Friday, March 23, 2012

Truth in Theater Panel

Adam Feldman organized a panel of artists and journalists this week to discuss the fallout from the Mike Daisey situation and discuss questions of Truth in Theater.  The Public Theater, which hosted Daisey's now-controversial show, offered space for the panel.  On the panel were, journalists Peter Marks of the Washington Post, Jason Zinoman of the New York Times and Slate, and Adam Feldman of Time Out New York.  Also included on the panel for the theater artists' perspective were Jessica Blank (The Exonerated), Steven Cosson (Artistic Director of The Civilians investigative theater), and Taylor Mac (The Lily's Revenge).

Oskar Eustis opened the panel noting that "the Public is the kind of place where we should talk about these things" and that L'Affair du Daisey (my words not his) " was as surprising to us as it was to most folks."  He read a new prepared statement about The Public's take on the situation as it has evolved over the last week.  Eustis's new statement focuses on the "contract" implied or explicit between the artist and the audience and being faithful to that contract.

The panel offered a fascinating discussion of a broad range of issues that were raised by Daisey's actions including the spectrum of types of theater that fall under this umbrella, issues of labeling, marketing, disclosure, as well as the harm Daisey's actions might have on Chinese workers, other artists, theaters and the movement to improve labor conditions in China overall.

Peter Marks wondered if this was really a "crime of labeling" by putting "This is Non-Fiction" in the programs for the Daisey show which was something he took at face value and it guided his belief that what he was watching was true.  Taylor Mac suggested that he did not believe "non-fiction theater exists."  Cosson suggested that non-fiction theater does exist but there are a broad range of shows, works and artists in the spectrum of non-fiction theater, each with different approaches and different ways it is presented to audiences.  But he suggested that "there are different rules for theater that engage reality and journalism."  Blank described her own process for something like The Exonerated where the work is based on transcripts and real people's lives and it has been vetted by attorneys for libel.  She felt strongly that no matter what you do, you have to "stick to your contract" with the audience.

Blank felt that her work is not journalism because of the advocacy arguments her works are trying to make.  Cosson countered that there is also a spectrum of journalism and documentary where advocacy is a part of that practice (whistle-blower articles for example).  But Cosson and Blank returned several times to the point that when you are handling works that involve people's lives you have a responsibility to those people.  That responsibility was a great one.  One question that was raised was when you are fabricating or embellishing "facts" that are personal can you be more loose in your presentation of truthfulness where the impact is localized but where "facts" have an impact on others can you ever really take that lightly?  Something like David Sedaris creating funny stories about his family that are not strictly true versus making up facts about bigger issues in the world.

Feldman noted his concerns where people make dramatic things up about the Holocaust and present it as fact.  Finding the subject matter too important to bend the truth and by doing so it gives Holocaust deniers ammunition. 

Jason Zinoman focused on Daisey's more recent statements at Georgetown and took umbrage with Daisey's new argument that he had to do this because journalists were not doing it.  Zinoman reached out to people who have dedicated themselves to these issues and found that people at Human Rights Watch feel "this piece undermines their work."  Daisey's lies have caused harm to their cause--the cause he claimed he wanted people to pay attention to.  Further, looking to academic studies and international journalism, Zinoman pointed out a number of pieces over the past few years that were focused on the issues Daisey addressed in his show arguing that Daisey's view that this story would have died without him was not necessarily true either. 

Whether Daisey's actions will cause theaters to demand more accountability from their non-fiction artists is a question that these artists will face.  Taylor Mac's view was that he got into theater "so he could make shit up."  Putting journalistic restrictions on artists would likely constrict artists.  Cosson and Blank seemed to offer that their own ethical standards for their works are the guidelines they work from.  But there is no universal or acceptable canon of ethical practices in this arena. 

During the Q&A, Oskar Eustis offered that The Public usually engaged in fact-checking in certain works but they had not done so with this particular work.  For a moment I wondered if Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was not historically accurate!  Was he not President Sexypants?  Joking aside, I was curious which Public Theater works were vetted and which were not and what works would raise that question of needing fact-checking versus those that do not.

Eustis pointed out that Ethan Lipton's current show at the Public refers to Connecticut as Mars and that change liberates Lipton from having to be tied strictly to the facts as an artist.  Blank believed that had Daisey presented the work properly up front (admitting it was memoir/not strictly true) it would have had the same powerful impact without all the fallout. 

Adam Feldman noted that the panel's "conversation ha[d] been a lot of philosophical groping" without concrete answers.  But the panel gave the opportunity to talk about Daisey's actions in the context of theater and stirred up a lot of passions in the speakers and the audience.  As usual the Q&A was slightly more uncomfortable than a colonoscopy with people not asking any real questions but sharing their "feelings" on the subjects discussed.

I was glad to hear a variety of opinions, especially by other artists working in that realm.  Certainly there were no easy answers for anyone.  But hearing these artists speak to the efforts they have gone to to be respectful of the personal stories entrusted to them and yet still manage to change policy or bring attention to important causes made me believe Daisey could have taken a different path to achieve his stated goals.  It might not have been the most high-profile path, but it would have been good clean work focused on the issues that still need attention.

The panel also made me realize I have a lot more investigative theater I need to see!   

Audio of this panel is now available here.  Hopefully my reporting and quotes were accurate.  #irony

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Peter Marks. By labeling the monologue nonfiction, Daisey stacked the deck. He didn't leave anything to the audience's imagination. And he compounded it by writing an op-ed and appearing on TV as an expert.

    I'm a natural-born skeptic so I didn't believe it 100 percent from the beginning. The quotes and descriptions of what he saw just sounded too perfect. But I think a lot of people did believe it and felt cheated.

    I think he could have written just as compelling a piece talking about what really happened when he tried to interview workers in China, the difficulties of finding things out when you don't speak the language, when you're operating in a totalitarian country. It would have been maybe a more serious version of Chinglish.