Saturday, March 31, 2012

Truth and Theatre

Introduction: (You can read this in an Ira Glass voice if you like).

I haven't posted for a couple weeks now. Part of it has been the day job. Part of it was a nasty cold that has left me drained at the end of the day. And part of it is this particular essay.

I regularly write entries for this blog that do not see the light of day. I tend to over-think things sometimes, and I find that, in covering everything, my argument spreads out into a fine, thin film and my central points get lost. Or I put it off and then find that the rest of the world has moved on and everything than can be said, has been said. But this particular piece has been hanging fire for the better part of two weeks, and I need to get it out of the way so I can talk about other stuff. Because it tends to get into a subject I've already been talking about a lot - the nature of truth in threatre.

So I have a presentation in a standard three-act structure. Act One: An Opportune Death. Act Two: The Wheels Come off. Act Three: Lessons are Learned. And I'm going to try to cover the facts of the case without getting too deeply into the weeds, because some people know a lot about this already, and a lot of people may have caught something in passing. Further research, as I have discovered, is always encouraged.

So. We begin.

Act One: An Opportune Death

I'm a fan of monologist Mike Daisey. I've talked about him a number of times in this space, most recently in a review of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he weaves the history of Apple and our own technofetish impulses for new toys with his own experiences in China, talking with the workers about the oppressive and dangerous work making those toys. It was a dark piece, a political piece, a strongly emotional piece. And it was great theatre.

And great theatre does not stay in the theater. For most plays, the house lights come up and the crowd shuffles out and the cleaning crew preps for the evening show. Great theatre can stay with you days, weeks, and months after you see it, but for most of us, the impression fades, it is added onto the rest your life experiences, and everyone passes on to the next thing. Another group may be enraptured, or you can go back to rekindle the experience, or sometimes the work is photographed for a small shadow of its previous glory. But theatre, even great theatre, can fade over time. And that could have been the fate of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

Except a very strange thing happened - Steve Jobs died. You may have read something about that.

It is not strange that Mr. Jobs passed on - such in the nature of all things mortal. But rather what happened next was strange, almost theatrical. There were obituaries and eulogies and that apotheosis where the mortal is raised to godhood. And people looked around to find someone who knew about Steve Jobs and could speak eloquently about him and Apple, and found - Mike Daisey.

Mike Daisey, who has been talking about Jobs and Apple and the factories at Foxxcon, where the toys are made under armed guards and oppressive conditions. Underage workers and maimed employees. Daisey had met with workers and heard their stories and came back and told about his experiences and built a bridge between consumers and producers. He did interviews on his experiences. Op-ed pieces. And he got a lot of attention on This American Life, from WBEZ in Chicago, which excerpted parts of his Chinese sojourn for the show, then fact-checked him at the end of the program. They checked out the stuff they could, and found out that yes, there were accidents and yes, there were long hours and labor law violations and the like. Underage labor exists, though cases are not as common as Daisey indicated. The idea that the show checked out Daisey's statements, then presented what they found, strengthened Daisey's arguments. It was pretty impressive.

But here's the thing. It turns out that what Daisey said on the stage, reproduced on the radio as journalism, wasn't quite .... accurate. Or truthful. To be frank, he made stuff up. He lied.

Act 2: The Wheels Come Off

The nature of the lie is layered - yes, he went to China. Yes, he talked to workers. Yes, workers in the major factories work bone-crushing hours in repetitive actions. Yes, the official unions are government controlled. Yes, we aren't aware who the elves are that are making our toys. Yes, to get in, he posed as a businessman.

This American Life factchecked Daisey's piece, as I said. They asked for his translator's contact info. Daisey said it was no longer valid, and besides, he changed the translator's name for the piece. The radio show took him at his word (other things checked out) and ran the piece.

But then, a reporter from ANOTHER NPR show, Marketplace, an "Old China Hand' thought there were some things in the report that didn't add up. Yes, there were worked injured by hexane, but they were in a plant far away from the ones Daisey visited. The idea of unionists meeting in a Starbucks sounded odd. So this journalist started digging. He found the interpreter, the one Daisey said could not be located. It turns out she did have the same name as Daisey had reported. And she disagreed with a lot of the interactions that Daisy claimed to have with the workers.

But there were no armed guards. He did not meet with hundreds of employees at the gates, but rather only fifty or so. He may not have met with someone who worked there underage, but it was unlikely. Some of the facts were right, but the interactions were wrong. And that's a problem.

This American Life chose to pull the original show, which was one of their most popular, and to run a retraction, because what they said was the truth was suddenly suspect. And they didn't just run a retraction at the bottom of the blog on a Sunday morning, they did an entire show on the retraction, including interviews with both the Marketplace reporter and with Daisey himself, in all its uncomfortable glory. Its good reporting and good radios - go give it a listen.

Act 3: Lessons are Learned

In the weeks since the revelations there has been a great lamentation and rending of garments about this, a strange form of kabuki dance in which people a shocked, simply shocked, that a writer misrepresented himself. But the story feels more nuanced than at first blush and several of the actors involved are acting out of character.

Marketplace, the way the script it supposed to work, should have sprung this on TAL with an expose that shows up and challenges their facts. Instead, they offered what they learned to TAL and gave them the chance to break the story on their own. That's nice, but its not normal.

TAL, were it a traditional media company, could have stonewalled (we stand behind our sources), then, when overwhelmed, squeaked out innocuous retractions and then redesigned their site, so that the offending piece mysterious would go down the memory hole. They instead did ANOTHER show on their mistake.

And Daisey himself could have doubled-down in the best media tradition, and thrown his translator under the bus. Of COURSE she disagrees with me, she's in a country committing all these labor abuses! Reduce it to he said/she said, which makes the media believe things are balanced. Instead, he admits to some sins, stands by his badly-damaged word on others, and seemed to be honestly trying to figure out where things went wrong. In the end, he apologized on his own blog.

It seems almost precious in the modern media world. We have a media where daytime talkers and morning shows go off at length with obvious falsehoods, pounded into believable shape through continual repetition. Where political candidates will tell blatant lies, get called on them, then go off to their next speech to tell the same lies again. Where a lot of reporting is pressured by time constraints to little more than rewriting press releases and canned interviews filtered to the speaker's talking points and the audience's expectations. And here we have a passion for finding out the truth. In the wake of these revelations, there seems to be a lot of pearls being clutched by a lot of sensible souls.

And here is what it boils down to. Much (but not all) of what Daisey said about conditions in these factory towns was true. Much (but not all) of what Daisey said about his own role is false, or at least deeply questionable. And the moment when everything went south was when he stepped out of the theater and onto a larger stage, treating his creation as reality.

And here's the personal connection, which has stalled me for two weeks. In my own reviews of the Seattle Rep this season I found myself coming back to the nature of truth, and the trustworthiness of those on standing on the boards.Humor Abuse was a one-man memoir. How to Write a New Book for the Bible goes into detail on what happened and what didn't - what was memory and what was nudged one step closer to believability by quoting from the author's diary. I Am My Own Wife deals with the question of an unreliable narrator, yet leaves the audience curiously beached. Red featured real-world painter Rothko doing real-world Rothko things and saying real-world Rothko quotes, but is a construct, the pacing and lines shaped for the purposes of presentation.

Yet regardless how they acknowledge the presence of the truth, they do bend it, and because it is theatre, that bending is accepted. That there were no modern clocks to strike the hour in ancient Rome does not weaken Shakespeare's Julius Caesar one wit. Ditto Hamlet attending a university founded 700 years after his time. The membrane grows thin when you hit a monologue, a play in which the writer is portraying a character with the same name, you tend to believe that this is the truth. But I've also read a lot of Hunter Thompson, and I doubt the everything reported about the adventures of Hunter Thompson, writer, written by Hunter Thompson, writer, is absolute truth. It does not stop stop the enjoyment factor, though I would hesitate to quote him in an argument.

It is a weird dualism that perhaps lies at the heart of art, writing, and theatre - the ability to lie, or misrepresent, or alter, to get to greater truths. This particular season has scraped up against this basic fact a number of times, and now my concerns have spilled out over NPR about at which point it turned from being art and into being a sin.

And I feel no closer now than when I've begun. I've targeted examples, and planted a few markers, but they are markers in a soft and shifting sand. This is one that won't go away for a while for a while.

More later, without a doubt.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Art Happens

Red by John Logan, directed by Richard E.T.White, through March 24, 2012.

This is a lot more engaging than two guys talking about art has any right being.

One of the Seagram Murals, Mark Rothko, Tate Galley
And that is what it is - two guys talking about (and creating) modern art. Denis Arndt, last seen at the Rep in God of Carnage, is modern abstract artist Mark Rothko. Connor Toms is Ken, his new assistant, who is supposed to mix the paints, clean the brushes, do the undercoats, and provide an audience for Rothko's rants against art, the world, and the art world.

The action of the play, such at it is, is an artist's dream assignment. The time is the late 50s. Rothko has been hired to paint a series of murals that will be installed in the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram's Building in NYC. This is a real event in the life of the real Mark Rothko. And a number of questions swirl around this - whether this is selling out, what is the purpose of art, or of modern art and what the purpose of the art in a public space should be.

It feels weird to be looking back from a half-century in the future at "modern" art - the non-representation sort of art that has garnered praise and brickbats through the decades. Jasper Johns, the emotional dipper of paints, the platonic ideal of the "modern artist" lies at one end of the spectrum. Rothko is at the other, carefully laying down layers and pulling the colors forward, until they vibrate on the canvas. Rothko is a careful worker, struggling on a set schedule, to create his art. Yet both styles of modern art remain outside the comfort zone of the average art viewer. So the question ends up, what is the purpose of this art?

There has been a theme of reality and versions of reality through the current play season. Humor Abuse is a memoir. How to Write a New Book for the Bible has the playwright working from his own diaries. The recent I Am My Own Wife deals with a real individual and the playwright's relationship with her. Yet the question of how much truth makes it to the stage is present in all of them. Rothko is real. The events are real. A lot of the statements about art he makes on stage are real. "Ken" is a composite character, made up of three different unnamed assistants. Is this a biographical piece? Is it accurate? Is it an excuse for an art lecture?

And yeah, it is a very good art lecture. The writing is taunt and the action contained to art and the artist's studio. In that way it feels timeless (I had to dig out from the Wikipedia when the events happen - there are few clues). Attempts to divert the action away from the job at hand go nowhere, and the foundations of the play push back. We know little of Rothko's personal life, and less of "Ken's". Nothing penetrates the purity of the art.

I talked about the "dictionary speech" in the last review -  the sprawling avalanche of knowledge delivered to establish expertise in the speaker. They do it here, but with enough passion and emotion to make you grok that the person speaking knows what he is talking about, as opposed to just filling air. Arndt embodies Rothko in a basic form and remains true to the artist all the way through. It was amazing to see an actor just fill up a role.

The staging, by the way is like the man - almost totally grounded until the very end. The setting is a former gym turned art studio, dominated by huge Rothko/Rothkoesque paintings. The paintings drop, spin, are turned, are created, and are docked in their containers in a continual ballet of activity. You feel it is a working shop.

The play bustles for 90 minutes without interruption, for any intermission would break the flow of the work. Yet at the end, you feel fed and pleased that you've been subjected to modern art for an hour and half without having to make a SAN check.

This one has a mixed review on Grubbstreet. I, who care little for modern art, got it and felt it was wonderful and made me actually care about modern art, or at least Rothko's embodiment of it. I don't have answers to many of the questions raised, but I have to admit they are wonderful questions. The Lovely Bride, who also doesn't care for modern art, didn't care for it as much, and further commented "Of course the painting seems to vibrate if you start drinking at 9:30 in the morning!"

And I will leave it at that. I think it makes the case for non-representational art better than most essays I've read on the subject.

More later,

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Meanwhile, in Tyria

My co-author on Ghosts of Ascalon, Matt Forbeck, is currently involved in the non-GW2 activity of doing twelve books in twelve months. His second trilogy, a fantasy noir called Shotguns and Sorcery, is now on kickstarter. Worth checking out.

Also, I've done another interview with Wartower, this time on the nature of the Asura. Check out the podcast. And as before, the framing material is in German, but my stuff is in English.

And finally, last week out championship ping-pong team has beaten the Penny Arcade team in a slaughter (well, 5-4). Side bets were made, though the nature of these wagers as yet unrevealed.

Your worst nightmare - ArenaNet employees with paddles!
More later,

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Raucus Caucus Redux

So I gave you the set-up, so I feel obliged to tell you how things turned out for the GOP caucus.

As promised, I slept in, though that had more to do with the head cold I'm nursing than any strong political attitude. However, it seems that not everyone had that level of common sense, and most of the staff of the Stranger went to caucuses, in some cases ending up running their precincts and being selected to go to the next level for nomination. Yeah guys, very funny.

The caucus was accompanied by a preference of candidate (which is termed a "beauty contest" but is really just a non-binding straw poll), and Huffpo reports with 90% of the vote in, we have Romney at 36.6%, Paul at 24.9%, Santorum at 24.4%, Gingrich at 10.6% and Others at 3.5%.  The votes also award 30 delegates to Romney, and 5 each to Paul and Santorum. This last bit is both premature and wrong, since there with be a county-level winnowing process, and then the state delegation selected from this.

Now, this winnowing can go two ways at this point. By the time of county and state, Romney can have enough delegates piled up elsewhere, which means everyone falls in line and goes with the inevitable. By the same token, a stated tactic for the Ron Paul supporters is to get into the process in this step as potential delegates for another candidate, and then declare for their man at a later stage (which is fair under the rules). Heck, enough members of the Stranger staff are going over to the next level to make up their own voting bloc.

The caucus did not go off without a hitch. The Paul supporters challenged the mainstream leadership, and there were cases of voters being turned away because the chosen venue was too small (that's good news for a party worried about a lack of enthusiasm, but has already raised the tweets of shennanigans).

And I got a bit of chuckle from this amusing typo in the Seattle Times reporting on Paul's electability versus Romney's:
Larry Hughes, a 71 year-old retired IT professional with a neat, thin gray moustache, shook his head. He recalled believing that Barry Goldwater was a much-need change agent, as Dukes sees Paul now, only to see Goldwater badly beaten.
“I see Goldwater all over again,” said Hughes.  Romney is the only candidate who can be Obama, he said.
(I think the speaker meant "beat Obama" as opposed to "be Obama", but I guess Romney could be Obama if he tried. I mean, he's been everyone else so far).

In any event, if you are interesting in how YOUR state is handling the primary season, a great resource is The Green Papers, which is process-wonk's Nirvana of all the minutiae involved in the primary and caucus process, and gives a ring-side seat to the convoluted and often messy process of democracy. Go take a look.

More later,

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Raucous Caucus

You know, I really thought it would be over by now. And by "it" I mean the Republican nominating process. I figured people would calm down and get in line and go in the direction the party elders want them to go. Such has not been the case, and now Washington State is next in line.

I mean, wasn't this one of the reasons for sliding everything so far forward in the yearly schedule? Why Michigan and Florida are being punished (by not sending as many delegates to the convention as originally allocated) for moving their dates forward? That there would be a general threshing out and a knock-out blow for one candidate and then all good men and women would shoulder the wheel for the general?

It didn't pan out that way. Yeah, the long-running Clinton/Obama battle last time out made for both good press and tested each candidate, such that folk had a good idea of what they were voting for by the end of it. But this multiple-clown-car-pileup that is the GOP selection process has been going on way too long. The early primary/caucus schedule did not coronate a clear leader, but left an ongoing "Tune in Next Week" feature to the ongoing drama. The debates were just terrible, in that they revealed more about the mob than about the candidates (It is apparently OK to boo servicemen, the dying, the uninsured, the elderly, the media, black people, people who ask follow-up questions, and black people in the media who ask follow-up questions). The entire process has taken on a train-wreck nature to it all.

Now part of the current challenge, I have to admit, is due to the wonderful diversity of the primary/caucus process. If you like the idea of states have the right to do things their own way, this process is for you. Everyone writes their own rules. Some primaries produce delegates. Others do not, and are little more than beauty contests. Some caucuses produce delegates. Some do not. Some primaries and caucuses are open, which mean anyone can be a part. Others required some form of proof that you are of the party you claim to be. Some contests allocate delegates proportionately, while others are winner take all. Some require the delegates chosen to vote for their chosen candidate when the time comes, some release them after a number of rounds, and some place no such limitation on them at all (The entire Pennsylvania delegation will, apparently, go to the convention "Unpledged"). Add to this a cascade of missteps, miscounts, and media manglings, and it really doesn't show off the local-level political process or the candidates too well.

Indeed, almost every contest so far gets an asterisk for either a) some screwup in counting, b) some recognition that the vote does not directly reflect the eventual result, or c) is adjacent to a candidate's "home state" (and to be fair to the others, how many home states does Romney HAVE, anyway?). This is democracy at its creakiest, where we look like some small European province from a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera.

Anyway, Washington. Washington State has its GOP caucuses this year on Saturday, in part because the state didn't want to spring for primaries (our new motto is "As much democracy as we think we can afford"). The caucus process means that a bunch of folk get into a room and select delegates. But it doesn't stop there. These folk get to have a later meeting where they chose FEWER delegates, and so on until we get down to 40 delegates (with three more added on - party leaders who swill serve as "superdelegates"). These 43 go to the convention itself. That first day is important for the media (who "wins" Washington - there will be a non-binding straw poll), but the final selection happens much later (and is much quieter).

This type of selection process works for the more traditional members, since there is voter erosion as you go along. The more outspoken members get shuffled to one side and the more traditional ones take control. On the Dem side eight years ago, I went in as a Dean supporter, and ended up being a Edwards delegate (just to spite those Kerry supporters - the full tawdry story is here). Inertia helps as you move through the process, and for that reason the Precinct Committee Officers are important. Which is one reason that the Paul campaign is pre-complaining about potential funny business, as it doesn't matter who votes so much as who counts the votes.

I was going to rail on the various surviving candidates here, but this posting has gone on long enough, and to be honest, while I'd like to see a viable Republican with a solid message in the race, I'm really not going to vote for any of these guys. However, the Washington caucuses are kinda open, which means you have to sign a form saying you won't show up for the Dem caucuses, but otherwise it is available to all. But if you're a Dem, you shouldn't show up just to throw a monkey wrench in the works, which some have suggested. Why?
   1) It's kind of stupid.
   2) It never really works, in part because of the erosion effect I mentioned above.
   3) You wouldn't like it much if someone did it to you.
   4) It really is kind of stupid.

With that, I encourage those who plan on voting Republican in the fall to make their voices heard and their votes recorded, and go to the caucuses Saturday morning.

Me? I'll be sleeping in.

More later,