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.
(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.
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.