the transmedia and transgressions of mike daisey

Everyone’s always asking the question about Alternate Reality Games:

“Do you let your audience know it isn’t real?”

Alternate Reality Games or ARGs are common lingo amongst any of you transmedia folk who read this; however, to most of my theater colleagues and the general public, ARGs are something new. ARGs are interactive stories using real world scenarios with other media platforms to deliver a story that may be altered by participants’ ideas or actions. Often, in the beginning of an ARG, one cannot tell what part of the game is real and what isn’t.

Mike Daisey Photograph: Kevin Berne

Mike Daisey’s The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has been a news sensation sensation since last year. It brought attention to the poor working conditions for Chinese laborers in FoxConn factories that make most of Apple’s devices. Yesterday, the story surged again. This time, the news was about Mike, himself. In an episode titled “Retraction,” Mike admitted to “This American Life” host Ira Glass certain portions of his monologue are fiction. Now, the issue of truth – not only in journalism but also in theater – is being called into question.

The monologue – whether by design or accident – became transmedia with Mike’s appearances on multiple television shows, news programs, and his blog. Mike also did something he had never done before: He wrote down his script. Famous for only performing with an outline, Mike transcribed the monologue and made it available for download so anyone in the world may perform the text royalty free. This act for a playwright is rare. It’s benevolent, and it helped spread the story.

Mike spurred countless to act. But as puppet master, the beast got to big for him to wrangle. I’m not suggesting Mike started out with a plan to fool the world, but once people became mobilized, everything changed. Sometimes, people tell the stories they want to be true because it will change reality.

Going to the theater, whether for a live performance or film, we suspend our disbelief. We do this with books, games, and even campfire stories. We know there’s not really a boogieman coming to slash us in our tent in the night, but we still might lose sleep as our imaginations run wild. Even with true stories, we all know there’s a little embellishment tossed in for flavor.

When I saw The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, I never thought it was 100% true. I’ve worked with too many playwrights and solo performers to know personal stories are massaged, characters combined, and scenes interwoven to manipulate an audience’s emotions. I assumed Cathy, Mike’s translator who appears as a main character in the monologue, must be a composite of several translators Mike employed as he traveled China.

Still, I was converted. I became an evangelist for the cause. I did exactly what Mike wanted me to do. I posted Mike’s final plea to the audience on my blog. I emailed Apple CEO Tim Cook. I allowed the meme Mike dropped into my brain to grow into a belief and change me. That’s what good theater should do. It changes people.

But now, all the world’s truly a stage. Pundits and reporters are merely players spouting half-truths to advance causes. That’s what Mike did. He discovered a way to spill the story out from the theater and into the mainstream media to activate real change.

However, during the initial fact-checking of Mike’s monologue for “This American Life,” Mike continued the ruse, which was his horrible misstep. People are happy to be entertained by fiction. They’ll even be inspired by fiction to change the world, as I was. They just want to know whether they should suspend their disbelief or not. Mike didn’t offer that option.

In 2011, I saw another solo show based on a true story. When John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown played on Broadway, John included an author’s note in the Playbill about the authenticity of his stories:

“While based on truth, events within the play have been re-created for clarity. Some moments in the piece fall out of their original timeline to create a more streamlined narrative. One or two characters are an amalgam, but all are portrayed true to my remembrance of them. I had to change some names at the behest of my lawyer for litigious reason. Though all the dialogue is essentially true, it has been distilled and concentrated. I’m not a good liar, so it’s not dramaturgy, only lack of artifice.

I wish to transport you into my world as I saw it – rootless and undocumented. It’s my endless quest to examine my life, to create a history and legacy where there wasn’t one. I try not to judge those chemical and electric moments that have forged me as a storyteller as good or bad, but as stepping stones toward self-expression and self-fulfillment. I always felt that the more times I told my tale to as many people as I could find, I could exorcise the pain from my soul. I also felt that the admission of my culpability immediately absolves me of responsibility for the consequences. Being self-aware means one is not lying. And no one outside of politics likes a liar. Doing a live autobiography before one is dead is maybe an act of self-destruction and maybe an act of shedding an old skin. It’s an act of self-hate and self-adulation. It’s many contradictory elements combined to create an illusion of normalcy, which hopefully allows you to come with me on this journey toward a victory over those forces we don’t understand, called life.”

Mike has a two-line disclaimer in the Playbill for The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in all caps:

THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION.
SOME NAMES AND IDENTITIES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE SOURCES.

Changing names to protect the innocent is not the same as fabricating meetings with fictional FoxConn workers poisoned by the chemical n-hexane, used for cleaning iPhones. The difference between the two disclaimers is the lens through which the audience absorbs the stories.

One positive takeaway is the “Retraction” episode of “This American Life” is a solid hour of radio journalism. These days, when everyone is device driven and obsessed with retinal resolution, one of the earliest forms of media offered a riveting, revealing exposé. They shined a light on Mike Daisey’s betrayal of Ira Glass’ trust.

Ira even says to Mike: “I vouched for you.”

That means something. Especially to a journalist.

Context matters. Fictional stories can spread anywhere now and, too often, news organizations fail to vet them. One must be careful not to discredit one’s own cause. Even if Mike Daisey’s sprawling narrative wasn’t intentionally an ARG, there are many now who feel played. He stirred up the media, FoxConn, and the mighty giant, Apple. “This American Life” even continues to acknowledge this issue of poor working conditions in Chinese factories is not going away.

At the end of “Retraction,” New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg offered many facts about the working conditions. Then, Duhigg shifted to an editorial tone, impressing on Ira Glass:

“You are actually one of the reasons why it [the poor working conditions] exists.  If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.”

Sounds like Mike’s Agony Ecstasy meme survives, which is really the objective of his monologue. It’s also clear when telling stories based on truth, context matters. Whether it’s a stage play, film or ARG, letting the audience know a story isn’t 100% factual protects artists from a world of scrutiny and offers the audience an opportunity to go along for the ride with abandon.

No doubt, Mike will rise up to tell a new tale. He’s a storyteller. It’s what he does. I’m sure he’ll come up with a hum dinger.

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To download the transcript of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs GO HERE

To listen to “Retraction” on “This American Life” with Ira Glass GO HERE

mib3 aims to warm things up with phone hotline

A couple days ago, Men in Black 3 released a ripple in the space-time continuum when it rolled out the second trailer for its upcoming summer release. It features much more of Josh Brolin (yay!) and gives us our first glimpse of Bill Hader as an under cover Andy Warhol (awesome!). What we didn’t get is more of Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement as the movie’s big baddie, Boris (boo!).

The trailer came off as a Mad Men meets Back to the Future mash-up, which could be fun. I didn’t think much more about it. Then, last night, they added a dash of The X-Files to the recipe. I was heading home and I noticed this in the subway:

Of course, I called the number.

A teenage boy’s voice answers and explains he is Bugeyes. He informs me I called “The Men in Black Are Real” hotline, and what he’s telling me will change my life forever. By pressing 1, 2, 3 or 4 I can either: know what he knows, hear details on where to find him, learn the latest on someone named Clive (“who’s definitely not human”), or leave a voice mail message reporting alien activity. I can interact with the phone number through voice mail or text, and Bugeyes might post my message on themeninblacksuitsarereal.com.

As I punch through prompts, Bugeyes exclaims, “Extraterrestrials live among us. Seriously? How cool is that?” He’s also monitoring Clive because he thinks it’s “what The Men in Black Suits want him to do.” He directs me to his blog for more details about the Men in Black Suits. When I visit the blog, there are several posts starting on December 6, 2011.

MIB3’s The Men in Black Suits are Real campaign started back in November 2011 and received some criticism for only linking to Bugeyes’ Facebook page at that time. Now, it appears with this phone number, a new phase has commenced, and on Monday, along with the subway ads, Bugeyes posted his first video blog.

On Facebook, “fans” are posting pictures of potential MIB activity, including this mock up newspaper clipping from 1969 featuring a young Agent K (aka Josh Brolin, second from the right, in priest’s garb).

Bugeyes comes off as a child of one of The Lone Gunmen (if they’d ever actually gotten lucky and spawned). Will Smith seems cheesier than ever. But that’s what the public wants from Will Smith, right? Right now, Josh Brolin is the most exciting aspect of this story, but I’m wondering how worn his Tommy Lee Jones impression will be after 90 minutes.

Several entertainment sites are calling it “viral marketing.” It could be the beginnings of an ARG. I’m hoping the engagement increases, or it might fall short, like The Hunger Games campaign. I know it’s challenging creating other elements to an already existing property, but when studios have so much money, I always hope they’ll raise the bar. Publishing a number so blatantly and offering participation does indicate there may be more to come. I hope so.

If you’re curious, call 1-888-202-9797 and let me know if there’s any new news on the hotline. Maybe it’ll warm up as we near the summer release.