By now you've probably heard about, or seen the YouTube clip, of how monologist Mike Daisey's one-man performance at Cambridge's ART was disrupted last week. A large group of people got up en masse and walked out as he was speaking, with one in the group taking a bottle of water and pouring it all over Mike's desk and notes. If you haven't, you can read Mike's account of the situation
, along with the YouTube clip, but do be careful; the clip begins with a whole lot of profanity and a joke about sex with Paris Hilton.
First off, Mike handles the initial confrontation amazingly well. He tries to engage the group in conversation as they leave in an attempt to make some sense of just what is going on, offers to refrain from using profanity if that's what is bothering them, and only near the end does he display a bit of temper when it's clear these people are not about to explain anything ("they don't even have the GUTS
to talk to me!" he yells after them.) Then, as his stuff is being wiped off (his notes, by the way, are hand-written and unique for every show; he had no copies until someone backstage quickly took the soggy papers to a photocopier) he tries to work out just what happened with the audience. And even in his disbelief and shock, he manages to convey his feelings very well without resorting to outright anger, vitriol, and what-have-you. In fact, he is quite funny when describing other kinds of performance art.
As the story would later unfold, it came out that one in the group turned at the door as they were leaving and mentioned they were a Christian group. This, then, became the focus of the initial online stories, and without corroboration or justification, the story quickly turned into a shocked-and-surprised "OMG FUNDIES WENT OUT AND PROTESTED THIS GUY'S SHOW!!" alert, and that brand of hysterical OMG-ing naturally travels much faster than a report of "OMG PEOPLE WALKED OUT OF THIS GUY'S SHOW!"
But an organized religious protest this was not. The group was a public (secular) high school group from California on a trip to Boston who had decided to see a show that evening, and somehow ended up picking Mike's. It's clear, however, that the group shares a common faith, and that their moral standards played a big role in the group leaders' decision to get up and leave when they were presented with language and content which they felt was inappropriate for the kids in their charge. Fair enough; extremely fair enough.
And to their credit, the group contacted the box office first to check its suitability, but here is where accounts differ: the group says they were told it was "clean and suitable for teenagers"; ART says they informed the group that the show "contained strong language and adult situations." My guess is that the communication breakdown falls somewhere in the middle. There was another high school group at the show that night and they stayed around, and as we all know, one person's definition of "suitable" is different from another's.
When the school group realized the show was not suitable for them, they did the right thing: they got up and left. Even if it involved 85 people standing up and walking out in mid-sentence, which indeed is downright disturbing to someone on stage, it was their prerogative to do so. It was not a premeditated protest, it wasn't a "Hey guys, let's go mess this guy's show up," it was a "We don't like what we're seeing, so we're leaving." They didn't yell, they didn't boo, they didn't start chanting or singing or anything. They just got up and left.
Except for one guy who had to take it further. There everything changes. Once Mike's stuff is messed with, it turns from a non-violent act of self-removal to an outright attack on the man and his work. The look in Mike's eyes as he watches this happen is something frightening. We don't get to see what the man looked like, but it's clear in Mike's reflective stare that he is callous and cold in his actions and his demeanor.
Afterwards, Mike explains how he feels torn up inside, and justifiably so, that his trust with the audience was betrayed. I know some may feel that's a bit dramatic, however appropriate the word is right now, but it's true. When you go out on stage, you are putting yourself in front of a group of people, most often strangers, and you expect them -- you trust them -- not to attack you. Maybe it's less true for, say, stand-up comedians in crappy bars who have to deal with drunken hecklers, but it's certainly true for other performers. I would say it's even moreso for monologists, whose work is often derived directly from their own feelings, emotions and experiences. You're not just putting yourself out there physically, but emotionally as well... even if your monologue involves jokes about sex with Paris Hilton. There was more to his show than that, and Mike even mentions that. How he talked about his wedding and other such personal experiences before the disruption. Talking about your personal experiences in front of an audience of strangers does require a bit of trust.
But all it took was one man out of an entire audience to betray that trust.
There's closure to this story now. There's an update
on Mike's site where he describes how he tracked down the group and tried to open a dialogue with someone, anyone there. Eventually he gets ahold of the man who poured the water. And instead of screaming at each other, one accusing the other of being an enormous asshole, the other making accusations of obscenity and pornography or whatnot... they talk.
It took incredible courage, I think, for Mike to do that. To just... talk. I also think it took incredible courage on the other guy's part to talk back without getting into histrionics. In fact, he opens up to Mike and admits he's scared of how he sees the world constantly conflicting with his faith and beliefs, and how scared he is for his children, and that he does have problems managing and controlling his anger. However, there's no bonding here. They don't finish the conversation as friends -- in fact, Mike gets angry that the man doesn't seem to take him for anything until he mentions a religious upbringing, and is offended when the man uses "liberal" as an epithet.
But as they conclude, Mike forgives him. The man never sought an apology, never asked for one, but Mike forgives him anyway. And even if his statement of forgiveness is on the sanctimonious side ("I want you to remember that a liberal athiest [sic] has forgiven you today") there seems to be no doubt Mike meant it in all sincerity.
When I saw how Mike handled the first confrontation, I gained incredible respect for this artist I'd never even heard of. But when I read how a 'liberal atheist' had acted more like a Christian than a self-proclaimed Christian, how he had peacefully confronted his attacker, gained an understanding and then forgave him in peace, that respect increased exponentially. Say what you will about the content of his work, but Mike Daisey's actions and reactions should be an inspiration to everyone and you know how I dislike phrases like that. But it's true. When we hear stories of someone acting in an offensive manner to another -- Don Imus insulting the Rutgers women's basketball team, Sheryl Crow arguing global warming with Karl Rove, Richard Gere kissing a Bollywood star in public -- the inevitable reaction from the offended side is loud, angry, and more often than not violent. It's almost as if we can't fathom a response in any other fashion. But Mike Daisey bucked that trend, he actively went against it by doing the right thing, the rightest thing you can do. Sure, he didn't change the guy's mind, and the guy didn't change Mike's mind, but that wasn't the point, and it's not what you should always be setting out to accomplish. The best you can do is try and gain an understanding of the other person's side of things, and then make an attempt to reconcile, put it behind you, and continue with life.
That right there is more inspirational than anything I've read in a long, long time.