Should Producers Fact-Check Their Non-Fiction Plays? Two New Jukebox Musicals With Trouser Roles

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LA theater companies that produce anything that might be called “non-fiction” should now consider the case of Mike Daisey and act accordingly.

I refer, of course, to the oft-celebrated stage artist, who’s now more famous than ever because of a storm of criticism for having fabricated or lied about details in his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he attempts to expose the abuse of Chinese workers in Apple factories.

Mike Daisey in the New York Public Theater production of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”

Daisey’s embellishments were discovered by a China-based reporter for public radio’s Marketplace, but they became the fodder for a national discussion on public radio’s This American Life, which had previously broadcast parts of Daisey’s monologue. On March 16, This American Life host Ira Glass confronted Daisey on the air.

Before I get to my thoughts on whether or when LA producers should vet their material when presenting “non-fiction,” let’s look at a couple developments in the Daisey story from this past weekend.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who had hosted Daisey on his show Up w/Chris Hayes when the storyteller was promoting his Jobs production, delivered a reprimand Saturday. But Hayes did more than simply take Daisey to task; he broadcast a much earlier statement by Daisey, from a Seattle radio and podcast interview by Luke Burbank, in which Daisey had offered a very articulate argument against the kind of manipulation he used in the Jobs story.

Daisey had issued a somewhat limited apology on his blog early last week. But after he was reminded by Hayes of his words from last May in the Burbank interview, he wrote a much more thorough mea culpa on his blog yesterday.

It’s worth quoting Daisey’s words from the Burbank interview:

Mike Daisey in the New York Public Theater production of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”

“The facts are your friends, like if there’s ever a case where I’m telling the story and I find the facts are inconvenient nine times out of 10 it means I haven’t thought about the story deeply enough. I really believe in this because the world is more complex and more interesting than my imagination…You have so many tools on stage as a storyteller. Like, any time you want something to happen, you don’t have to pretend it happened and lie, you can use a flight of fancy, you can say, ‘I imagine what this must look like.’ You can say anything and you can go in whatever direction you need to go, but be clear with the audience…that at one moment you’re reporting the truth as literally it happened, and another case you’re using hyperbole, and you just have to be really clear about when you’re using each tool.”

In his latest blog post from yesterday, after thanking Hayes for dredging up his own previous words, Daisey acknowledged that he hadn’t lived up to his own standard.

Let’s also examine the responses from the East Coast theaters where Daisey had presented his Jobs show. Early last week, after the story broke, New York Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis said this:

Oskar Eustis

“We do not and cannot fact check our artists; we’re a theater, not a news organization. The vast majority of what occurs on our stages is fiction. If we didn’t believe fiction could reveal truth, we would have to give up our profession. With that said, it obviously matters a great deal to me that our audience understands what they are seeing.”

Then Eustis posted a somewhat tougher statement on the Public Theater website. And in response to questions at a forum last Thursday on the subject, Eustis indicated “that the Public had checked the veracity of other pieces of documentary-based theater during his tenure, but did not in the case of Mr. Daisey’s show, a decision he said he regretted,” according to the New York Times.

At Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, where Daisey presented an earlier version of the show in 2010 that had been specifically labeled in the program as “non-fiction,” the company’s leaders also issued a not-so-stern response at first but later toughened their response considerably. Judging from the public comments that appeared on the theater’s blog, many of its customers still weren’t satisfied, but the theater is hosting a free public forum on the subject Tuesday evening.

The controversy is red-hot at Woolly Mammoth because the theater had committed to presenting the Jobs show again in July and is maintaining that commitment. However, the show presumably will be quite altered from the version seen in New York (and in fact, it was altered at the final performance of the New York run, which took place at the Public just after the story broke on This American Life).

The only time that Daisey has appeared publicly in LA, as far as I recall, was when he performed his How Theater Failed America and The Last Cargo Cult under Center Theatre Group auspices at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, in March 2009.

Mike Daisey in the 2009 Kirk Douglas Theatre production of “How Theater Failed America” Photo by Craig Schwartz

But this doesn’t mean that the Daisey story is of little relevance to LA producers who sometimes present “non-fiction” material. I’ve seen many a show in LA that ostensibly dealt with real people, who were mentioned by name, or material that was “based on a true story” with some real names used. In many of these cases, after I leave the theater, I wonder just how accurate these scripts are, and whether the real-life people who are mentioned in these stories would have told very different stories. Perhaps these shows had been thoroughly vetted, but there was no way for the audience to know.

Often these shows are solos. By the very nature of solos, it’s harder to present many different viewpoints on the same material. There are exceptions — solo artist Anna Deavere Smith presents many viewpoints and goes out of her way to let the public know that her characters are based on actual recorded interviews that are edited, of course, but more or less otherwise verbatim. But many a solo artist seems to feel that the power of his or her personality should overwhelm any concerns we might feel about the alternative ways in which their stories might have been told.

I’m not going to name names here. Precisely because I haven’t personally fact-checked or seen any reliable vetting of these artists’ work, I don’t want to cast aspersions on artists who may have stuck to the facts, even though they didn’t provide any public assurances about it. The point at which questions should be asked and facts should be checked is before — not after — the performance takes place.

So how should producers know whether and when to ask those questions?

Well, classics companies probably don’t have to worry about it. Nor do producers of shows that are very obviously fantastical or otherwise fictional.

Of course there is such a thing as “historical fiction” in the theater as well as in novels. These narratives sometimes mention real people and events from the past. Most of us have seen solo shows about historical figures in which the premise of the show is fictional — the Great Person is reminiscing about his or her life at an event that probably didn’t take place. But we’re supposed to believe everything that the person says about himself or herself.

Producers — and perhaps dramaturges — should probably do at least a little of their own independent research before they agree to present a script like this, just to make sure that the history isn’t being mangled (and that the words aren’t being plagiarized from real historians or biographers — a phenomenon that I discovered in one show that I reviewed for the LA Times, a long time ago).

But as the material gets closer to undiluted non-fiction, to the present day, to controversial issues and to living people, producers should invest even more time and resources in vetting the script. I’ve always assumed that major companies such as New York Public Theater and Center Theatre Group do this to a certain extent, that they even run checks with libel lawyers as well as with less glorified fact-checkers if the material is particularly inflammatory. But all of that is harder to do for lower-level producers and companies — and of course, even the Public Theater’s exalted status didn’t prevent it from getting egg on its face in the Daisey case.

A scene from the 2004 Colony Theatre production of “The Laramie Project”; Photo by Michael Lamont

Some observers have complained that too much is being made of the Daisey case, that the theater is essentially about fiction, that theater is subjective while journalism is objective, blah blah blah. This argument does both journalism and the theater a disservice.

It’s obvious that journalism is more subjective than ever these days — but that doesn’t mean that subjective journalists should disregard the facts. It’s also obvious that theaters can use journalistic, ostensibly more “objective” techniques to tell their stories, sometimes to great polemical effect — The Laramie Project, the Civilians, LA’s own Cornerstone Theater. But it’s incumbent on these theater artists, more than the artists who work only with “fiction,” to be very precise about the facts. If either subjective journalists or subjective theater artists aren’t careful about the facts, they can weaken the arguments they’re making. Just ask Daisey.

Melody Butiu and Gregory Itzin in the 2007 SCR premiere of “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment”

I first heard about the Daisey controversy while listening to This American Life on my way to see a revival of Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen at South Coast Repertory. The last Margulies premiere I had seen at South Coast was Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself). As those who saw it at South Coast or, a year later, at the Geffen may recall, Shipwrecked! is about a storyteller who became famous for his thrilling adventures abroad, before his stories were eventually exposed as a hoax.

Daisey is no de Rougemont, at least not in terms of their apparent goals. Daisey wanted to expose workers’ conditions in China that clearly need additional exposure, even if his twisting of the facts might have harmed that effort. De Rougemont was in it mostly for the glory and the remuneration.

However, the road from Daisey to de Rougemont could easily descend on a slippery slope, and anyone who tries to tell true stories in the theater should take heed not to slip.

TROUSER ROLES, JUKEBOX MUSICALS: Don’t ask me to go into all the details about the two new musicals I saw over the weekend. The plots are, uh, complicated. But both of them involve the familiar Shakespearean convention of young heroines dressed as young men — at least in part to achieve greater proximity to the real young men they’re pursuing.

Matt Walker, Christine Lakin, Monica Schneider and Rob Nagle in “Two Gentlemen of Chicago”

They’re also jukebox musicals of a sort, in that they use other people’s familiar tunes. But the music is from very different eras, and rights and royalties aren’t involved in either show, for different reasons.

Troubadour Theater’s The Two Gentlemen of Chicago uses the music of, duh, Chicago (the group, as opposed to the city), mostly from 1969 and the ’70s. The Troubies don’t have to pay royalties because they’re satirists who do parodies, which are allowed according to the experts at the University of Troubie Law School.

Hello! My Baby, at the Rubicon in Ventura, is set about a century ago, give or take a few years, and uses music from that pre-jukebox era — in other words, songs that are now in the public domain.

In Hello! My Baby, the protagonists are song pluggers, who hit the streets of New York performing the latest ditties, trying to sell the sheet music in order to create a wave of popular appeal. I was reminded of fledgling artists today who make a video, slap it on YouTube and do what they can to make it go viral.

The cast of “Hello! My Baby”; Photo by Daniel P. Lam

Cheri Steinkellner has devised an ingenious plot — much of it tongue in cheek — around the songs, adding new lyrics to help point some of them in the direction of her characters. The whole thing “steams like a locomotive” — which, she says in a program note, was part of her goal. It’s a very lively, albeit very retro entertainment.

I hope it goes far, in part because it marks Rubicon’s return to a much bigger show — with 22 actors (including George Wendt, one of the stars of Steinkellner’s old series Cheers) and a four-piece band — after a period of smaller productions, dictated by the necessity to pay off debts during the economic crisis. Director Brian McDonald keeps the production at Rubicon’s usual high standards.

Troubie standards are always up there, too, and they remain so in Matt Walker’s staging of this mash-up of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona with Chicago hits. Chicago is known for its brassy sound, and the Troubies band, led by Eric Heinly is up to the challenge, supplemented by trombone blasts from actor Morgan Rusler, playing the father of one of the two gentlemen.

Beth Kennedy, Roosevelt the Pug and Matthew Morgan in “Two Gentlemen of Chicago”

What I’ll remember the most from this Troubie production is the participation of Rob Nagle, who doubles as one of the artistic directors of the Antaeus classical company. Not only is it fun to see the classical guy treating Shakespeare with such inspired irreverence, but it’s even more fun to see him in the evening’s most ridiculous costume, designed by Sharon McGunigle. And, if you read the bios in the program, you’ll see that Nagle and his wife provided the services of Roosevelt the Pug, playing Crab the Dog. I hope I’m not forgetting some inspired four-legged performance in another Troubie show, but Roosevelt’s performance makes any other animal actors in Troubie shows easy to forget.

Hello! My Baby, Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wed 2 and 7 pm, Thur-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes April 15. 805-667-2900.

Two Gentlemen of Chicago, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wed-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes April 22. 818-955-8101.

***All Two Gentlemen of Chicago production photos by Chelsea Sutton


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Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.