I’m both a journalist and a performer in theater. Very few people work inside the overlap of this particular Venn diagram of minimum-wage professions. So I have to comment on the news.
In the event that this post is found in a digital time capsule in 2097, an explanation: A writer and performer named Mike Daisey traveled to China, visited a factory where some very popular computer products were being made, returned home and wrote about it. The resulting play was performed live for many people, excerpted for an extraordinarily popular journalistic radio program, and then found to be factually untrue. There was an uproar.
Denizens of the future: Hopefully someone has recorded the meanings of China, factory, journalistic, computer and radio so that you can decipher the above.
I became an early fan of Daisey after seeing him give a thrilling and mostly improvised talk at a conference of arts administrators. He pegged us from the start. He knew we were artists too and wanted, more than anything, to be valued for our work. Our art, yes, but also for our labor to connect art with its viewer. He said it was our mission “to make art visible in our time”. He nailed our fears and insecurities so deftly that I found myself scribbling into a notebook dotted with tear stains.
Muffins had been served in the lobby but we were not allowed to bring them into the lecture room. He wove this tiny injustice into his speech on the spot, our desire for the muffins that were separated from us by red tape, a detail mirroring all the administrivia that so often sunk our spirits. I scribbled down quotes. “Sometimes you just think, ‘Fuck art.’ And it may not always make you happy. But the point is not to be happy, the point is to do the shit you’re called to do.” He said art is often a hard sell because this country was founded by Puritans — but we must keep at it; deep down, everyone still wants to make art. He said in his signature, dramatic throatiness, “It calls to them in the night.”
The man can reach an audience. And his story about Apple was perhaps his best work. But people don’t like their bitter pills mislabeled.
Writer Tim O’Brien posits in his famous and much-beloved essay, How to Tell a True War Story [pdf], that there are different kinds of truth. Factual truth — and story truth.
True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis. For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside. It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.
Daisey made our stomachs believe. Bitter pills, mislabeled — for reasons I can only guess. But something strange happened during Daisey’s talk to us arts administrators. He’d been speaking about the muffins being denied us; saying the words with such passion you could taste them. And then, suddenly, we could taste them. One of the experimental theatre performers in the room had stood up, walked out the door and returned with these illicit muffins on a silver platter.
The artist passed them throughout the audience in a jolly manner. I was happy for the second chance at breakfast — but something in the air turned, a slight scratching of the needle on the record. Daisey didn’t chuckle with us or celebrate this turn of events. In fact he looked annoyed; so fond of the poetics metaphor surrounding our lack of muffins that he didn’t actually want us to have them at all. And I was so entranced by his performance that I almost didn’t want to eat.