Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Conception, Deception, Veracity, and Mendacity

"I don’t know if this is what happened, but it’s what I remember.”
-Federico Fellini, flinging himself from an exploding taxi at 37,000 feet

So I’ve been devoting a lot of thought cycles over the past week to the Mike Daisey controversy. For those who haven’t been following it (i.e. pretty much everyone outside of the arts community), he’s a storyteller who’s been called out for pretty baldly misrepresenting some information in a political/autobiographical show. I’d say that it’s probably best summarized here, though in the interest of fairness it’s worth noting that Daisey himself took issue with its representation here. I’d also suggest that this is a must-read.

So why have I been so preoccupied with it? Particularly as someone who typically has zero interest in celebrity scandals? For one thing, I think it has some bearing on how storytellers are viewed by the general public. For another, because I think I’ve got something to say about it – if there’s any title I can reasonably be said to have earned in the course of my career (er, other than “pompous douchebag”) it’s that of a storyteller. Ultimately, though, I think it’s because it raises some important and worthy questions about the nature of what we do.

(It’s also worth noting that I had a similar, and similarly ugly, exchange in last year’s Fringe. Most of my colleagues responded with eye-rolling bemusement, claiming that it was ridiculous that anyone would care about the misrepresentation of history in a freakin’ Fringe show, and, well, maybe, but fuck, *I* care. In fact, one of the major themes of the show I produced for that Festival was examining how it’s possible to find an objective history in one that’s been warped to so many different agendas.)

(Which, okay, I’m tangenting again here, but I think it’s worth examining; one of the key questions here is *audience complicity*. While I think it’s likely that Mordred was a historical figure and Lancelot a literary one, the point is that, when I hit the stage with a Southern accent, camo pants, a tape recorder, and a wheelchair, people know that they’re not getting a literal representation of fifth-century Britain.)

(This is, sort-of-incidentally, also why I love schlockfests like John Boorman’s Excalibur and loathe movies like the Clive Owen King Arthur in equal measure: because the former’s all about *magical* truth (awesomely uber-cheesy, B-movie magic), while the latter’s every bit as bullshit, but hell-bent on convincing you of its historical veracity.)

(Two, four, six…fourteen! Fourteen parentheses! Ah, ah, ah.)

This is something that I’ve struggled with in my own career. Descendant of Dragons – my own political/autobiographical show about going to China – was originally titled *Descendants* of Dragons, since in its original conception it was supposed to be a collection of family histories. But as I conducted my research, and the various accounts became more entangled and contradictory, the title had to shift, because it stopped being an objective history and became a personal one – it stopped being about *them*, and it became about *me*, and the only way to respond to my loss of detachment with integrity was to embrace it.

(It’s also a quirk of my autobiographical shows that I only very rarely write *dialogue*, because I’m not comfortable putting words in people’s mouths when I’m not 100% certain of what they said. There are times when it becomes necessary, but generally I’m more comfortable *describing* conversations that *enacting* them. This is one of the reasons I so ardently defend my use of notes for autobiographical shows – I may be *performing*, but I’m not doing impressions, I’m not acting, and I want the audience to be crystal-clear about that fact.)

But I’m a liar, too. To pick a moment at random: towards the beginning of Pissing on the Great Wall, I describe myself sitting and listening to music, unaware that my kitchen is on fire. I don’t remember what song I was listening to, but in the show I claim it was Cab Calloway’s “Chinese Rhythm.” I claimed that because I wanted to use the song there. There’s a number of ways I could have approached that – I could have done some cutesy, meta “I don’t remember what was playing, but it might have been this” thing – and it probably would have been fine, but it would have deflated the momentum of the scene. So I lied.

This is comparatively trivial, but I’m mentioning it for two reasons. The first is because I suspect that most autobiographical shows are full of dozens of moments like these, moments where action is compressed or dialogue is moved to create a more logical flow of action and emotion. (Attributed to Mark Twain: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”) The second is because I’m a hypocrite: in doing this, I demonstrated that, whatever I may say or choose to believe about myself, on some level I think it’s okay to lie onstage – I’m just quibbling over the scale of that lie.

(That was actually kind of painful to write.)

So, yes, I may be deluding myself, but I believe that Daisey’s broken through to a wholly different level of deception, for three reasons:

1) the sheer scale of it. This isn’t mere arrangement of events, but complete conjuration of emotionally significant moments that he never experienced.

2) That he has consistently maintained falsehoods, *outside of the context of his own show* -- to fact-checkers, in public interviews, et cetera.

3) Because his primary intent was something other than personal narrative. This is where his defenders claim that he was on some level justified – “the ends justify the means” – whereas in my view this is the very thing that makes his actions most damnable – that he appropriated these falsehoods in a show that he intended to weaponize – to suggest that it’s okay to do evil, even small evil, in the service of what they have deemed to be a Great Cause.

I would cautiously identify myself as a fan of Daisey’s – cautiously, because I’ve had fairly limited exposure to his work; I followed his blog for a while, and watched some clips of his shows online (of which his How Theater Failed America is a favorite – I don’t wholly agree with his thesis, but it was thrilling to watch him ridicule so many of the sacred cows in our profession). It’s been strange to watch his response to the scandal, in which he wildly oscillates between being the startlingly thoughtful, articulate writer I’ve come to admire, and writing infuriating shit like this:

"In the last forty-eight hours I have been equated with Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Greg Mortenson. Given the tenor of the condemnation, you would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components, or that I never went to China, never stood outside the gates of Foxconn, never pretended to be a businessman to get inside of factories, never spoken to any workers.

Especially galling is how many are gleefully eager to dance on my grave expressly so they can return to ignoring everything about the circumstances under which their devices are made. Given the tone, you would think I had fabulated an elaborate hoax, filled with astonishing horrors that no one had ever seen before."

…which is just so damn many levels of missing the point.

(I also, as a theatre practitioner, don’t find his “It’s theatre!” defense terribly convincing. At times, I find it troublingly familiar to the kind of two-step Michael Moore pulls: y’know, how when he’s called an “entertainer” he becomes indignant and claims that he’s an activist and this is social justice and such, and then when he’s called on his deliberate misrepresentation of information, Moore shrugs and claims that he’s “just an entertainer.”)

In their interview, Ira Glass cornered Daisey on the “theatre” line, suggesting that he was kidding himself if he truly believed that the distinctions he was drawing were ones that his audience was cognizant of. (He made a poor choice of words in saying “normal people”; “laymen” might have been less divisive.) And I do think that Glass is absolutely right: Daisey has been been kidding himself. He’s kidding himself when he suggests that it’s not that big a deal; he was kidding himself when he thought that no one would notice; he’s *definitely* kidding himself with the implication that the people who feel hurt and betrayed are somehow out to get him.

But this, I think, is one of the great existential battles that we as storytellers have to face: not the conscious deception of others, but the far more insidious *self*-deception. Studies have suggested that every time we remember events, we subtly rewrite them. I find it unlikely that the factory guards that Daisey witnessed were actually armed; by the same token, I find it equally likely that at this point, he genuinely recalls that they were. The implications of that, for all of us, are profoundly terrifying, if you give it a moment’s thought.

(Nancy Donoval, a local storyteller who tells many stories about her late father, expressed a similar fear to me: that on the one hand, her stories are a way of keeping her father alive; on the other, her actual memories may be being replaced by the stories. How much of my relationship with my own father is real, and how much is a false narrative that I’ve constructed in the course of writing two shows about that relationship?)

(One of the Catholic-school arguments I found compelling when I was – well, going there – is the idea that the earliest Gospels *must* have some semblance of (capital-T) Truth, because at the time they were written, people who had known Him were still alive. I’ve since lived through two W. administrations, and realized that a populace will continually rewrite its own collective Truth *as it’s actually unfolding in front of them*. I don’t think I’m stretching to suggest that politics, like storytelling, revolves around the construction of narrative.)

I believe that relativism is absolutely (tee-hee) the wrong answer to this problem: to claim that everybody lies, so lying is therefore okay. The ends, as far as I’m concerned, emphatically do *not* justify the means. Mr. Daisey’s going to have to wear this albatross around his neck for the rest of his career, justifiably or otherwise. But in my view, the fact that self-deception is such a perpetual peril for those of us in this profession means that we must remain vigilant against it.

It’s my view that the pursuit of truth is the most critically important of all human endeavors. Deception obfuscates that.

Just ask Fellini.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Spent the weekend at MarsCon - my first time going, though I've done CONvergence for the past couple of years. Mixed experience, though well-weighted to the positive. MarsCon is much smaller, and that's in many respects a good thing -- while my primary love is reserved for the sprawling and diverse (hence my predilection for cities), it's gratifying to do a convention where, say, the elevators are functional.

Performance went well, in any case (con performances usually do, in my experience, it's a crowd that's there to have a good time and they really *want* you to succeed, to the point that the laughs almost roll in a little *too* easily for my tastes as a comedy writer, so those performances are a great place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there, if you take my admittedly ambivalent meaning) and I attended my usual bevy of panels (I am attempting to crash-course myself to a better understanding of how the publishing industry works, and have rapidly progressed from proud ignorance to profoundly ashamed ignorance).

Among my favorites was an update on the International Space Station, and the research that's taking place there. (Plus, I'm one of those guys who's a total sap for images of the Earth from space.) It made me truly mournful that future progress on that frontier seems to be (for now) stalled -- Newt Gingrich recently proposed a Mars expedition and was practically laughed off the stage, so it's an endeavor that we apparently lack the collective will for.

Okay, so, here's the thing -- cons are typically an experience of rapidly oscillating between bliss and fury for me, and that's totally down to that community. At its worst -- I'm a great believer in the importance of civility, and while the attitudes of con-going geeks are certainly grossly exaggerated in the media, I do find a portion -- greater proportionately there than in the general population -- of the rude, of the obnoxious, of the self-absorbed.

The unscarred, Harvey-Dent side of that coin, however, is a portion -- significantly greater proportionately there than in the general population -- of those who have teared up at the thought of the colonization of space; who have spent their share of hours poring over medieval texts; who believe in the careful and thoughtful dissection of entertainment; who believe, truly and without irony, in the wisdom of the past and the promise of the future.

A few years back, there was a panel about the Fringe at CONvergence, and one of the panelists offered a description of one of my shows: an Arthurian romance set in Appalachia to bluegrass music; at which the audience burst into applause, which is a pretty far cry from the eye-rolling that most of my colleagues greet such projects with. And it was a revelation for me; I certainly don't regret the amount of time I've spent trying to angle my material to a hipster audience -- it's made me an exponentially better writer -- but at a certain point, it's worth considering that one of the things I've been banging my head against may be demographic mismatch. My appropriations of myth and legend probably have a lot more crossover with the audience that's animatedly arguing about Tolkien's Elves than they do with the audience that's shelling out to see their fourth sex comedy this month.

I'm convinced that the convention crowd is a powerful resource -- certainly the Scrimshaw Brothers and Vilification Tennis have found a way to capitalize on it. One of the many things I'm hoping to learn here is *how*.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mic Open, Mind Ajar

Another of my goals since shutting down production has been to re-commit to the open-mic scene. I initially threw myself into it pretty aggressively when I first moved out here -- Jesus, around a decade ago -- and I remain a great believer in it; just about every show that I've produced in that time has gone through a couple of weeks of previewing there.

I maintain my fondness for them for the very same reasons that I suspect many other storytellers dislike them: because it's an audience that isn't there to see me. Most of them don't give a shit who I am or what my last successful show was. What matters is, can you grab a microphone and engage? Which is always a humbling, and therefore important, exercise.

But what's striking to me this time around is that, comparatively, there aren't as many opportunities for *storytellers*, persay. There's Word Ninjas, of course. There's also the Story Slam (which is competitive) and Folktales Rising (which is really more of a writing circle than an open-mic). Ball's is one of the few mics I've been to that seems legitimately multidisciplinary to me -- not skewing towards one form over another.

Beyond that, there's shows you can lobby for a booking at, like the Monday Night Comedy Show or Sample Night Live or Firsty Thursday or Patrick's Cabaret, but the nature of such a process favors polish over experimentation. Otherwise, I'd say the remainder (that I've seen, and God knows my knowledge isn't exhaustive) tend to slant to either slam or comedy -- e.g. the Artist's Quarter will let you perform whatever you want, but boy howdy that's a slam audience.

But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that there's an underlying *structural* discrepancy. Slam and comedy both have clear (well, clearer) ladders -- a comic can gradually (over many years) work his way up to hosting to featuring to headlining. A poet can work her way through competitions to Nationals. And a storyteller can...? What's the next rung on the ladder, after open-mics?

I built a reputation as a storyteller on the Fringe circuit, but that was pretty chaotic and haphazard and I don't know that I'd recommend it. More (i.e. actually) successful storytellers seem to slide in through a variety of side doors -- Kevin Kling through radio, David Sedaris through print, et cetera.

So I suspect that the dearth of storytelling-oriented open mics is a symptom, not a cause. But a diagnosis isn't the same thing as a treatment. And I still have a fuck of a lot to learn.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

New York, or a New Low

So I’m sitting on an airplane again, which means that it’s time to write, to try to extract some sense out of the events of the past week (or to impose a narrative upon them, depending on one’s perspective).


Yvette greeted me at the door by casually mentioning that she had a rare copy of Norris J. Lacy’s five-volume translation of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle – I own a heavily abridged single-volume reader, but copies of the full text run into the hundreds of dollars. She’s apparently been pushing for her university to order a set for some time (which they finally did, due to a rare surplus), and noted with some amusement that she was to date the only one to check them out.

The Cycle’s interesting to a medievalist (armchair or otherwise) since it represents Malory’s primary source for Le Morte d’Arthur, and a close examination of the text reveals a lot about the dude as a writer: what he chose to use, what he rejected, which word choices he borrowed and which were original, et cetera. The fact that my sister is one of the rare people in my life who gives a shit about any of this is a part of what I enjoy about our visits.

She’s one of the few people – okay, the only person I know – with whom I can have these long, rambling, drunken conversations about Middle English and Latin. And it’s energizing – it’s done a lot to restore my faith in these Marvellous Enquests and Adventures; that there is wisdom, and excitement, and illumination in these aging illuminated manuscripts.

Not that that grants me any insight into how to market these stories. But I’m remembering that pursuing that insight is a worthy goal. Maybe even worth a lifetime. There are certainly worse ways to spend one, before the Dolorous Death and Departing out of This World of Us All.


Speaking of long, rambling conversations, it’s also been a pleasure to reconnect with Charlie again – and as a teller with whom I share a lot in common in terms of both genre and style, it’s an opportunity to compare notes on some of the unique problems posed by our adaptations (e.g., how to approach the use and frequency of proper names in the source material).

He was also generous enough to share with me the script for a new show he’s working on – I don’t know how public/private he wants to be with the details, so I’ll be vague, except to say that it’s in the middle of a long development process, and that I think that it’s brilliant – possibly the best thing he’s done.

It’s also, curiously, an epic – an order of magnitude larger than his previous sources – and what’s interesting for me has been watching how he approaches the bulk of material. Whereas my approach has generally been to select individual episodes and expand them, giving their dramatic moments room to breathe, here he’s striving for *completeness*, pounding breathlessly through dozens of episodes at a breakneck pace. They’re both valid and effective approaches, but the differences, I think, are illustrative.


I also took the opportunity to check out some shows at the FRIGID Festival, including 3 Sticks’ The Traveling Musicians, which I found to be just fantastically entertaining, the best kind of Fringe mash-up, both a loving homage and a snide ridicule of the Brothers Grimm and the spirit of rock. Watching them, it was strange to think on how our companies first met, dancing together in an empty theatre in Kansas City – a fond memory I was pleased to find they still retain.

Bizarrely, there was a large number of Minneapolitans in the audience, and as far as I know none of us coordinated with each other – we independently and spontaneously chose to descend upon the same place. I spent much of the evening talking shop with Nick Ryan, who spoke warmly of the Festival. It looks like a lot of fun. Plus, hey, New York press always looks pretty impressive on a resume.


I actually had a notably positive experience in the city this time round. Several of the locals suggested that this is because the city’s changed a lot in the past decade, but I think the more salient point may be that I have. The subways are crowded? I got my pocket picked in Suva. The bathrooms are dirty? I got food poisoning in Lisbon. The traffic’s lousy? I got run over by a rickshaw in Beijing. The city’s too big? Shanghai is over twice as large. I suspect that the assertion that New York is the greatest city in the world is borne of sampling error.

But the respects in which the city fails to live up to its myth make me, oddly, more affectionate to it. Before, I was overwhelmed – now, I know I’m competent to navigate this place.


All in all, a stimulating excursion, both intellectually and creatively. Now, back to memorizing lines…