Starting next Friday, Christopher Willard of Backstage Theatre Company will stage four readings of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The acclaimed one-man show earned notoriety recently after it was revealed that the author, off-Broadway performer Mike Daisey, had fabricated some details about working conditions in the Chinese factories responsible for producing Apple's high-tech, high-gloss gadgetry. Still, many believe that the show holds up, despite the controversy.
Willard, artistic director at Backstage, spoke to Westword about the decision to stage a reading of the play -- which was made before the misinformation was exposed -- and how the equation has changed.
Westword: What is your background, and how did you get involved with Backstage Theatre? Christopher Willard: I've worked in Colorado theater for sixteen years. Directed and acted for the Arvada Center, Town Hall Arts Center, Theatre on Broadway and other metro theaters. I became artistic director of the Backstage Theatre in Breckenridge seven years ago. I act, write, produce and direct for the company here. In 2010, the Backstage Theatre received the Colorado Theatre Guild award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. We produce eight mainstage shows a year, often premiering a new work each season. It's busy, time-demanding but rewarding work.
How does your company go through the process of selecting plays?
We are constantly reading scripts and normally set our season in March and April, choosing shows that have commercial potential for our audience mix of tourists and locals. During shoulder seasons (September and October, April and May) we are able to schedule edgier fare such as last October's Cannibal the Musical and The Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs this April.
How did The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs come to be part of the season?
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Like many across the nation, I heard a clip of the monologue on This American Life. Before I heard the broadcast, I was aware of the monologue -- and of Mike Daisey as a performer -- but I wasn't prepared for the power of the piece. It was an arresting presentation, and being a fan of documentary in film and onstage, I saw this work as a form of activist art which uses theatrical technique to create a call to action. A few weeks later, I learned that Daisey was making a download of the monologue available to any and all to produce royalty-free. According to Daisey's blog, "in one 24 hour period, the transcript was downloaded 27,000 times. In other words, in one day, more copies of this work went out to people than the print runs of any new American play over the last five years." Since then, the script has been downloaded more than 60,000 times. My download was one of them. I read the script and quickly added it to our season as a fundraiser for the theater.
As far as this show is concerned, how is a staged reading different from a full production?
Daisey presents a completely memorized, almost two-hour piece, seated at a table the entire time. For this particular presentation, I will be referencing the script throughout the evening and will add basic movement for visual variety and will utilize video screens for the storytelling. Daisey considers himself a storyteller, and his presentations are more analogous to the work of a standup comic. He charts a series of avenues he can pursue in the course of the performance, but the "temperature" of the audience and his mood of that evening dictates which direction the piece may take. He has said that this is the first time he has actually written down one of his monologues. I will be following closely to the script in hand -- as well as facilitating the discussion regarding the firestorm this piece has engendered.
What did it mean to you to read this show when you selected it?
I had a very visceral and emotional reaction to this tale of a man who, curious to learn more about the nature of his beloved techno gadgets and the people who make them, embarks on a journey of enlightenment. I have since taken my own journey (albeit not on a physical trip to China but via the web) to learn more about the practices of Apple's manufacturing in China. For Daisey, his journey continues. He blurred his theatrical sensibilities with journalism and made some questionable claims of his own experience in the piece that he is now having to deal with in a very public trial by fire. In a lot of ways, he's like Steve Jobs in that he created something marvelous in a less-than-transparent method and environment. Mike Daisey must now come to terms with what he has done and to make amends to the public, and himself.
For most people, this will be the first chance to see this show in its entirety. What should they expect?
In order to draw in elements of the controversy, I will be truncating the work to allow for discussion of what has transpired (Daisey allowed adaptation to all who wanted to present his work). It would be a very long evening if I presented the unedited piece and this other aspect of the public reaction. I will endeavor to present a balanced representation of the work and a reporting of the controversy. Daisey claims to have now trimmed six minutes from the monologue, removing all inaccuracies and elements that he is not comfortable presenting as the truth. I have asked him to share those cuts but am still awaiting a returned e-mail to learn what he has cut from the work.
How did you feel on first learning of the revelations that Daisey had misrepresented certain fictionalized elements as fact?
My first reaction was "What was fabricated?" I had been researching Steve Jobs and Foxconn, and learned that the stories of the suicides and hexane poisonings were corroborated by journalists and other reputable reporting outlets. I suspected that some of Daisey's own observations might have been fictionalized and, indeed, that turned out to be the case. I initially questioned continuing on with the presentation, but then I saw the opportunity to create a learning moment (what Daisey is experiencing now) and the chance to add another layer of conversation to the piece. What happened (is happening) at the Chinese factories needs our attention and demands to be addressed. This presentation is one way to do that, and digging past the inaccuracies to get to the heart of the piece helps us get there.
What does the show mean to you now that the circumstances have changed?
The larger issues raised by this piece still lift above the fray. They have been corroborated by journalistic research. In this way, they are unassailable. Unfortunately, in learning that some elements were exaggerated for theatrical effect, the audience may decide to dismiss all of the elements in the piece. I see the value in an attempt to gain back the trust of the audience by presenting a fair accounting of what happened as well as a corrected version of Daisey's work.
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What do you hope will come out of the readings?
I hope to encourage a discussion about the truth in theater and facilitate a larger conversation about the methods in which we receive our information. I hope that people will be curious to learn more about the scandal and to experience Daisey's storytelling technique. He tells a very funny narrative about the rise of Steve Jobs that is interwoven with his examination of human rights violations at the Chinese plants. It makes for an entertaining and -- armed with the revelation of the scandal -- controversial, informative and engaging evening.
Backstage Theatre will be staging readings of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at 7:30 p.m. on April 6, 7, 13 and 14. The event is a fundraiser for Backstage Theatre, and tickets can be purchased online or by phone in advance or at the door. For more information, go to the Backstage website.