It did not take Alex Lyras long to realize that there was something uniquely different about performing Mike Daisey's solo play The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Sitting in the Farmers Market on a recent afternoon after getting the bum's rush by a Grove security guard over an impromptu but unauthorized photo shoot by this L.A. Weekly reporter in front of the mall's Apple Store, Lyras recounts the first time he did the controversial monologue as a warm-up for a show scheduled for his alma mater. Unlike performances of his own work, where “when you walk out afterwards [and] people are lit up,” the veteran actor-writer and monologist remembers, there was little ecstasy in evidence following the Daisey piece.
“We had a hundred people at the Lillian Theatre,” Lyras recalls, “and I walked out ready to see my friends. And they're like, 'We feel like shit. Thank you for dropping that bomb on us. We have to go.' Like the joy after was not there. There was a lot of discussion, but I just remember seeing a bunch of people not make eye contact with me, and I was like, 'Oh my god, did I have a hole in my pants?' Like what happened?”
Whatever else might have happened, it became clear that performing a piece that takes on computer manufacturers — and specifically Apple's Chinese iPad and iPhone operations — over the harsh and sometimes dangerous working conditions of their overseas factories wasn't going to win Lyras unconditional love and adulation. At least not from an iPhone-packing L.A. audience of actors and Hollywood industry types at Theatre Asylum, where his run performing the show begins today.
But the experience also confirmed the uncommon power of the muckraking show that Lyras sensed when he first heard it featured on Public Radio International's This American Life. It was its unflinching social relevance — its ability to affect and directly implicate an audience — that drew Lyras to the piece in the first place. “There isn't a person in that theater or out here in the world, driving around L.A., who doesn't have one of these devices,” he points out. “It's amazing what people don't know — still — about what's going on. The reason we can [afford to] buy these devices. And everybody who claims they're broke — all my actor friends and all my writer friends who claim they're broke — have a laptop and an iPhone and a phone plan. So this is an important piece. It's social theater and the best thing that people need to know is that it made a difference.”
It certainly made a difference to Daisey. The New York-based “extemporaneous storyteller” had won acclaim in the previous decade for weaving personal memoir and righteous outrage into emotionally probing and subversive assaults on everything from corporate culture (2001's 21 Dog Years) to Nikola Tesla and software giant Microsoft (2005's Monopoly!) to the financial collapse of 2007-2008 (2009's The Last Cargo Cult). But it was only after Ira Glass featured Daisey's Public Theatre performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy on TAL that the monologist became a household name.
The Jan. 6, 2012 broadcast quickly catapulted Daisey from the theater section to the front page. It also pointed a negative-publicity blowtorch at Apple that a week later resulted in the company loosening its tightly-held secrecy and finally releasing a list of its suppliers along with an internal audit detailing their factory workplace conditions.
Unfortunately, Daisey's sudden high profile proved to be his undoing. The China correspondent for the American Public Media radio program Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, who lives in Shanghai, heard the broadcast and became suspicious about details in Daisey's description of visiting the giant Foxconn iPad and iPhone plant in Shenzhen. Schmitz flew to Shenzhen and his investigation revealed that Daisey had fabricated some of the most emotionally incendiary moments of the monologue.
The resulting firestorm put Daisey himself onto the hot seat, most notably in a subsequent TAL program in which Glass issued an official retraction and grilled the performer on the fabrications and about lying to TAL fact checkers. That program led to a formal apology by the Public Theater's Oskar Eustis and to Daisey excising the disputed material from an ethically corrected version of the script that he then made available online under an open license.
It is a tribute to both Daisey's artistry and the truth of the old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity that the performer has emerged from the controversy with something of a succès de scandale; thus far over 100,000 copies of the script have been downloaded from Daisey's website and more than 40 international productions are in the works (including one scheduled for next year in China).
As far as Lyras is concerned, the dispute boiled down to two words that Daisey left off the theater program. “'Based on' — those two words would have saved him all the trouble,” the actor insists. “So just like Steve Jobs kind of lost sight of his original design and got a little greedy, I think Mike Daisey was guilty of the same mistake. … He wanted the truth [without] the facts. And it's odd, because I don't want strict journalism in the theater. I want something theatricalized. And when you remove this [disputed] stuff, which was not difficult to do, the piece holds up beautifully. … The piece is the piece. [It] doesn't need vindication.”
Moreover, Lyras says that there's still more than enough truth left over to power an evening. “When you look at what's made up,” he argues, “it's inconsequential to me in terms of the larger story. The larger story is that Apple is exploiting their workers and putting up a different image. Like Apple is the company that said 'think different' and usurped John Lennon's image and the Dalai Lama's image. And here's a company that goes on to exploit their workers like every other company. So not much different thinking there. … That [hypocrisy] is the larger message.”
Not that Lyras will be performing Daisey's exact script. In fact, Daisey himself never exactly performed The Agony and Ecstasy from a script. The monologist, who considers himself a live storyteller, weaves each individual performance afresh from a basic outline, much like a teacher delivering a lecture. So no show is exactly like the previous evening's. To produce an actual text for downloading, Daisey had to transcribe audio recordings from three different live performances and reconcile them into a single “authoritative” version.
Likewise, Lyras has had to tailor what was a first-person narrative into something that can be acted. “I am not playing [Daisey],” Lyras notes. “But I am doing this as if I had gone to China and done all of this. And it works that way.” What he has changed, Lyras assures, is only what was absolutely necessary. “When I looked at the script as it was,” he recalls, “I felt the extemporaneousness was probably great in [his] performance but not great on the page. … And I trimmed a lot of his personal style doing it. Some of that is not appropriate. He talks about being an overweight guy and wearing a Hawaiian shirt and that type of stuff that I didn't need to tell the story.”
Behind Lyras's evident passion for its script, however, there is the sense of another, unspoken motive for performing The Agony and Ecstasy. After studying philosophy as an undergraduate, Lyras had originally enrolled at Chicago's John Marshall Law School before being seduced by the theater. Perhaps taking on Daisey's cause offers him a taste of the crusading attorney he might have been.
Or, as Lyras says, “I'm impressed. This guy really had an impact and policy changed at Apple partly because of him. … I mean, an actor took on a corporation and effected change. That is huge.”
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs opens February 20 at Theatre Asylum.