“But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
-Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
“And tonight—we know the truth.”
Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
When we asked Mike Daisey to write an essay on our core value of Activism for the April issue of American Theatre, we didn’t know that questions would soon be raised about certain poetic liberties he represented as journalistic facts in his acclaimed play, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. We didn’t know that these questions would spur a fascinating—and at times, painful—discussion on the nature of truth and illusion in theatre, with some calling for a boycott of Daisey’s work, and others turning that questioning spirit inward. We knew only that what he called in his monologue “a virus of the mind” had forced us all to take a long, unsettling look at those shining devices in our hands, and had spread far enough to put pressure on Apple’s labor practices.
Now, that “virus of the mind” has mutated, requiring we take the same unsettling look at theatre itself. This look reminds us that theatre can still move from the margins to the headlines, and in that most necessary of clichés, change the world. We cannot pretend that we are powerless, but in acknowledging the power we have, we must also remind ourselves of our responsibilities.
A lie is not the same as an illusion; a fact is not a truth. When we confuse them, we dishonor the trust of our audience and diminish the power of our art. We cannot speak half-truths to power. Activism calls on us to be the change we wish to see in the world—a charge we must meet each and every day.
Our collective activism as a field often manifests itself through our advocacy, and once again, support for federal funding of the arts is under political siege. Paul Ryan’s Budget Resolution Blueprint calls for the privatization of the NEA, and passed in the House in a non-binding vote (228 -191) yesterday. At the same time, the charitable tax incentive is under a number of threats. As we approach Arts Advocacy Day, I encourage you to read Laurie Baskin’s post on the TCG Circle regarding these challenges and then take action. How can we set loose a “virus of the mind” to reframe the national discourse away from using the arts as political fodder towards sustaining them as a communal necessity and human right?
For whatever else we take away from this agony and ecstasy, we must also take this truth: as theatre-makers alive in our viral age, more is now expected, and more is now required. Let us help each other live up to the changes we want to see.