Actors Guild of Lexington artistic director Eric Seale thought he had lost his season finale shortly after he chose it.
For the second consecutive year, he had kept the final slot on the theater's schedule open so he could select a show that was relevant to what was in the news and popular conversation come spring. The strategy worked well in 2011, when he selected Deborah Zoe Laufer's End Days. The story of an evangelical Christian woman who believes the end of the world is imminent was produced about the same time a California preacher made the same prediction in real life.
This season, he chose Mike Daisey's one-man play The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs just months after the Apple founder and chief executive died.
Then Daisey's monologue garnered even more headlines.
A portion of the show that dealt with conditions for workers at Apple factories in China was aired on the public radio program This American Life. Then Rob Schmitz, a reporter for another public radio show, Marketplace, blew the whistle on Daisey, revealing numerous inaccuracies and fabrications in the broadcast. This American Life devoted the entire hour of its March 16 episode to retracting the Daisey episode.
Seale read a transcript of that episode, which included an excruciating interview of Daisey by host Ira Glass.
"My first thought was, OK, I guess we're not doing this," he said. "Then I actually listened to it and started reading the stuff that came out afterwards. The thing that kept getting to me was hearing people say, 'Well, he exaggerated some facts, so everything's fine'" at Chinese factories.
Other news sources, including The New York Times and NPR, corroborate the overall story of the original This American Life piece: The Apple factories have numerous problems: underage workers, extremely long hours, suicides and hazardous working conditions. Daisey contended the exaggerations and inventions he included in The Agony and the Ecstasy were to get people to care about an overall true story.
So Seale had this show, but he also had an open license that Daisey had granted to anyone who wanted to produce it to alter it in any way they wanted.
So he has.
"We did this show because it was an amazing opportunity," Seale said. "Now we have an even more amazing opportunity. Let's put the controversy into the play."
Actors Guild's production of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which includes a lot of biographical material about Jobs and Apple, will incorporate recent news, including the retraction episode of This American Life and excerpts from a talk Daisey gave at Georgetown University.
Seale said he concluded, "Let's tell the story that's important and funny and really good, and give a full accounting of everything else."
One of the fundamental questions the whole saga raises is: When dealing with a real subject, what are the expectations for truth and accuracy in theater versus journalism?
Daisey "took a very good story, in my opinion, set up some very important things, and trashed the credibility of it," Charles Compton, news director at WEKU-88.9 FM, a Richmond-based public radio station, said during a joint interview and discussion with Seale that will be broadcast this weekend on the station's Arts Weekly program. Compton said the expectation in journalism is that what is presented will be truthful and accurate.
Dramatic license is common in films and plays about real people. Seale said Actors Guild's last play, The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, was based on true events but had some obviously invented material.
Seale said he was initially angry at Daisey when he heard about the fabrications, but "the actual sin that he made was when he allowed people to believe it was journalism and not a dramatic license of a story."
A lot of This American Life's retraction focused on Daisey's efforts to evade fact checkers for the show. He also appeared on several other programs, including MSNBC's The Ed Show, and recounted instances he said he had seen or experienced in China but had made up or exaggerated.
"I always find true events much more interesting than what a writer in a back room can come up with," Compton said. "Often people can dismiss fiction in a way that they cannot dismiss really solid, well-reported stories."
Seale acknowledged that Daisey "self-damaged" what could have been a powerful work. But his hope is that by exercising his artistic license to alter the piece, which he said other theaters are doing, it will gain a new power.