Saturday, April 28, 2012

Agony over the Script, Ecstasy over the Performance: Halifax's Shakespeare by the Sea’s production of Mike Daisey’s Steve Jobs

Jesse MacLean in Shakespeare by the Sea's The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

A one-man (or one-woman) show has its unique challenges – depicting conflict using often one character, keeping the audience engaged with only one actor, and keeping the one actor from exhausting himself. Halifax's Shakespeare by the Sea’s (SBTS) production of Mike Daisey’s controversial The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs does a superb job of alluding all these common pitfalls – through innovative use of technology, copious F-bombs (some contextually necessary, most not) and dynamic acting by Jesse MacLean. From the moment I took my seat in the dim 20 member audience, I was listening intently, cackling intensely and sending knowing looks to my theatre companion.

For those who have seen the production, you know that the title is somewhat misleading. While Steve Jobs is the context, Apple’s industrial practices are the story. And ultimately this play is a story. Unlike the original, SBTS’s version is portrayed as a fictionalize narrative, not a documentary. This takes the pressure off what ultimately doesn’t matter (the ambiguous logistics of Daisey’s trip to China) and places it on what does (the unfair trade practices of Foxconn). SBTS ended the show by justifying their narrative interpretation of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, claiming that if we (the audience) leave the theatre challenged and motivated, they’ve done their job as story-tellers. At the time I thought they’d taken the lazy route, but after researching the history of the Daisey script, I respect their choice.

There has been much hullabaloo about Daisey’s script. The Chicago Public Radio show This American Life vehemently retracted the story they did on Daisey and The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, citing his bending, massaging and ignoring of facts as an embarrassment to journalism. But, as supporters have pointed out, Daisey is not a journalist, but a playwright. In this milieu, is fabricating the same as lying? Does it matter that Daisey misrepresented (but not quite made-up) the facts? Sometimes I find myself embellishing truths for the sake of narrative emphasis. After all, we don’t hold historical novelists to the same standards as historians. The metaphor applies here.

Mike Daisey performing his show
Discussions of metaphor are an important part of the play – phrases such as “if you control the metaphor, you control the world” and “shifting the metaphor” are frequently used to describe Steve Job’s monopolistic approach to selling Apple products. I wonder if Daisey purposefully repeats the concept of metaphor as a mimetic comment, a clue to the audience that his China trip is simply a vehicle to convey his message, not the message itself. Perhaps I give him too much credit, but it seems like Daisey’s critics are sweating the small stuff for a play that raises so many more important issues.

Of course the script is only one element of this show, albeit a crucial element for this particular production. Acting, stage direction and technical direction are others, all executed superbly by Jesse MacLean, Elizabeth Murphy and Tom Gordon Smith, respectively. Admittedly, MacLean had a few minor pauses and moments of confusion, but these enriched, not reduced, the conversational performance. With three screens behind him that depicted simple and impactful images, by the end of the performance I felt I knew him well and could trust his story.

Smith’s use of technology corresponds to MacLean’s monologue in one of my favorite scenes, the PowerPoint scene. In a spot-on mockery of corporate PowerPoint presentations (including the compulsory eye stabbing with ballpoint pen), MacLean makes the convincing argument that we already have a tool to communicate with others: the human voice. Technology should be used to complement face- to-face communication, not displace it. And SBTS’s use of technology did just that.

In an hour and a half, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs gave me lots to think about as I left the theatre. As a technophobe, I don’t own a lot of electronic devices – the only apple product I have is stored in the refrigerator. Still, the concept of “mind share” (not market share) is important. Apple products and Apple marketing pervade our lives, whether or not we’ve actually bought Jobs’s products. Another aphorism from the play that keeps me up is “we need things we didn’t know we wanted.” Powerful marketing, indeed! But when we strip away the clever marketing, which this script helps us do, we’re left with the bare and gruesome reality of the way Apple products are made. Daisey is right to recognize that for someone so focused on design, Jobs didn’t seem to realize that the way something is made is an intrical part of the design. Although Apple products may not be made with love, this production obviously was.

Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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