A few weeks ago, I got the chance to interview Mike Daisey, a TBA favorite who will be returning this year to perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a new monologue about how the game-changing design of Apple products comes with horrific labor and environmental consequences. Daisey spoke with me from Seattle, where he was premiering Agony and preparing for a three-week run in India.
It's a pretty good interview—I just sat there and occasionally made encouraging noises as I was treated to what amounted to a monologue for one, ranging from why China is terrifying to how performing is like flying an airplane to what inspired Daisey to take on Steve Jobs' empire in the first place. (Lest that make it sound like Daisey is simply enthralled with the sound of his own voice, after the business of the interview had concluded, when we'd been on the phone for an hour or so, he shifted gears to chat about TBA and ask for some suggestions as to what to see.)
The full transcript of the interview is after the jump; if you're a fan of Daisey's, or if you're curious about what his live show might bring, it's a nice little preview of what his upcoming shows have to offer.
Have you ever been to India before?
No never, never. It came together very, very suddenly. We were in Australia at the Sydney Opera House performing this May and I got an email from the U.S. Consulate that actually seemed like a spam email at first, because I don’t get a lot of emails from the U.S. Consulate. And the email said “We are in need of an American monologist and we heard you were the best.” So I’m going—I’m being called by my country, I guess. I don’t know—it’s pretty strange. But it’s exciting. We’re going to do these shows in these five cities and they’re free to the public; all the logistics we’ve been shown so far say that the shows will be very, very large. The first space seats 1100 people. They’re anticipating it being completely full. I think it will be really interesting and I’ve got workshops set up with tons and tons of people from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds. I’ll be talking to them about story telling and about their lives and I’m doing visits to call centers and lots of other work projects all over India while we’re there in all the different cities. So I’m really excited about it.
Will you be gathering material for another show, while you’re there?
Well you know…. one of the things I’ve discovered over the years is that the best way to live a terrible life is if you mediate your life through the lens of work. So I really try assiduously to not use my life as material, or at least to not use my life as material as it’s happening. Because if you do that then you’re not actually there, you’re not actually present when things are happening to you in your life. Instead you’re offset, you’re in background watching yourself live through an experience, thinking “Ahh, this will be fascinating material.” And I don’t think people are material and I don’t think it’s very very humanizing for us to go through life that way. At the same time, it’s sort of an inevitable impulse—I think everyone has those moments when we step outside ourselves and we see something happening and we think it’s a fantastic story. But I actually struggle pretty hard to not do that so… the short answer is no, but the more complex answer is to say that I’ve never been to India and I do think it’s going to be far outside the usual sphere of my day to day life, and things that are extreme often provoke stories. But I’m going to do everything I can not to anticipate them. I’ll just try to put myself in interesting situations and see what happens.
It seems like one of the side effects of the rise of social networking and blogging is that everyone is thinking of their lives as material.
The opportunity that social networking affords is the opportunity to collapse both time and space. But especially space, so that disparate voices feel as if they’re very close to us, but at the same time the density of information actually transmitted is so thin, compared to the richness of actual human contact. Very little data gets transmitted in those forms—they’re very, very thin forms. An there’s a risk that I think we all suffer from through one degree or another—a kind of blindness where we assume that the edges of the network are actually the edges of experience, the edges of life. And we start to believe that everything that’s findable is on the network, and therefore we know the totality of everything there is to know. Which can lead to tremendous blind spots which, I would argue, is a large part is what I’m investigating in the Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. It’s a story about multiple things, but it is in part the giant excavation of a giant blind spot in the first world’s consciousness, which is where the objects that we live with and use come from.
Why does that blind spot exist? People are willing to think in a critical way about where their food or where their T-shirts come from—why aren’t we thinking about where our iPhones come from?
Because no one told us to yet. We only think about where our T-shirts come from because there was a mediated, weighed, incisive campaign done that talks specifically about sweatshop labor—that’s the only reason that there’s awareness about labor conditions in that industry. And we think about where our food comes from for much the same reasons. There’s been a concerted effort to make that rise into consciousness. So you know, one of the things that we’re also blind to is that we don’t actually think about anything that we don’t need to think about—and since that hasn’t risen into our consciousness, we don’t think about it. The default state is not that we do think about things, the default state is that we don’t. It’s very natural that we don’t, but the level of blindness is staggering. Like the fact that, almost everything we use—are you on a landline?
Over half of the electronics that exist, certainly the telephone I’m talking to you on the network switches that are connecting our voices right now—all the things for the most part come from southern China. They come from a city called Shenzhen that sits in southern China that has fourteen million people in it. It’s larger and denser than New York City. Despite the fact that everything we fucking use comes from the same place, no one knows the name of this city. And so it’s pretty staggering to think that there’s a region with 30 million people in it—there’s a city that’s larger than New York City and 30 years ago, that city was a fishing village with five thousand people in it. There was nothing there. And now it’s bigger than New York City and your stuff all comes from there and yet no one knows it. People instead simply know that their things come from China in a sort of abstracted way. And I think there’s a degree of willfulness about it but also, you know, all the forces in our sphere work towards that apathy. Certainly the people that sell you the objects are not incentivized to talk up where they’re actually coming from. It might make it more unpleasant for us if we thought more about where they’re coming from. So until there’s actually action, until something happens it’s going to remain silent. I mean it was for me, I didn’t think about Shenzhen ever. I didn’t know anything, really about about where my electronics come from, where my objects come from until I began to work in a systematic way on this project.
Was there a specific moment when you began to think about it?
Yeah, there was. My only hobby is technology. I’m really obsessed with technology. And I’m a huge Apple fan and Apple user and have been for my entire life. One of the ways that I relax is I read Macintosh rumors, Macintosh news sites, and I just keep track of all the tech news. I open tabs in my Firefox browser and read ten, 15 pages at a time, going from tab to tab to tab. And one day, this was a couple of years ago, there was this item that popped up where someone had gotten their iPhone and—when you get an iPhone it doesn’t actually do anything when you first get it because you need to connect it to iTunes. But this person got their iPhone and it actually already had an operating system installed. What happened was, the phone had still had the operating system that was installed on it at the factory because they put an OS on it in the factory to test it and then they blank it and send it here. So the person dove into the phone, because the person was a geek, and in the camera roll of the iPhone, they found a bunch of pictures from inside the factory and they posted the images online. And I became deeply obsessed with those pictures. Because I had this incredible moment of disconnection where I know so much about these machines—I know them, in some ways, better than I know myself. But I did not understand even who these people were. And that was the beginning. That was when I started investigating.
Were there pictures of people on the camera?
Yeah, what it was, this particular camera roll—there have been a couple others discovered now, every once in a while one doesn’t get blanked and what they do is take a couple of test shots with the camera. They’re not particularly pointed at anything, they’re just testing the camera. I remember one shot was of the edge of the conveyor belt, and there was another shot that looked like a stack of pallets, and another shot that was very out of focus that looked like it could be an enormous space, and then the last shot was of a woman. She doesn’t know that the picture is being taken of her but her head is turned to the side. She’s looking off in another direction, she’s dressed all in white. And I downloaded all these pictures off the website where I saw them and put them in a folder on my desktop and I started looking at them like they were porn. When I didn’t have anything else to do, I would open all of them and use Expose to spray them across my desktop and I would just look at all the pictures. And I did that for a very long time, like for, oh my God, maybe the better part of a year, thinking about them, thinking about these people. And starting to use the fact that I read all these news sites already for pleasure, to really start thinking in a structured way about who are these companies, the subcontractors that actually make everything, where did these things come from, how are they made? And that was the beginning of my investigation.
Do you have an activist agenda with this piece?
Yes. The intention is manifold, the show is about our objects and where they come from and the cost that they have. It’s also about the history of industrial design and the idea that if you control the interface to something, then you control the thing itself. So it’s both a celebration of the objects that are made, and to some degree a condemnation of the way in which they are made. The storylines fit unusually next to each other and comment back and forth on one another. And I hope that tension is part of what makes it rise about being a polemic—because the objects are still lovely, the objects are still extraordinary, and they are tools that allows us to extend the edges of what human beings can do. Apple objects are tremendously designed—[Apple is] fantastic, they’re the only people in the tech industry who actually have a point of view. It’s a tremendous thing to study Steve Jobs, this fascinating person who’s welded his own personality to a corporate structure. As someone really obsessed with corporatism, I just find that absolutely fascinating in a variety of contexts.
It sounds like your relationship to these objects is pretty conflicted.
Well, I think that anyone who’s not conflicted about their relationship to these objects is ignorant. I think that when they are aware of the circumstances of the objects creation and then the ways in which the objects are coming to existence, and the price that is paid in human blood by the people who make them and our complicity in the creation of them and our complicity with a fascist government run by thugs that steals the freedoms from their people, and then we use those people to the bone to make them. I think once you fully understand that, I think that one has to be conflicted about them. That’s actually inherent in the webwork of what they are.
To change the subject a bit, have you read For the Win, the new Cory Doctorow Book?
You know, I haven’t yet. I’ve heard it’s good but I was planning on trying to read it soon.
It’s set in large part in Shenzhen, but in the near future so it kind of extrapolates what the city will look like in a few years.
Well that’s interesting, I’ll have to check that out. Being in Shenzhen feels like being in the future already, so it’s interesting to even think about it extrapolated. That almost seems beside the point, because it actually feels so much more modern than anywhere I’ve ever been on Earth. In the core of it, but then of course you get beyond the edge of the special economic zone and you go through gates and go out into the factory zone and it feels like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Although that’s not strictly correct. More accurate would be to say that it’s a landscape that’s sort of in an apocalypse just because of construction. There’s an incredible amount of construction, building and unbuilding constantly throughout the factory zone. And then of course the factories themselves, which are these incredible enclaves where the people are [usually] kept in dormitories, like serfs who are in the special economic zone because they have their papers, which could be revoked at any time. And then they are kept penned up in these buildings and used as labor.
How much access did you have to those factories and dormitories?
Well, I had all the access that I chose to take for myself. I sought no one’s permission for anything. I lied a great deal to a huge number of people. I went to factories, pretending to be an American businessman on behalf of fictitious American companies, with fake business cards, and convinced them to give me full tours of all their facilities. And I did that to a huge number of factories.
What would’ve happened if you’d been caught?
Well I would presume that what would probably happen is that I would at the very least go to jail and then be deported but more likely, I could be charged with committing an act of journalism, which—people are often not aware—is a crime in China. But I’d be charged with an act of journalism and then I would go to prison and then I would be released from prison, I assume by my embassy who would agitate for my release. Although that’s not always guaranteed, that either they would agitate hard enough, or that they would release me.
Were you scared?
Yes. It was very terrifying. Being in China is terrifying.
Yes, China is absolutely terrifying. And anyone who does not find China terrifying is also ignorant.
What is terrifying about it?
What is terrifying is that it is an enormous country of one and a third billion people who live in a totalitarian regime ruled by fascist thugs and unfortunately, we have aided and abetted them opening to the West, so that now people—we all know people who’ve been to China and say that “Oh yeah, China, I was in Beijing, I went to the Forbidden City. It’s pretty okay.” But if you want to understand a fascist regime, you need to go there intending to do something they don’t want you to do. And when you walk into a country in that context, things become very clear very quickly. And so I think that we actually do an enormous amount of propaganda on behalf of China. And I think that everyone that travels to China and doesn’t open their eyes to the realities of what that country is actually like and what their leadership is like, is doing a grave disservice to everyone.
What kind of response do you think you’ll get in India to a show about working conditions in China?
Well first, I don’t really have an expectation about the response I’m going to get. And I’m deeply curious about how it’s going to go. That’s the first thing. The second is that I do know that India as a country is obsessed with China, and obsessed with China’s labor practices. And very much sees itself in a sort of direct relationship and competition with China about the shape of the future. And I’m fascinated about going from China, this huge, labor engine that runs the world under a fascist system, and going then to India, this huge labor system running under a democratic system. Now, there are a lot of freedoms that should be more free in India, and certainly there are a huge number of things I would change if I could about the way China functions. But I’m fascinated to see how both labor markets interrelate to one another. And I do think that India has a tremendous number of people who are interested in technology and interested in technology issues, so I think the core concerns of the show will resonate.
What will be very interesting is that a huge amount of the show now is built around a first world audience, and so it’s really going to be interesting to see how I translate it on the fly and what it is like performing it for these people and then in the context of their experience. And I’m really excited to see what I learn from being there, and also what the monologue learns because the monologue’s in a very young state right now. I just performed it yesterday for the sixth time so it’s still shifting and bending in an enormous amount. I expect that the time in India will play a big role in shaping how it eventually is when it comes back here to America, as well.
So your monologues are constantly evolving?
Oh, constantly. They’re living things so no, there’s no sort end point. Except for the obvious endpoint, that I will die, at which point the monologues will cease. Otherwise, no. They tend to enter a kind of repertory over time because inevitably some other young monologue needs to get itself born and occupies a majority of my time. Like, did you see The Last Cargo Cult when it was in Portland?
So that was quite early for its life cycle. That show still exists, but it’s now quite mature and much like a person who’s matured, it doesn’t change an enormous amount from telling to telling—although it doesn’t get done as often, so it changes more because it hasn’t been done in awhile. But yeah, they all enter a kind of repertory with the other monologues and it’s sort like a middle age or something, I don’t know. Right now the Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is very young. It’s probably like a teenager or late junior high—it’s rebellious, it’s figuring out its identity, it’s still not complete. It’s fairly clear what path it might walk down and like what skills and tools it has to get through its life, but it’s not totally clear what final choices it’s going to make. So it’s an interesting time.
Is it a source of fear or anxiety for you, not knowing how the monologue is going to come together until you’re onstage?
Well, this presupposes a couple of reactions. It presupposes that the feeling of not knowing what is going to happen next evokes terror. I would actually argue that not truly knowing what happens next generates drama and it generates suspense and actually generates life. What creates kinetic force in performance is the momentum of rolling forward into things that are not known, and then the act of knowing creates a presence on stage that is undeniably real, as opposed to acting, which as you know is the use of the theatrical arts to create the perception that someone is fully present. But it’s not the same as being fully present. And so I definitely, on the spectrum, feel terrified constantly, but the feelings that one associates with terror, those feelings of being in command of a story that’s unspooling and having this direct control over what happens next and then having four or five or 600 people waiting to hear the next part of the story as you tell it—that’s actually just reality. That’s actually just the recognition of what it is that’s actually happening. That’s actually a survival instinct. That’s the human animal telling itself, “What you’re doing matters and you’re in control of this room and people are giving you the gift of their attention and it matters what you say next.”
So all the things that we often see as negatives, stage fright, the terror of being onstage, a lot of it is because the focusing of energy that occurs in a room, the anthropological effect of having all these people coalesce into an audience, is terrifying, because it’s so overwhelming and so powerful. The harnessing and the using of that energy is actually the central act, the mimetic act of telling a monologue and of dramatic performance. So when I’m really in danger is when I don’t feel that at all. When I don’t feel that energy which some people define as nerves and that we all use different words for—if you don’t feel it at all that’s exceedingly dangerous. That actually means something is disconnected inside of me or is disconnected inside of the space. And I know from long experience if I feel that before a show, if I feel that before we start, I need to take a step back and reassess immediately and find out what’s disconnected and get it connected, because [otherwise] we’re going to have a terrible accident.
Have you developed coping mechanisms you use in those situations?
Yeah, I like to believe that I have. You know for a large part, none of them are terribly interesting to hear about. Most performance is a lot like learning to fly. Have you ever known anyone who got their pilot’s license?
The way it works with pilot licensing is the actual rules of flying a plane, the actual mechanics of it. are not terribly complicated. But when you learn to fly a plane, the consequences of failure are of course incredibly high, so the way that one learns to fly is that they’re trained and then you fly with an instructor and then you have to, with an instructor, put in a lot of time. Hours and hours and hours. And I believe that’s true of performance too. Many of the tasks you learn derive from the subconscious and evolve in incredibly minute adjustments of attitude and stance that can’t actually be encapsulated in human speech.
It is very difficult for me to explain the way that someone should run down the street. I would have a very hard time explaining which ligaments should tense up and how the leg should rise—it’s pretty much impossible to transmit that. Instead people just run and if they want to get better they run more. In the same way, most acting instruction is pointless on the face of it, because what matters is actually performing in front of audiences and working with rooms of people. That is where you spend your flight time and that is actually where you learn your craft. Some people have a tremendous capacity to teach and transmit tools that have then become useful through the flight time and I know there’ve been some great instructors a couple different places in my life. But the truth is, most of it is in spending the time. And I know the only time that counts is time with audiences and through that yes, I hope to have the tools that let me do my job.
Can you talk a bit about the other piece you’re doing for TBA, Notes Toward All Hours in the Day?
Well, we do these performances called “Notes Toward” and then the name. Some people would call these workshops, but that term doesn’t really apply because of the way workshops get used. Like for example a workshop of a written script would often have material in the written script that would be presumed to be in the later work. Whereas these “notes toward” performances are literally notes towards something else. And in this case we’re doing it very early because I’m hoping—we’re planning to do All Hours in the Day a year from this fall, so fall of 2011—so this is an incredibly early one. but it’s because of the scale of the project, because All the Hours in the Day is currently conceived as a 24-hour monologue. It’s a huge undertaking and so the performance that I will be doing will be about the performance to come and will be about the terms, the stakes, why I’m doing it, the shape that we’re hoping it will have, how it will be structured as a performance. So in a sense it will be a performance about a performance. It will also be funny. It’ll give a lot of clues, not only for the audience but also for me. I do a lot of thinking out loud as I perform it. So we’re doing this one-day event to begin to figure out the largest strokes of what it’ll contain. But the essential thing is that All the Hours in the Day is a 24-hour monologue that will be performed probably from 9 pm on a Friday to 9 pm on a Saturday and it’s 24 interlocking monologues, each of which is 45 minutes to 50 minutes or so, and it tells one full, complete story, with many many threads.
How do you stay for that long?
I don’t know. I mean, that’s part of the experiment of it. I’ve certainly been studying a lot of endurance-based performances. There aren’t very many performances in history on that scale, at least ones also that want to hold people’s attention. Because of course there’s Philip Glass operas and things that—where they’re huge works but they’re sort of assuming the absence of the attention of an audience, know what I mean? Like sort of endurance-based performances. And of course there are performance art pieces that don’t assume an audience at all, where the performance would continue whether there was an audience there or not. This is not that. This is actually a monologue in the structural way that monologues exist now, it’s a story being relayed to an audience, but it’s being relayed for 24 hours. And so, the structure of it is going to be derived in part from one of my favorite dramatic forms, new dramatic forms, which is the modern prime time television series which you know, most, like Lost, they tend to be seasons of like 24 episodes and each is around 45 minutes long. So in other words if you watch one hour of this piece, it will be self-contained in the sense that you’ll get a small dramatic arc, you’ll get some kind of payoff, but the threads that run through the entire thing are actually unified, and as you follow them through the entire story, it tells a really large story.
Yeah, it is. It actually is interesting. We can only guesstimate the length and size of it, but based on how many words when we transcribe them are in monologues that I usually do, the scale of this piece will be about two and a half War and Peace’s. Like if you actually transcribe it all. So it’s an enormous canvas, so I’ve been doing a tremendous amount of research in a wide variety of subjects and I think I have a sense of the very largest stakes I want to talk about. A lot of it I think we’ll use. The fact that it’s an endurance-based performance, I think we’ll be talking a lot about the time zones of the Earth. And I think the stories will range around the entire planet. And I suspect there will be a large number of reoccurring characters who sort of weave in and out and it will be this tremendously large story. We’ve got a commitment from TBA to do it there, we hope, next year, and part of the reason we’re doing this now is to look towards the future. The hope is to do it in a few other contexts. That’s one of the things that’s interesting about it, is that our work exists within the business context of America. So we create these monologues and they’re imminently performable and they find audience bases, and they’re all about the same size. They’re all about two hours long, sometimes a little longer, sometimes a little bit shorter. So one of the goals was to create something that did not obey the rules of the theater. And so as a consequence, we can only do it at festivals, we can only do it in circumstances where we think we might find enough people who want to try to put their arms around a story of this magnitude. So the plan is to do it only a few times. We’re hoping to do it at TBA and we’re hoping to do it in New York and then we may do it in a few other places around the globe. We’re talking to these people in Vienna, we’re talking about doing it at the Sydney Opera House and then that’ll be it. And then we’ll record all the performances but each time it’ll happen only once for one day and that’s all.
Your monologues tend to integrate your personal experience with broader issues in a way that never feels self-indulgent. Is that the result of a deliberate effort on your part?
Well, I actually I think that it’s very interesting. I have an answer that I don’t think is terrifically in vogue, which is I think that the very construction of that sort of question is part of the real trap, which is that fundamentally that there’s a problem with people talking about themselves. I actually think that there’s a very serious strain of intense Puritanism that runs through America that makes us unwilling to actually voice for ourselves. I’m very suspicious of that impulse where we talk about, you know, “What if it seems like it’s just me talking?” At the same time it’s so clear there’s such a hunger for voice, there’s a hunger to speak. The real problem is, are you living a compelling, realized life? I mean that’s really the problem. Because I actually talk about myself constantly. I use the framework of believing that what I perform on stage should reflect what I'm passionately interested in and then I try to use a judicious litmus test of what is it that my society is not talking about, what is it that I wish they were, where should I put pressure to create points where change can actually be made possible? Because that’s what interests me.
Seen through that context, the work that I create tends to be about things that are outside of myself because, if you think about it, most human beings spend most of their time reflecting on things outside themselves. So I actually always am very suspicious we have to brand autobiographies dangerous or insular or inward-looking. Because I think that all great work comes out of an autobiographical context. Every person, before they create the work they create, needs to live a life that gives birth to that work. For me the biggest question is whether the work I’m making is the most essential work. Because I’m fascinated by a huge number of things, but what I’m actually taking the time to perform has to be the most essential thing that I need to say and that my society needs to hear. And only when those things come together, only then should the work actually be coming up to the surface. And so by trying to be judicious about that, that’s the way that I try to weigh what it is that I want to speak and when and how I do it. And so if it feels like the work is not accessibly autobiographical, I think it’s because I’m really interested in the things that are happening to us and around us and I think other people are as well. And the very act of speaking is so different than the act of autobiographical writing which, in a sense, is sending words down onto a page. The page could be read or perhaps it will never be read or the screen will be read or perhaps it vanishes into electrons. I mean there’s that whole question of whether a diary exists if it’s not read and so on and so forth. But a monologue is something else entirely. A monologue has to be listened to. Because if there’s not an audience, one is not speaking. So this actually obviates a lot of these problems because you simply do not speak unless people are listening. If you have not managed to collect an audience, if you haven’t found people to listen, you know you haven’t realized the circumstances under which your art can be born and the thing can happen. So I think that that’s sort of the second prong of how it avoids a degree of feeling insular or sort of self-serving is that the very form of the work makes that less possible and probably why I don’t worry about it that much. If I actually used a sort of puritanical bar, if I asked myself on a regular basis, you know, “Do people really need to hear about this?” I would never speak of anything. I would very rapidly cross things off my list that were too much this or too little that or too shameful and before you know it, I have nothing to say at all. And so, I think that the truth lies somewhere in a locus of those things.