the unfathomable wealth of Bill Gates. The show marked a shift into the non-autobiographical.
Daisey’s subsequent work has been as investigative as it is theatrical. In the last five years, he’s explored the early days of scientology in Great Men of Genius, labor issues within American theatre in How Theater Failed America, the inner workings of the Department of Homeland Security in If You See Something Say Something, and American imperialism in The Last Cargo Cult.
Daisey’s productions join a growing body of work in the theatre—beginning with that of Spalding Gray’s Wooster Group, and including productions by Seattle’s own NewsWrights—that is turning the stage into an investigative forum at a time when investigative journalism is in decline. This opening gives The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs the opportunity to shape culture in a way that American theatre rarely does.
“It’s a very important piece,” Seattle Rep artistic director Jerry Manning says, comparing the controversial nature of the show to that of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the 2007 Seattle Rep play about the Evergreen State College student killed during a protest on the Gaza Strip. “When he pitched it, we just jumped on it for a few different reasons. One, it’s Mike—he’s known as a Seattle person—and, two, the topic was irresistible, especially since this is an area of tech-savvy people. There was no deliberation.”
Daisey stands in the lobby at Berkeley Rep. He just finished his show and is taking questions and comments from the exiting audience, as he does after every performance. A law professor from Stanford offers to connect him with a friend who heads the National Labor Board. An Apple employee thanks Daisey for his work. Then an older woman wearing a long black trench coat and gold-rimmed glasses leans into the crowd and asks Daisey a question.
“You know, Apple isn’t the only company doing this,” she says. “Everyone is doing this. In order to make any sort of change, you have to change the culture of business in the entire world. How do you think focusing on one company is going to make any bit of … ”
Daisey cuts her off.
“You’re wrong,” he says. “If I actually thought that way, I would do what everyone else does and that would be nothing.”
Daisey wants everyone to know they can take action. He distributes a flyer titled “What Happens Next?” to every audience member on the way out. It says, “If you choose not to ignore what you’ve learned tonight, here are some concrete steps you can take.” It then lists Apple’s customer-relations number, the names of other electronics companies that contract with Foxconn, the Web site for China Labor Watch and Daisey’s own email address—email@example.com—so activists can ask questions or report progress.
“The hard part about all that stuff is, you’ve got your Mac,” Berkeley Rep’s Tony Taccone says. “I have a Mac. Do I throw it out? No, I already own it. It’s a perfectly reliable, working machine. Will I take [Mike’s message] into account with the next machine I buy? Maybe I will. I think that would be the litmus test as to what effect the monologue has on me.”
Apple appears unconcerned. Asked whether he had seen the play at the quarterly Apple shareholder meeting the day after Wozniak wept at Daisey’s performance, chief operating officer Tim Cook—the stand-in, and likely successor, of an ailing Steve Jobs—replied, “If it isn’t on ESPN or CNBC, I probably haven’t seen it.”
Daisey retorts: “I’m sure that if Apple’s labor practices aren’t on ESPN or CNBC, Tim Cook’s not seeing them either.”
Photography by Malcolm Brown.