The Playgoer: Daisey Denouement

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Daisey Denouement

I'm glad there has been so much exchange and debate here over what happened to Mike Daisey's show in Boston, and now over what I said about it. I can see most of the reaction to me has been anti, and to Daisey, pro. But I'll take one more crack at defending my views, knowing full well I probably won't make any more friends in the process.

Here's a simple narrative of my response, just to show where I'm coming from.

I started hearing about this incident at ART over the weekend. Daisey himself sent out an email to his mailing list (which I've always assumed I was on automatically as a fellow blogger, though I'd never corresponded with him). I took notice in the email where he said of the incident, "it's a sobering reminder that speech is never free unless it is defended ardently." That definitely definitely got my attention. A free speech case at ART? That could be news! I didn't have time over the weekend to delve further, but I did see other bloggers picking up the story, by basically relaying Daisey's own account and expressing support for him and outrage at his offended/offending audience. As I've said before, I know of Daisey by reputation and what I've read in profiles, but not seen any of his work in person. And not to redeem myself with "I tried," but I definitely wanted to see "Invincible Summer" during its brief run at the Public's Under the Radar, but it was so popular it was sold out.

By Monday I was really, really curious to find out more about what happened. When I finally read Daisey's blog and watched the video, though, I must say I came away feeling this controversy had been overblown. Mainly because I could see no evidence of some coordinated institutional protest or disruption of the play. I just saw people walking out. And one particularly rude guy dousing Daisey's script with water. And I was not aware the piece of paper was his only copy. I felt bad for Daisey personally. But I was also struck, critically, by the difference between what I saw and what I was led to believe. Plus some of Daisey's reactions--however justified emotionally, perhaps--honestly made me cringe.

I realize I could have pursued my questions with Daisey himself, but his account was already clear from his blog. And frankly I was interested in just getting some objective facts first, and Daisey (understandably) seemed still deeply subjectively affected by the confrontation. So from what the ART press office was happy to confirm for me, the story struck me as an isolated incident due in part to particularly misguided chaperoning. And ART also said they believed the man who spilled the water had apologized personally to Daisey once Daisey called him.

If Daisey wants to challenge any aspect of the ART official story, I am eager to hear it. Daisey indeed has left one comment here, to which I responded both there and directly by private email, inviting him to further conversation on or offline. As of yet I have heard no further response.

So again, a story that started out circulating as a free speech frenzy just struck me as something different, and less alarming. Less alarming to me , at least. Obviously not to Daisey.

But this blog is about my opinion, not his, so I make no apologies for that.

I can see why some think I'm "blaming the victim". But honestly I did not set out to pick on Mike Daisey. Only when I felt he himself was trying to whip up support for himself as a free speech martyr-- did I feel I just had to say I wasn't totally buying it.

I also have to admit that after the "Rachel Corrie" debate I'm particularly sensitive to defining censorship and free speech in the theatre. I got challenged many times last year that New York Theatre Workshop's actions could not be censorship because they're not the government, they have free choice, etc. So I feel a responsibility to call these cases as I see them, and to use some very clear criteria--mainly to look for institutional caving or mass-coordinated campaigns instead of isolated prejudiced reactions from individuals.

Much of the outrage being expressed focuses on the one spectator who damaged Daisey's script--or more accurately "outline." And I've been accused of missing this as The Main Point. (Daisey has been performing "Invincible Summer" for months, but apparently still works from a handwritten outline within which he improvises. To each his own, when it comes to working methods, I say. I just sure hope, for his sake, he's at least made a xerox by now, if not actually typed it on a disk.) This is indeed an ugly act. On the video you can see the man (definitely one of the group's adults--Urbaniak, who disagrees with me, amusingly dubs him "Hoodie John the Baptist") very deliberately approaching Daisey's onstage desk and pouring his own Evian bottle over the two pieces of paper, then spitefully dumping the rest of the bottle in Daisey's drinking glass before leaving. Just ugly.

But what else can we say about it? Yes, I guess it's "vandalism". But there are laws against that. Why doesn't Daisey sue him for damages if the papers are irreplaceable? I've been asked what my reaction would be if intolerant bigots stormed a more elaborate designed production and vandalized the set. I'd say... get security. That's what they're there for. (ART is on the Harvard campus, after all.)

If the only source of disagreement here is whether or not vandalism is serious or not, then I say, yes, vandalism is serious. And should be punished. But I don't feel compelled--in this case at least--to read much more into it.

Were Daisey's free speech rights violated? My first question to those who say yes is--do you not support the right of those Columbia students to storm the stage against those "Minutemen" speakers a few months ago? Do you not cheer on Cindy Sheehan and others when they try to shout down Donald Rumsfeld at a congressional hearing?

I don't think Mike Daisey is evil at all, and nowhere near the moral equivalent of those targets. But are our free speech and demonstration standards only based on who we like and who we don't?

If the violator knowingly sought to destroy Daisey's only copy of his text and thereby disable him from ever performing it again...ok, maybe there'd be a case. But is that what this guy thought? Most people who go to the theatre expect lines to be memorized, or scripts to at least be copies. And yes, in principle the man was "vandalizing the set"--but given Daisey's show consists of him sitting on a bare stage at a table with a water glass, did this man think this was a "set" at all? Or did it look to him like some weird liberal lecture? (Reader "David M." makes this point even more cogently in Comments, for which I'm thankful.) Again, I'm afraid just a little elitism may be creeping into this. Not everyone has been to a Spalding Gray show and recognizes that kind of form as "art." (I have to admit I cringed at Daisey accusing the offenders of "pouring water on my art.")

(But yes, I do. Despite my stated aversion to more conventional fictional monologue plays, I admire many solo performers. More on that another time.)

Now about the video. (Btw, I am told Daisey videos many of his performances for himself, so that's where the YouTube came from in case you're wondering.) It's a humiliating moment to have caught on camera, but he himself put it out there so I feel it's fair game to have a critical response. And my response, honestly, was that I cringed at the point when he starts calling the people leaving "cowards." (Just past the 8:00 minutes and counting mark.) Upon watching it again, I would like to retract what I said about Daisey "shouting." When he raises his voice, it's clearly in order to be heard by those walking into the lobby. But I still feel there's something kinda "whiny" about it, which is what made me cringe. Say what you want, call me insensitive. Call it "too soon." But that's my honest response.

For instance, Daisey claims he was simply inviting them to have a dialogue. But please note the choice he offers them:

"Hey do any of you people who are leaving want to stay and talk about this or do you want to run out like cowards?.... [inaudible response. Daisey repeats, louder, calling after them:] Do you want to stay and talk about this like adults that you came to my show to see [sic?], or do you want to walk out like cowards?"
A bit taunting, I think. Now, he was hurt, I understand. But I just can't go along with those who are calling this a "classy" response. I agree, though, that after the exodus, Daisey settles down and bonds graciously with those supportive ticketbuyers left and goes on with the show admirably.

I also was struck by this line in Daisey's blog about his assailant:
It is a face I have seen in Riefenstahl's work, and in my dreams, but never on another human face, never an arm's length from me--never directed at me, hating me, hating my words and the story that I've chosen to tell.

Yes, that’s Riefenstahl as in “Triumph of the Will” Riefenstahl. Is that “civil discourse”? Especially since, again, the Obergruppenf├╝hrer has reportedly apologized.

Look, I think the parents and teachers of this group were silly and stupid to overreact like this to some obscene language. I’m sure they also rent movies from those family-friendly companies that edit out—illegally—all the naughty bits so that even "Schindler’s List" doesn't titillate with its jiggling old jews. But I'm more mad at the company that enables and panders to this narrow-mindedness than I am at the fearful consumers.

And they’re stupid for getting so offended by a dirty word (whether that be “fuck”or "Paris Hilton") instead of actual beliefs of Daisey’s. I mean, the kids were in High School, not Preschool! However--we shouldn't’t underestimate, that to some people, Daisey’s very use of words like “fuck” in public certainly does communicate to them a belief, and one they don’t like. To "us" casual bad language used in public before minors is no biggee. To "them" it reflects an abhorrent belief system and lifestyle. I don't feel "we" have to validate or give into that reality. But let's accept it as a reality and either take ownership of our offensiveness or put the topic of obscenity on the table if we're going to reach out for "dialogue."

(Apropos of nothing, I also want to air my theory as to why this group still came to the show even after being warned. Where else but a nonprofit university theatre's second space can you find a decent group rate for a party of 87! Not at any of the downtown Boston touring houses.)

Before it’s implied again that I’m too eager to come to the evil Christian right’s defense against a poor downtown theatre artist, let me make clear what I stand for. Free speech. On both sides. If someone or some organization truly prevents Mike Daisey from performing due to his views, I will stand with him. But I can’t get excited about someone (or 87 people) telling him essentially to fuck off. Or as this particular party might say, flip off.

Boston blogger YS says,
I wonder if Garret[sic] will be as casual, and consider it such a "non-scandal," if a group of the audience at a performance of Rachel Corrie were to walk out then throws water on, or otherwise VANDALIZE the set while making their exit.
Well basically, yes, I think that’s fair game! And a risk one has to accept in producing that particular show. Remember that's the kind of thing New York Theatre Workshop really feared in that case. They were scared to let that show go on with any risks of confrontation. Excuse the comparison, but Daisey's pleading for “dialogue” with his disgruntled audience when all they want to do is leave or boo, is pretty much what New York Theatre Workshop was pleading for. Their total fear of walkouts, demonstrations, vandalism whatever, is exactly what led to the cancellation of “Corrie”—the fear that people would be pissed no matter how much you “dialogued” with them. And no matter how wrong you thought they were.

I know Daisey would never cancel his own show over this, so I don't see a natural comparison with Nicola. Just a hint of an overlap. I wish we could agree upon a sphere of discourse in the theatre that can allow for objection—even “uncivil” objection—while it’s still nonviolent and noncensorial.

I entitled my recent revisiting of the "Corrie" controversy for New York Theatre Review (soon to be available online) “In Praise of Controversy.” Taking my cue from Tony Kushner’s point that Nicola was too fearful of a "brawl," I basically say that we need more brawling not less in the theatre. And like it or not, we shall get it in this post-9/11, Red vs Blue culture-war world.

Finally, I see now that I did not express myself clearly enough in talking about the “bubble” of liberals doing shows for other liberals. I appreciate what Daisey says about reaching out, and about how “Invincible Summer” actually details his conflicted responses to 9/11, including initial support for the Iraq war. And by proposing my own counter response of “fuck it” and going on with your show, I realize that isn’t promoting much cross-culture bonding either.

But that actually wasn’t my point. Red and Blue will always hate each other, no matter how much “dialogue.” By all means let’s call out censorship when we see it—when institutions and funders pull the plug or back down from bullying orchestrated campaigns. But when private citizens simply express their disapproval (even hate), who can we cry to? I say let’s simply stand up for what we believe, try not to waste time denouncing the other for who they are, and go on with the show.


Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Garrett, I love your contrarian streak as much as anyone, but I think you painted yourself into a corner here. A mass walkout is not such a big deal, maybe just an "anecdote." But a theatregoer of any stripe (or any age) breaking the fourth wall and unloading his beverage on the set, right in front of the performer's face, IS a huge deal, and Daisey and his defenders have every reason to flip out. It's not the Third Reich, of course, but can you honestly not see how such behavior might seem just a bit chilling to performers? Sure, on some level, they should be thick-skinned enough to "take it," but even a seemingly confident solo performer is putting himself out there in a vulnerable place already. This was in short a violation, and to call it a simple "expression of disapproval," to downplay it or pooh-pooh it, seems pretty tin-hearted from such a passionate guy as yourself.

parabasis said...

Hey G,

Also, I would say that you have no idea what the look in the man's eyes was like, since you didn't see it. No one but Daisey did. Perhaps the rage and righteous indignation reminded him of LR's films. After all, the Nazis were at some point regular people too, and bringing up the similarity in fervor is not the same as casting yourself as a holocaust victim or something like that.

DL said...

"I say let’s simply stand up for what we believe, try not to waste time denouncing the other for who they are, and go on with the show."

And that is exactly what Mike did.
I 've been waiting to comment as I've been trying really hard to see things from your position but I just can't.
I think you reacted quickly and abruptly and now you'd rather stay in that than look at the other side. It's easy to be right Garrett. It's much harder to put oneself in someone else's shoes. No offense. I love this blog and I find you articulate and astute.
But in this case, I don't get you. I know you don't need me to. But i had to say something.
No offense.

It's hard

Mike Daisey said...

I probably shouldn't even engage in this--my blood pressure is shot enough as it is--but I do want to clarify something.

"(Daisey has been performing "Invincible Summer" for months, but apparently still works from a handwritten outline within which he improvises. To each his own, when it comes to working methods, I say. I just sure hope, for his sake, he's at least made a xerox by now, if not actually typed it on a disk.)"

I am an extemporaneous monologuist--I perform exclusively without a script, and the handwritten notes are meticulously created for that purpose. There was a profile about exactly how this process works in the New York Times in January--here is a link:

This blog is a fairly well-read theatre blog, and the writer spends a lot of time writing very long posts about this incident. I do not understand why you would not spend a small amount of time with Google and other resources and inform yourself about the work I perform--it is not obscure or difficult. It's really tiresome. I find it insulting, your use of the term "still" in reference to my notes, and it tells me you don't understand my work in the least--you've never seen it, and you apparently don't read about it either.

As for the rest, it's a free world (for now) and you have your opinion. You think I didn't react well--fair enough. I certainly would have preferred to react even better than I did. I do find it contrarian and bizarre that you're as concerned as you are for my behavior, when I'd posit there is other behavoir that is much more chilling, but hey--I love contrarians.

Myrhaf said...

I agree with Garrett. The vandalism aside, walking out of a performance is not a violation of free speech. It is their right.

I had never heard of Mike Daisey before this. What did those Christians accomplish? They made Mr. Daisey famous! This could be the best thing that ever happened to his career. He should laugh at them all the way to the bank.

DL said...

Oops . I didn't mean to leave this big blank space... and it's hard at the end wasn't meant to be in there. blogspot freaked out when i posted my comment.
you're welcome to edit my comment so it appears how it should.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that I absolutely respect your position in this debate. This was an act of vandalism by one small-minded and apparently hot-headed individual. It should be interpreted as such, not made into a clarion call for smug liberal scorn.

What I find refreshing in your response is that you do not turn immediately to the knee-jerk liberal response of characterizing right-wingers as inherently "other," indeed as Nazis. Mr. Daisey's blog postings seem intent on emphasizing his own "tolerance" but one only has to read his account of the phone conversation with "David" to hear the condescending scorn that Daisey feels for him. I'm a card-carrying Marxist, but I firmly believe that we're never going to move forward on anything in this country if each of us continues to paint those who ascribe to a different philsophical outlook in overly simplistic, dismissive terms. Frankly, invoking the Nazi analogy is nothing more than liberal self-promotion. Even worse, it totally dilutes the effectiveness of our critique by treating anyone who is different as if they embody all the worst traits of human evil. That is not a reasoned critique. We liberals need to do some serious soul-searching about our own self-righteousness if we ever expect to build anything with anyone -- because, believe me, we need to work *with* people who disagree with us if we want to change this country. Too many theater artists fail to see this and, as a result, they're discourse only serves to perpetuate discord.

Alison Croggon said...

I find it kind of disturbing that all of the people agreeing with Garrett are posting anonymously. Garrett, for good or ill, posts under his own name and stands by what he says. And yet those calling for courage in debate and reaching out to others prefer to conceal their identity... I respect Garrett's right to think what he likes (much as I disagree with him) but I find it hard to respect snyone preaching about self-righteousness won't stand by their opinion.

What good does it do art to stop being art if it doesn't please everybody? Since when has that been a good idea? It just leads to more and more cowering inside smaller and smaller boxes. I'd say the qualities artists require in these times - in fact, in any time, but in hard times it's just more obvious - are courage and generosity. Those are the things that make communication possible, even across disagreements.

I am still unsure how Daisey's response is inappropriate. The act of aggression was against him, not the other way around. And I didn't call it censorship myself; but it seems, in this instance, pertinent to remember Primo Levi's warning that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It's nothing to be complacent about, either.

Anonymous said...

I just have to say I love how the "anonymous" poster just above Alison Croggon complains about the horrors of stereotyping people who disagree with you, yet manages to work the phrases "smug liberal scorn", "knee-jerk liberal response", and "liberal self-promotion" and "liberal...self-righteousness" into his/her little announcement that "we liberals need to do some serious soul-searching". first, buddy: "Card-carrying Marxist" or not, you might try looking somewhere other than right-wing talk-radio for the language you use to dismiss the well-earned anger of liberals at conservative intolerance and contempt for freedom of artistic expression.

Playgoer said...

Hi all,

As I try to move the blog on past this story, I will try to limit my further comments and responses to the Comments section.

The first thing I'd like to make clear today is I am not simply being "contrarian" on this issue. As hard as it may be for some of the regular crowd here to believe, I actually believe in every word I've written on this affair. Some word choices may have been hasty--but, hey, blogging is in real time. I also know full well these are my *opinions* in a debate that exists largely in the realm of opinion. As always, when it comes to the facts of the case, I've tried to be as objective as possible and just put them out there, links and all.

I can't deny that once I realized I was in a very, very small minority in this debate that rather than shut up, it did strengthen my commitment to giving the other side. I think most people would agree the issue is now more complex than it seemed last Friday. So I'm glad to see some people acknowledging more the perspective of the audience now that more facts have been clarified.

It's too bad I've already been labeled a Republican and religious-right sympathizer for my dissention from other liberal views. I guess that's inevitable. And I suppose I invite it by not usually foregrounding my own politics on the site. Sure, I was featured in the Nation for taking on an issue ("Rachel Corrie") where yet again I differed from many more mainstream liberals. But I guess that can't immnunize me from future attacks from the left.

For the record I do consider myself liberal and leftist--further to the left of the Democratic Party. I voted for Nader in 2000. (From the "safe state" of NY, of course.) But I accept that my politics will be judged by readers on a day by day basis, rather than blanket claims like this. And I'm sure my more "culturally conservative" (i.e. old fashioned) tastes in theatre may turn some progressives off. (For instance, I actually like some old plays, and don't like all new ones.)

I do, however, really object to being accused of resorting to merely Republican "talking points" by daring to see Daisey's antagonists in this case as human beings. And by daring to raise the spectre of liberals sometimes being self-righteous and condescending toward Red State America. You don't have to be a rightwing nutjob to believe that.

Maybe some people think you play into the Republicans' hands by using that language. But, too bad. I'm not letting them have a monopoly on those words.

And I do think self-criticism is kind of essential to any political movement. Is my fault that I had the gall to so in the open? Don't let the other side see our fractures? Are we that polarized now?

Not that it will help me any further, but I have to say, the Anonymous Mr. "Card-Carrying Marxist" above kind of summed up my sentiments exactly. I understand why some would be pissed off by such language, but I don't think you have to be a Republican (or give aid and comfor to the enemy) to say such things.

[Alison-- I agree anonymous comments can be frustrating and I feel ambivalent about allowing them. BUT, once I do allow them I can't begrudge people taking advantage of them. From either side, of course. I don't think it's quite fair to disparage just the least popular commenters from withholding names. In fact, one reason I keep the option is to encourage more dissenters.]

So while I am humbled by seeing some of my views parroted by Michelle Malkin in Mr Urbaniak's hilarious online skit, I'm content that I know who I am politically and that I know I am not her. If that sets me apart from many other self-identified liberals, so be it.

Mike Daisey said...

I stand by what I've written, and I certainly stand behind Garret's right to write what he's written--and I haven't been following what's happening on other blogs, but I'm disappointed that people have been labeling him--that seems weak to me.

I'm sorry if people are reading condescending scorn into my writing--all I can do is shrug at some point. I've been as tolerant as I can be on this issue and in these conversations I've had, and in their recounting. I won't neuter my speech and strip the emotions out to make people comfortable. I stand by the comparison of his face to Riefenstahl's work--I can still see it in my mind, and I am absolutely dead on. I'll stand by that call forever.

As for the conversation--look, I'd like to see someone else try and do this, and see how it goes. What an interesting experiment that would be. I talked about David's kids, and his very real struggle with anger, and I listened to him--but I also talked about his intolerance, and his actions.

Finally, in closing, I must say I'm a little exhausted of the talk about "self-promotion". Just so we're all clear, there's been no measurable bump in sales at the box office for the show--that will surprise some, but it doesn't surprise me. I don't feel the attention has been "helpful" to my work--in fact, due to the timing the vast majority of people who saw this saw a section of the show that is intentionally crass, and may even draw conclusions about the content of all my work.

I would much rather not have had this happen at all, have my peace of mind back, and have back my original notes that I had spent three years working on. I am an artist who has a job to do, and everything that has happened over this last week has been to the detriment of my work, and it sucks across the board.

Nick said...


Garrett's assessment of this as an overwrought campaign is right on. You wish this incident didn’t happen. It would have happened and went away if you didn’t promote it as an incidence of censorship and religious fanaticism. That’s all on you.

Playgoer said...

While I appreciate Nick's support, I'm actually happy to defend Mike Daisey on this last point.

Of all the judgements I have made against him, I have never (and would never) accuse him of just trying to drum up ticket sales. I did reference what I felt was some excessive self-promotion, but I actually wasn't referring to crass commercialism.

It's an old saw about controversy that it's rigged just to increase box office. People who go through the death threats that, say, Terence McNally and Martin Scorsese had to countenance from religious groups, for instance, for their depictions of Jesus, wouldn't say the aggravation is worth it, and no one would wish that kind of ire upon themselves.

Nick said...


I guess you’re referencing my blog post on this, not my short comment here. So feel free to comment there if you take issue with something and I’ll respond more fully.

I wasn’t really supporting you here as much as finding agreement with your one point about “overwrought campaign.” Honestly, I was mostly uncomfortable with your need to judge Mike harshly for his ad-lib at the time of the incident. He was not the hero, as some others have painted him, but he was the trouper. Any “performance” by him would have been right at the time.

And I’m not playing the old saw you suggest. Mike is not crassly commercial and he is probably no more or less concerned with self-promotion than the rest of us. My only gripe was his attempt to spin doctor the incident into one about censorship and religious fanaticism.

This incident could have spurred a discussion about the difference between box office and audience. In this kind of aesthetic and ethical differentiation we would expect Mike and ART chasing down the busload of students not looking for an apology, but looking to refund their admission.

Mike Daisey said...

Nick, you say that if I had posted or said nothing this all would have "gone away" could not be more right.

I posted the video and spoke precisely because if I had said nothing this man, and the students in his charge, could go through life with no accountability whatsoever. That is unacceptable to me, so I spoke. I was not interested in being a victim twice--once when my work was destroyed, and a second time when no one apologized or acknowledged what they had done.

And as for you expecting me to go beyond what I've already done and REFUND THEIR MONEY--words fail me. You're very clear that I'm not a hero, and I would tend to agree--but I am also not a punching bag. The group paid, the group was informed, a member of the group attacked my property and the group left.


Nick said...

I see three distinct groups that walked out of the performance that night-- the high school students, the chaperones, and the lone asshole.

The teenagers of “the group” are probably not much different than those in the other high school group who were in the theatre that night.

Too bad these kids have been branded the Crazy Christians.

Collateral damage in an imaginary war. They don't need a refund. They need an apology.

Peace out, Mike.

Mike Daisey said...

That is a compelling point, Nick. I've been talking to that group, as many of them have been contacting me, and I think you're probably right--they do deserve an apology for being in the crossfire to some degree, and once I have the next show up I'll figure out what to do about that.