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’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.
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