Alex Lyras Talks Foxconn, Apple Evils & 'The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs'
Mike Daisey's scandal-plagued monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs opens this week in Los Angeles. The work theatrically documents the horrific labor and human rights violations that occur at the Foxconn factory in Shengzhen, China—the world's biggest supplier of Apple products, including iPods, iPads, and iPhones.
After touring with the play and receiving rave reviews, PBS's This American Life host, Ira Glass, took notice and featured Daisey's play in his 454th episode, "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," which aired on January 6, 2012. Several months later, a fact checker discovered that Daisey had exaggerated a few facts in his play. In response, Glass retracted Episode 454—his one and only show retraction ever. The retraction was presented in the context of another episode that aired in March of 2012, simply called "Retraction." "Retraction" remains This American Life's most listened to episode of all time.
Since the scandal broke on PBS, Daisey has revised his play to best reflect the valid facts surrounding the plight of Foxconn's workers. Local performer and writer Alex Lyras will be performing an updated version of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Theatre Asylum. Lyras is well-known in theatrical circles for his excellent, critically acclaimed, memorable play The Common Air.
Tucked away in a warm Hollywood cafe on a rainy day, Lyras and LAist talked about the importance of his upcoming production of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs:
LAist: Your production of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs opens in Los Angeles this week. Tell us about the play.
Alex Lyras: The show is about how our electronic gadgets get into our hands for $199 instead of $1,000. It is about the people that make our high-tech toys. It is about labor exploitation. It is also about us, about being thoughtful consumers. Apple is a phenomenon that fits into a very strange cultural meme. Apple is a brilliant phenomenon, a beautiful phenomenon, that was born out a garage in Berkeley. They are the most successful company in the world. Not only is Apple number one, but they have a billion-dollar surplus. They present themselves as a very whitewashed, caring company. Who can ever forget their "Think Different" billboards. They used the image of the Dalai Lama and the image of John Lennon. But guess what? Apple is lying. They are just another massive corporation that is literally exploiting their workers to death in China. They present one image—and it is a really beautiful, inspiring, artistic image, at that—but they are fucking evil. So this play, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, is calling this corporation to task. This play has caused change at Apple. So many people have been inspired by this show. So many people that have seen this play wrote to Apple, wrote to Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs and Time Cook and said, "What the fuck, Apple? Is this real? Are these labor violations really happening?"
Apple co-founder Steve Wosniak saw The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and said that it changed him. Did Steve Jobs see the play? What would he have thought about it?
Wosniak is a more sensitive guy. Wosniak was crying when he saw this play. But no, Jobs did not see it. He would have squirmed. There is an interview of Jobs that I show during the play, filmed about a year before he died, being lightly grilled by two interviewers on PBS. He says, "Oh, we are on this problem at Foxconn, we are totally on this. They have swimming pools and movie theaters over there." And you know what? He was just lying. They do have some of those things, but that does not make it okay to make people work 24 hour shifts. So Jobs, not unlike Daisey, was making up his own narrative and adding the facts that he wanted to add. So that it is a very fascinating parallel. There is an amazing line in the play: "Steve Jobs, this genius of design and form, forgot the most essential rule of design there is—the way the thing is made is part of the design itself." Meaning, you can design what you want to design, but how it is put together matters. So if Steve Jobs had seen this show, he would have squirmed at the two-hour version because it really hits you over the head with these details. People isolate themselves. Jobs got important and isolated himself. Did Jobs go and talk to workers? Did Jobs go and see the factory's suicide nets?
What are your thoughts on the This American Life scandal and the shit-storm that ensued with Ira Glass?
That is a good question. Why did Glass make such a big deal of it? Why did he set out to ruin something that should not have been destroyed? Glass, as a journalistic entity, raised the mantle for all journalists, and that is great, but he took a really hard-line position with castigating Daisey when Daisey isn't a journalist. I just think that when Glass retracted the This American Life episode about the play, there should have been a bit of the other side of this argument, which is that more than 90 percent of the script is right and accurate. AND it is for the THEATRE. It isn't like Daisey published Agony and Ecstasy in the New York Times. I really question Ira Glass and his motives. He saw an opportunity to take a big, ratings-boosting chance, and he took it. He nailed somebody for the sake of a radio episode. He got to assert his Ira Glass ego and put another guy in his place. Daisey did investigative journalism alone, without the likes of NPR behind him. He toured the world and then wrote something that blew people away! Maybe Glass felt his position was threatened a little. Daisey did something that Glass has never done—and maybe never will do—he caused actual change at a corporation. This actor/writer is responsible for throwing a rock at Goliath and hitting it in the head. NPR and The New York Times just jumped on Daisey's bandwagon. I love Mike for this. He embarrassed Apple, and now they are making changes. The controversy to me is much less important than the message of the play.
Do you think Daisey handled the controversy well?
Mike did not handle it well, and he knows it. When you look at the old script and the new script side-by-side, it is astounding that the whole fiasco went down the way it did because the scripts are not that different. The guards did not have guns the guy with the claw hand did not work at Apple, but he did meet the guy at the factory. As far as "lying" goes, his intent was clear: He was telling a good story. People that attack him for lying are really missing the point by a long shot. 90 percent of this play is spot-on with mind-blowing actual details. It is a shame that this happened because the scandal became bigger than the play. I wouldn't be performing this play if I did not think it was right on the money and worth doing. People still don't know about the labor abuses that are going on in China.
Why do you think that Glass attacked Daisey, the messenger, rather than Apple or Foxconn?
There are some legitimate issues. There really are. This American Life is a journalistic show sponsored by National Public Radio. They take pride in being right and they are a treasure. But the whole retracted show fiasco was so staunch and he did not need to be. It was hard to listen to on both sides. Glass was saying why did you lie TO ME? That was interesting. TO ME. There are bigger issues at hand than Ira Glass. How about phrasing that in a different way? How about asking why Daisey wanted to pass as a journalistic when he is a monologist and playwright? How about asking why he lied to the public? Yeah, Glass really had a personal agenda there. It does not take much to see that. Just listen to his tone. He made it personal because that is just good drama for his radio show.
What were some of the disputed facts in the first version of the play?
I cant remember them all, but the first was that the guards at Foxconn have guns. They don't. Another is about a man that has a claw hand. Also, this is a secondary thing, but he told Glass that his translator was not who she was and that she could not be found, but then we heard from Glass that his researcher found her on the first phone call. What other facts were made up? The ages of the workers. He said he met 13 year olds, but actually the youngest workers there are 15 or 16. He claimed there are cameras in the factory dormitories, but they are not in the rooms, just in the hallways.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is open source, free to download, use, and perform without royalties. That is virtually unheard of in contemporary theatre. Why did Daisey make his play so accessible?
He wants to spread the message. I've had exchanges with him and so have a lot of people. He is very accessible. He claims to not be after the fame. The trend of open source materials is positive, but also a little scary. Everything is going to be free one day whether we like it or not. Right now, you can basically get any piece of music for free. It is your choice to pay for it, and younger people often don't pay it. Everything is already free if you so choose to steal it, right? It is just weird to be in the middle of this paradigm shift. We won't need permission to perform works in the future. Daisey, as usual, is ahead of the curve.
What are some of the changes that you made to your production of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs?
Mostly cuts. Daisey's show is almost two hours long and and mine is an hour and 15 minutes. He kind of does this David Mamet thing where he repeats himself a lot. It is fun when Daisey does it, he has mastered that, but I trimmed a lot of the repetitive stuff. After a while, you know, the audience gets it. Then there is some personal stuff about Daisey himself that I cut because I'm not playing Daisey as a character. I'm gonna do it fucking straight forward and hard hitting. Daisey corrected the disputed facts and those corrections are in my production. The new version, the updated version, it is the better of the two. It is funnier. It has really fun material.
Does theatre need to be factual to be honest? What is the best way to share meaningful messages with an audience?
Absolutely not. The last fucking thing we want in the theatre is strict journalism. I don't want strict journalism in the theatre. That is not why I am there. The lights go down, I am in the dark, I'm watching something on stage, not reading the newspaper in my living room. All Daisey needed to do was used two words: "based on." You just say in the playbill, "These events have been altered for dramatic effect." And guess what? It works just as well. It gets down to the crux of who the people are. Daisey wanted it all. He wanted to be the journalist and the artist. In my eyes, he would have been both if he had just said this play is based on actual events, based on my trip to Foxconn. The thing about theatre is you have to theatricalize the story.
Has presenting The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs presented you with any surprises?
It has brought me closer to Mike Daisey, which I wasn't expecting. You know, who wouldn't like to have a relationship with their playwright? Ha! I would like to do a David Mamet play and get to have a relationship with David Mamet, but this one is a little strange because of this controversy. I am a little embarrassed for Daisey because of what happened on This American Life. But Mike is great. I told him that I am a very experienced solo performer and I want to do my own thing with Agony and Ecstasy, and he said, "Go right ahead, do your own thing with it." I think if he saw me do his play, he would at first be like, "Holy shit! You cut half an hour from my play"! But he would be happy if he saw it. I narrate it right, I treat the material right. And although I am a solo performer, I am treating the material selflessly, with the dignity that it deserves. Another thing that surprised me is that I am used to performing works that inspire people and make them feel good. This play ends with awareness and enlightenment, but the first time I did this show for some friends, people came up to me and said, "Hey, thanks, now I feel like shit. Thanks for crushing our innocence." People did not say, "Wow that was great, time to celebrate." They said, "I need to go home and really think about this." It has been interesting to see this reaction to socio-political theatre. Even informed people see this play and say that they had no idea these human rights abuses were going on.
Can theatre and journalism coexist?
Don't they? Aren't they? We know so much about 16th century England because of Shakespeare, so they do coexist. I think theatre people are bringing details to life in a way that journalists can't. You often see journalists building a story—beginning, middle, and end—and they learned that from creative writers. So yes, they do. There is a fine line between dramatizing and journalism sometimes. Just think of every op-ed piece that you have ever read.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is opening in China this year in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. How do you think Chinese audiences will receive this play, especially given that such a large percentage of local residents work at Foxconn That is a great question. It is about them. I am really curious. I would just flip that question back on you and ask how would you feel about watching a play about your life? In a way, it might be flattering, but is also must be really weird. There is a moment of the play where Daisey says, "Why believe me? I could be making this all up. I am a known fabulist." But you can believe The New York Times. And you can believe NPR. So the Chinese audiences are going to see that people do know the truth. And changes are already happening.
Did you feel an ethical duty to present this play to Los Angeles audiences?
It feels great to do this play. It isn't a duty, but a contribution. It is well written and weaves threads together beautifully. I am so enthusiastic about doing this play, although the first few times I performed this play, I had to psych myself up a bit to tell people how shitty things are at Foxconn.
How is this different from other plays?
Controversy aside, it is real. The reason it is different is because every single person in the audience has one of these devices in their pocket. So, you can go see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and some people can relate to the alcoholism. Or you can go see Glengarry Glenn Ross and relate to people being mean. But this play is not about relating. This is real. This is happening to you right now.
Has any real change come about because of this play?
Yes, lot of things are happening, but there is a long way to go. Apple wants to start producing iPads in Cupertino next year. They dropped a distributor for using child labor. They was an article about a Foxconn employee who received a special chair because her job made her back hurt. Foxconn is aware that we are watching. China has its own mentality. Apple wanted to just pay people more money to compensate the workers and just be done with this whole thing. But in China you can't just pay workers more because that would create another class. China is a communist country that doesn't necessarily want to create socio-economic classes because then people are less equal.
Is there anything else you would like say about The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs?
I hope that people bother to see this play. There is so much good in this play. Los Angeles gets this bad rap for not having a great theatre scene, but it is as rich as Off-Off-Broadway in New York. Broadway and Off-Broadway are often terrible now. There is enough in L.A. to go see stuff, be impressed, and have a worthy night out. Theatre is not going away. You can have all of the TV and internet and film that you want, but theatre will ALWAYS be a singularly awesome experience. This play is one of those experiences where you will feel empowered by the message.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is playing through April 10 at Theatre Asylum. Tickets, ($15 to $20) are available online or via phone at 800-838-3006.