Monologuing Steve Jobs: Mike Daisey Explores the ‘Agony and Ecstasy’

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Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty

Mike Daisey, creator and star of The Agony And The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a solo show opening October 11 at the Public, was at Disneyland last week when he learned of the Apple CEO’s resignation. “I found out on my iPhone,” Daisey said yesterday, still stuck in California as a result of post-Hurricane Irene travel chaos. “I just had the feeling you get when you realize that something terrible has happened, when you feel your center of gravity drop down to your bowels. What I think was really telling was that the release date for his authorized was moved up from March to November, because I think he wants to see it happen.”

Daisey is known for lengthy monologues like If You See Something Say Something, Monopoly!, Truth, and The Ugly American (most of them directed by his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory). Even though Daisey calls Jobs “a hero of mine,” the monologist had enough concerns about Apple and its co-founder to fuel a critical two-hour piece that explores the human cost of Apple's global supply chain, and the ultimate price of the shiny gadgets carried by so many. “Being a total tyrant and taskmaster,” Daisey says, “[Jobs] created the first global corporation that is welded to a single human vision.”

Two years ago, Daisey’s obsession with Apple led him to research how and where his iThis and iThat are made. He traveled to Shenzhen, China, home of the million-person Foxconn factory that assembles devices for Apple and other tech companies. Posing as an American executive interested in a deal, he reeled at the reality he observed. “I expected it to be bad, but the scale of the dehumanization was shocking, as well as how little it would take to make things better,” he said.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was workshopped in Washington, India, and Portland before three official runs in Berkeley, Washington, D.C., and Seattle this year. As recently as May, Daisey handed out Jobs’s email address to exiting audiences (“He has a good track record of responding to people”) — a practice that will not carry over to the production’s New York premiere.

Jobs’s resignation and failing health have certainly altered the atmosphere for the show. "When someone gets ill,” Daisey acknowledges, “it's hard to talk about that onstage." But Daisey won’t require a rewrite to accommodate the new developments — his show is extemporaneous and unscripted. "The piece will be changing as it's always been changing," he says.* If Jobs should actually pass away during the show’s run, Daisey says he’ll be respectful without "lionizing" him or "creating a religion" of Jobs. Ultimately, he said, “the monologue is about the end of an era” at Apple more than a biography of Jobs. “The people who founded Apple used to call themselves pirates; it went from being a company about freedom to a company that’s becoming more interested in control than creating a great user experience.”

Still, Daisey, who met and debated Jobs at the opening of Apple’s first Manhattan retail store in 2002, is sad to see the CEO step down. “Apple self-destructed the last time Steve Jobs left,” he said. “It was an explosion of mismanagement and deep supply-side problems. My fear is that this time, the destruction will result from something more prosaic — power.”

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*This line has been corrected for accuracy.