Monday, June 18, 2012

Richard Pettifer is Awesome in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. You should see him!

I saw Richard Pettifer perform Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at La Mama theatre yesterday. It is awesome. You should see it.

In case you don't know, Mike Daisey does theatrical monologues that have a social conscience behind them. He did one about Steve Jobs, Apple and Foxconn (who makes devices for Apple and just about every other big tech company in the world) called The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs. None of the themes were new:

  • Steve Jobs was brilliant but also ruthless and a lot of people found him impossible to work with (watch Pirates of Silicon Valley).
  • Foxconn is in Shenzhen, a huge industrial city controlled by corporations where working hours and conditions make for a soulless, depressing existence for thousands of people (see The stark reality of iPod's Chinese factories - August 2006).
  • Steve Jobs knew about these conditions and still went ahead with production of Apple hardware there (like every other big hardware manufacturer). Steve Jobs spoke about this in an interview at the 2010 D8 Conference - here is a three minute extract where he specifically answers this question about Foxconn.

The monologue is an attempt to prick our conscience: to remind us that our tech has a human cost. It is powerful stuff. It got featured on This American Life, and was then retracted because they "learned that many of Mike Daisey's experiences in China were fabricated". This American Life made another episode all about the retraction, and I must say that Mike Daisey's answers were not forthright enough: I think he should have said outright that this work was a fictitious account, but based on facts - and if there was a reason why he couldn't use his exact experiences in the play, he should have stated those reasons. I think that his monologue should have been entirely factual in the first place, because all the controversy has diverted attention away from the message and can only cause distrust in Mike's work amongst people who might otherwise have been open to hearing what he has to say.

Richard Pettifer performs the monologue and places it in the context of the controversy from This American Life. He does it very simply, by playing an extract of the retraction episode before and after the monologue and wearing a t-shirt with "Liar" printed on it throughout. Richard's delivery of the monologue is intense - I saw the emotion in his eyes and it resonated with me. He told a story I certainly related to about how our lives change with technology, about loving our favourite devices, and about a sense of disillusionment that comes from knowing a few truths behind the construction of this wonderful technology. Richard's presentation was sparse, which suited the venue and allowed me to focus so much more on his delivery. The way he put the monologue within the context of this recent controversy shifted the central theme of the monologue for me in a very interesting way: knowing that Mike Daisey's account of his visit to Shenzhen was not entirely accurate, is there enough truth for us to still be concerned about conditions at Foxconn? Can a liar still be telling us the truth?

The venue is worth commenting on here, because La Mama's plays a very important part in any production set there. La Mama's is small: it only seats maybe 20 or 30 people. When you sit in the front row, you are less than two meters away from the performers. There is no anonymity here: the actors' stare hits you full in the face - they see you as well as you see them. My first time at La Mama's was to see Strands with my Dad and one of the actresses looked me in the eye when she asked a question and for precious seconds I couldn't decide if I was meant to answer aloud! The point is that the venue brings you so close to the performer that the barrier between audience and participant is very thin - they are not actors on a distant stage: they are people talking directly to you. After the show, the actors will join you in the little courtyard - I enjoyed a very lively conversation with Richard and my fellow audience, and we discussed at length some of the issues involved in the performance. My partner Süheyla expressed a very important consideration: this is not just an issue with Steve Jobs - it is a question about the cycle created by capitalism.

Thank you Richard Pettifer - it was a great performance, and I look forward to seeing what you work on next. Props to you as well for setting up the blog just for this performance.

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