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The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
on Sunday 10 June 2012
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Performer Mike Daisey presented The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in the US in March 2012. Termed a “protest-play” by La Mama Theatre promotional material, it combines an account of the progress of Apple computers co-founder Steve Jobs to wealth and influence with a description of a factory in Shenzhen China where a new slave class makes the iPads and iPhones desired by Western gadget lovers. Well, that’s what the play claims. So how should the audience feel if the play isn’t accurate on some details, or many details for that matter?

The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

The La Mama blurb informs us that following Daisey’s performances, his specific claims of worker exploitation in Shenzhen were shown to be fictional and the media and the public debated the work. Richard Pettifer’s performance of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is described as a work “…presented in its original, unedited form”, bookended by (according to the programme notes) a sound file of author Daisey being interrogated about the accuracy of his depiction of conditions experienced by Shenzhen factory workers.

The problem I have with this performance is that it is difficult to respond to a work honestly if you don’t understand what it is trying to achieve. As a first reaction, it is tempting to dismiss the furore surrounding the original performance; while a theatrical performance may be inspired by real events and intend to make us think about an issue, you would expect that an audience would distinguish this from a documentary – we don’t generally expect theatre to make the same attempt at objective reporting we would expect of journalism. Why should an audience feel mislead by a work of fiction? Maybe if they didn’t know that it was fiction; my reaction to a presentation would depend on the way it was framed. Were the original audience of this play expecting an information session, something like An Inconvenient Truth, on a multinational corporation without regard for workers in developing countries? If so, then the audience that took umbrage with Apple swallowed a story; maybe because their emotions made them surrender their scepticism, maybe because confirmation bias means that we collect information that supports what we already think. Is this the story here?

The expectations of the original audience are unknown to me at this point. However, if the audience for this Melbourne premiere season of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs had read anything about the performance then they would have known prior to attending that they were not about to view a documentary. This, combined with frequent interruptions to the monologue as Pettifer misremembered his lines and restarted scenes (he acknowledges in his notes that he is not a trained actor), made it very difficult to be drawn in to the performance. While Pettifer did generally maintain his American accent and did achieve a convincing tech-obsessed character concerned about factory workers in China, the pauses and backtracking did make the piece feel somewhat lengthy.

So what was Pettifer trying to achieve with this performance? Turning to the somewhat diffuse performance notes, it feels like we’ve just walked in on a thought process that is still at the stage of forming associations. Pettifer writes about having some sort of insight into the purpose of Mike Daisey’s performance, and then writes, “And I mean that I have totes no idea about what was going on, and if you ask me to explain it I can’t tell you, I just KNEW, I just KNOW.” From my interpretation of the rest of his notes, Pettifer seems to suggest that long-time Apple fanatic Daisey actually did go to Shenzhen because he suspected poor labour conditions in China and thought himself complicit in allowing this to happen through buying Apple’s wares. What Daisey saw in factories made him want to hold Apple to account, and he embellished his observations in his play to stir up an audience reaction. Can we surmise that like Daisey, Pettifer wants his audience to feel some sort of accountability for their role as consumers?

Glancing at some posts on the blog agonyecstasymelbourne.blogspot.com, Pettifer seemed concerned prior to this season that Australians were too wrapped up in their good life to be interested in this performance concerned with oppressed workers. I think that you can reach an audience if political commentary is part of a compelling story. I remember being disturbed by a production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, the tragic true story of an American activist killed in the Gaza strip whilst helping Palestinians defend their home from destruction. That production showed me that to communicate with an audience you may need to bring them along with you, and realise that not everyone has the time or energy to follow every debate happening around the world. Move your audience and they will help spread the message, which would ease Pettifer’s other concern about the relevance of the artist.

Pettifer obviously feels passionately about the unthinking exploitation of developing countries by consumerism, and while passion is vital in an artist, so is the ability to communicate. I wonder if Pettifer might have been better off using Daisey’s work as an inspiration to use his own voice –  analyse the conflicting viewpoints in the debate that followed the original performance and provoke the audience to think about this rather than giving us a punchline and then telling us the story.

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Jason has written 104 articles on AussieTheatre
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  • Sonja

    “Move your audience and they will help spread the message”.

    This is precisely what Mike Daisey set out to do in his expose piece of theatre. But at what cost? The difference between fact and fiction disappeared, causing a media fiasco and damaging the worthy cause of “consumer accountability”.
    Jason, why would Pettifer want to make the same mistake, all over again?
    In light of the recent local entanglement between mining interests and media integrity (a.k.a. Gina Rindhart) it has become urgent, on a local level, to remember that persuasive argument (in journalism as in theatre) can be dangerous.
    Pettifer’s flawed performance, his T-shirt that spells LIAR, and his presentation of clips from the This American Life retraction episode, drove it home that truth is never clean-cut.

    It’s fine to be deceptively naive when you approach these issues as a theatre-maker.

    But don’t you think that as a viewer, this sort of theatre demands that you look harder and read more? And isn’t that a good thing?

  • Sonja

    *Rinehart*

  • 4 coffins

    Agony and Ecstasy was first performed by Mike in 2010. It is a two year old play. The March incident you refer to is the Retraction episode of This American Life, which is available here http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction

    Jason, your review is revealing of both a compusive need for entertainment and a cultural manifestation that sees actors increasingly driven to an technical “excellence” that is both impossible and problematic. It is this same mentality that sees actors demand more Larry Moss classes and legitimise their craft through television appearances, turning them into a kind of slave to their audiences.

    I sense from your review that you would have all performances created to the utmost professionalism, maximising their illusory power and manipulation, catharting you with emotional pleasure/pain. It is fair enough to say not all theatre is or should be like this, and it is also fair enough to say that theatre which does this is probably not political, in the sense that political theatre is empowering.

    “I think that you can reach an audience if political commentary is part of a compelling story”. I refer you to Brecht’s entire body of work, and this excerpt from essay by Walter A. Davis regarding My Name is Rachel Corrie:

    In transforming the very terms of our experience radical works of art
    expose their audience to the pervasive ways in which we are prisoners
    of ideologies that severely limit our possibilities of thinking and
    feeling. Plays that perform such a function need never directly address
    a political topic in order to be political in the deepest sense by
    making it impossible for us to experience the world the way we
    previously did. The popular concept and practice of political theatre,
    in contrast, severely truncates this possibility. It offers us no more
    than a quick ideological fix on some current issue. As a result we are
    more the slave of ideology—be it liberal or conservative, religious or
    secular, or whatever—than we were before.*

    This “political commentary is part of a compelling story” is also the domain of television and cinema. The two forms do this very well, very professionally expoiting people’s pre-conceived notions, carefully avoiding “eduction” in favour of re-circulating accepted truths, and they have been doing this for a long time.

    Fortunately, theatre still permits amateurism, which was invoked for this performance. Amateurism can be a beautiful thing, because it is an invitation to see through the usual objective for a performance to impress, and to maintain one’s cognitive independence.

    The comaprison with My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play about a pro-Palestine protestor who was killed whilst protesting against the destruction of a house on the Gaza strip, is not valid because that play and A/E as performed at La Mama are entirely different manifestations. Here is a play that makes an argument against the occupation of the Gaza Strip by Israel through first person narrative. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as performed at La Mama made an argument for nothing but the onus of the individual to interpret his or her reality, and to take responsibility for consequences. It is an argument for an independant, cognitive spectator, rather than one who enters the theatre expecting to be pampered.

    “Move your audience and they will help spread the message” – ironically, you could not have described more exactly what Mike tried to do (and boy oh boy did he succeed! But at what cost??).

    As to why this piece was performed, you began researching – but you stopped reading and blamed the performance’s shortcomings.

    Yes, audiences do not have time to follow every debate. Many don’t have time for theatre at all! And when they do, “oh, let’s make it Moonshadow. I don’t want to take any risks”. Do you see how this might be a problem?

    *http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com.au/2006/03/ideology-of-theatre.html