Capitalism plays out in a theatre performance

So far in the series, we heard from business and union leaders, bankers, campaigning activists, and academic economists. This time, Zoë Svendsen, talks about a theatre performance with a difference, and journalist and author Paul Mason explains how story-telling must change in a world where capitalism is being challenged.

Ethical, ruthless, or rational?

Have you ever wondered how you would act if you were put in the position of running a Chinese clothing company? In a multi-disciplinary, participative theatre production called World Factory - staged at the Young Vic in 2015 - audiences had a taste of dealing with the harsh realities of today’s garment industry. Their reactions offer new perspectives on the impact of capitalist models of production, and also its resilience.

The idea for World Factory grew from collaboration between Zoë Svendsen and Simon Daw with Chinese theatre director Zhao Chuan. The production explored preconceptions about capitalism; inviting audiences to participate in a game of choices, and then recording and analysing their decisions. Through consecutive performances, World Factory repeatedly revealed how peoples‟ ethical stance and principles are challenged and compromised when they themselves are making decisions.

Made in China

The show was not just about China, but the setting was chosen because the idea was born in Shanghai. Svendsen found her own perceptions challenged when she heard Zhao Chuan talking about communism, capitalism, clothing and factories. “He wasn’t talking about contemporary China,” says Svendsen; “He was talking about Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.”

The conversation had a significant impact on Svendsen. “It immediately shifted my position away from feeling a vaguely guilty consumer, wondering whether I should shop at Primark or not, to a sense of myself as a historical subject; as a citizen of the county which de facto invented the factory system.”

The global/historical cross-references thrown up by Svendsen‟s encounter with Zhao Chuan became the starting point for the World Factory project.

Rules of the game

The stage set that Svendsen and her team subsequently designed evoked both a factory floor and a casino. When the audience entered, they sat in groups of six around tables, and each group was invited to run a small clothing company in China.

At the heart of the show was an inter-active, scenario-based card game based on nuggets of story line, structured to go in different directions depending on what decisions were made. Svendsen describes it as a “cross between Monopoly and poker, but with stories.”

“On the front of each card was a conundrum - a question about how you could run your company - and on the back two ways in which you could respond, designed to produce a discussion among the audience members sitting around the table.” she explains.

A key instruction for the game was that each team should decide what it meant to win. At every performance, each group started with the same initial conundrum; the need to cut the wage bill, either by cutting the workforce, or by cutting wages. Their decision – registered by swiping a bar- code – determined which card they received next, and so the game unfolded.

With a total of 420 possible cards, there were more than five million different possible routes through the game; a bespoke computer system jumping people into different parts of the system depending on each option they chose.

“What it allowed us to do was create a system that touched on many different thematics, such as environmental impacts, labour conditions, child labour, migration, immigration, pollution and globalisation.” says Svendsen.

“It was about producing a network of how these topics relate; what kinds of pressures there are under which one of these small factories might be operating.”

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