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 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.