PULLING A DAISEY
PLAYING TELEPHONE The misrepresentation of outrage at a Mike Daisey performance in Cambridge led the OTC to believe the media — and, in turn, the public — could easily be duped.
I had a small group of musician friends who became my trusted inner circle. As we hashed out the details on what this project would actually entail, however, the reality of the workload dawned on us. This would quickly become like a fulltime job for all of us; most of us already had a fulltime job, plus our own bands. I shrugged and thought, "Well, that was enjoyable to think about."
But then I remembered something strange that happened a year prior. I was working as a box office clerk when monologist Mike Daisey brought his new piece, called Invincible Summer, for a three-week run in Cambridge. Summer was brilliantly funny and intelligent, but also riddled with F-bombs and references to anal sex with Paris Hilton. One night, I became a little wary when a large group of teenagers and parent/teacher chaperones filed into the theater for the show with their pre-purchased tickets. After the curtain rose, as I was closing down the box office, the head chaperone came bursting out of the theater. He had gone ghostly pale. "You people told me this was a clean performance!" he screamed. "There's nothing but curse words in there! I'm gonna get fired! I need to get my students out — now!"
I nearly shit a brick. I had never before faced the problem of getting a large number of audience members out of the theater during a performance. I knew it was going to disrupt the monologue.
I talked to the house manager and we devised a plan: we'd bring the lights up a bit, allow the teacher to walk in, tell his students to leave, and then the show would continue. I asked the chaperone if he thought he could do this in a polite, orderly fashion. He said yes.
We opened the door and the chaperone entered the theater. Moments later kids began streaming out. Apparently he didn't have to say anything. They saw him, got up, and left. Outside in the lobby, other teachers crowded around the man who pulled the plug. He was sobbing with a brutal intensity.
Minutes later, I learned that one of the other chaperones had walked up to Daisey's desk and poured his entire bottle of water all over the show notes laid out on the table.
When I talked with Daisey the following day, I told him how the man I'd talked to had seemed genuinely worried for his job and that I believed he tried to pull the ordeal off as gracefully as possible; the material wasn't appropriate for their group. The next day, Daisey posted the YouTube video of the event — each performance was filmed — with a description that read, "The show was disrupted by 87 members of a Christian group who walked out of the show en masse to protest the content."
It wasn't a staged walk-out; it was just a panicked teacher who'd picked a show that wasn't appropriate for his group. But that mid-size non-truth was all it took to frame the story in a manner that would garner Daisey the most press. Wired magazine's headline read: "Christians Stage Flash Mob Prank at Mike Daisey Show," while Gothamist went with: "Christian Group Attacks Brooklyn Monologist." The Boston Globe wrote, "87 members of the audience walked out in a kind of protest." Even the BBC reported on the incident:
Eighty-seven members of the audience staged a walk-out. One member of the group, who identified themselves to staff as "a Christian group," poured water over Mike Daisey's set and artwork as he passed the stage, in what the actor later described as "an anti-baptism."
Just how this BBC reporter was able to reconcile the idea that it was a staged walk-out with the opposite idea that a teacher was concerned about content and pulled the group boggles the mind. Daisey did an admirable thing by having post-incident conversations with members of the group but the fact remained that the portrayal of events as written on the description of that YouTube clip (which is surely the primary source for anyone interested in the story) never changed.
The entire incident boiled down to one major take-away lesson for me: that sometimes, at least, the media functions like an extended game of Telephone, where a story gets farther from the truth each time it's reported on. And at its worst, laziness, external pressure, or an attraction to a certain version of a particular story wins out over the truth. For all intents and purposes, it becomes the truth.