October 20, 2013

Mike Daisey, raised in Maine, stretched the truth, then stretched his wings

His embellishments on a public radio documentary program led to an on-air flogging. But that didn’t end the career of this performance artist, whose talent for storytelling still awes.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

As much as you might want him to, Mike Daisey is not going away.

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Storyteller Mike Daisey performs his “All the Faces of the Moon,” a two-hour monologue, at The Public Theater in New York. Daisey embellished facts in a January 2012 broadcast of National Public Radio’s “This American Life.” Apologizing, he told the show’s host: “It’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

Joan Marcus photo

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Mike Daisey

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MAINE appearance

WHO: Mike Daisey will speak at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Maine International Conference on the Arts at the Collins Center, University of Maine, Orono.

COST: Conference registration ranges from $80 to $200

FOR MORE: mainearts.maine.gov

Daisey, raised in Maine, has accomplished great things on the stage in New York and around the country. He is also a liar who used his creative license to embellish facts to make his art more compelling. He’s been exposed publicly, and forced to go on the air to explain himself.

But Daisey, who is home this week to speak at an arts conference in Orono, isn’t hiding from his infamy. At a time in history where public figures are exposed for misdeeds and then disappear from the public eye, Daisey, 37, faced his detractors, took his flogging and kept going.

If anything, his career benefited from his transgression and his response to it.

“Our culture has a sort of script,” Daisey said by phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he now lives. “Part of that cultural script is an abject apology and you vanish and are never heard from again. That is the script. But I was not willing to abjectly apologize and vanish.”

Daisey is best known for his storytelling and monologues. A few years ago, he wrote and toured with a one-man show called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which Daisey told of his visits to a Chinese factory that makes Apple iPhones and iPads, and revealed horrid working conditions.

Only it wasn’t true. Or at least not to the degree that Daisey suggested.

His embellishments were exposed after he went on the radio program “This American Life” to perform part of his show. It has become the single most popular podcast in the history of “This American Life,” with nearly 900,000 downloads. Angry and inspired, listeners began petitioning Apple to improve its working conditions.

After the episode aired in January 2012, host Ira Glass became suspicious. He and his staff found numerous instances of fabrications in Daisey’s piece. Two months after the radio program aired, Glass retracted the story.

In a note to listeners, Glass wrote, “Daisey lied to me and to ‘This American Life’ producer Brian Reed during the fact-checking we did on the story before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.

“We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio.”

He invited Daisey back on the show to explain himself, and Daisey went, gladly. On the air, he apologized to Glass – not for embellishing the truth but for performing an excerpt of his piece on a news show. “It’s not journalism,” he told Glass. “It’s theater.”

One might think that Daisey would have taken a hit with this episode, that his career might have tanked and that he would have sheepishly slipped into a self-imposed obscurity.

But no.

In the year since, Daisey has continued to perform the piece, still to wide acclaim, with changes to the sections where he made things up. He also just completed a marathon 29-night run of a show called “All the Faces of the Moon,” in which he performed a new two-hour monologue every night for 29 consecutive evenings at his home theater, The Public Theater in Manhattan. Stories about growing up in Maine figured prominently in many of the monologues, which amount to a 1,400-page novel.

The show drew strong reviews, including one from Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. The noted critic saw “All the Faces of the Moon” four times in its first week, and admitted that he had not been looking forward to Daisey’s nightly indulgences.

(Continued on page 2)

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