In an era heavy with self-publishing, from the selfie to the blogger influencer, from citizen journalism to reality TV, from political outsiders to plebiscites, we’ve rejected the elites and valorised the everywoman and everyman as earthy, connected and wise. Traditional arts and performance are challenged by the practically infinite stream of user-generated content, curated and hosted onto global platforms. As the guy who has the logins for this website, I’m also deeply aware (and thankful) for that.
But traditional artists and creators, from the fringe to the flagships, draw on a legacy and history of theory, practice and perspective. So what happens when the creative talent of the theatre is turned on us, the audience? UK company Kaleider, has turned the spotlight of performance to the audience, and crafted an entire piece that forcefully asks: “okay, so you’ve got a better idea?”
The premise is clever: you can book a regular ticket as an audience member (dubbed a Silent Witness) who watches but is under no obligation to participate, or you can buy in as a Benefactor, a member of a decision-making group whose ticket money is pooled and presented for deliberation. The Benefactors are then given an hour to determine what to do with this money under the following conditions: it cannot split, it cannot be given to charity, it must be used within the law. Within the allotted hour, we must reach a unanimous decision on how to use this money, or it will roll over to the next audience (as we discovered after the show, the next performance will be in March 2017. In Lisbon, Portugal).
Attending on the final night of the festival and the show, we arrived at the Victorian State Parliament, a grand old building with an appropriate air of gravitas and the security screening adding to the sobriety of our deliberations. As the show opened, we were very formally ushered into the Legislative Assembly chamber by the two stoic performers (Alice Tatton-Brown and Kelly Marie Miller), with Silent Witnesses taking the benches normally bearing the collective weight of Victoria’s MPs. Benefactors, including myself, took seats around the central table, normally hosting the leaders of the State Government and Opposition; an appropriate layout for those who will make decisions and those who will watch.
As the chamber doors closed, we were given an introduction to the performance, a digital timer started the 60 minute countdown, and the show began (including live streaming). It’s a curious inversion of the norm to have the show commence with the performers abdicating the space and the attention, handing it all over to the audience to do with as they wish. As is the case with any group of strangers, we took our time to warm up, getting one member to read the rules given to us, and someone prompted us to introduce ourselves and our political leanings (to a few raised eyebrows), before we deliberated on the fate of the $360 in our pool.
Over the course of the next hour, discussion ensued, peppered with time checks and the odd Silent Witness paying $20 into the pool to join the discussion. Newcomers’ motivations ranged from wanting to cut down on time wasting, to wanting to clarify the meaning of “to charity,” or to present alternate approaches to using our small fund. The ideas that emerged around the table included seeding an endowment for a performance at next year’s festival, paying dancers who were due to film a music video that evening, supporting animals somehow, buying technical equipment to support an audio description service for the arts, handing the cash over to a homeless woman nearby, supporting the Western Bulldogs, funding arts history conservation, being entrepreneurial and trying to grow the money, and even just leaving the money to roll over to the next set of Benefactors, so that they have a more substantial fund to work with.
The course of the conversation was revealing, from accusations that one Benefactor was ‘a stooge’ for the performance, questions about the most effective way to use this money, whether it was a bandaid or sustainable action. Personalities and preferences emerged quickly, with opinions sometimes even more firm about the process of decision-making than the outcomes. Ultimately, the mood of the group swung behind the finite, contained proposals: paying dancers or purchasing a transmitter for one Benefactor’s audio description service.
In the final vote, the audio description service won out, and we all signed the contract holding the Benefactor responsible for purchasing the specified equipment and putting any remaining money to additional technology for his business. But it really wasn’t until the final minutes that we concluded our duty, and the performers returned to the space, formal and inscrutable, to check our work, verify the outcome and close the performance.
The experience of 60 minutes of debate about using the money was fascinating. Time sped up and slowed down; at times it seemed we would have plenty of time to spare before the timer hit zero, but then the discussion would tangle and the time left seemed too little. And even though we knew that we were participants in this social experiment for entertainment, frustrations still built as people’s agendas and perspectives on the best outcome moved in or out of favour.
The show is a delicious examination of group dynamics, and for those of us (like myself) who work in jobs where meetings are our daily bread, the flux of discussion was deeply familiar. It highlighted the difficulties of advocacy and persuasion in a short period of time, with a group comprised of strangers rather than ideological or political bedfellows.
The show’s creator, Seth Honnor, has cleverly inverted the observer and the observed, and challenged the audience to put their money where their mouth is (forgive the cliché). In thrusting the decision into our hands and asking us to figure it out, The Money is a splash of cold water in the face of political frustration and apathy. As voting publics around the world deliver retribution to the ‘elite’ at the ballot box and elsewhere, in this show we are then given the opportunity to show how we would do better in the cut and thrust of proposing and defending ideas, reaching compromise and working within ‘the system.’ Anytime that I make my stock standard complaint on politicians and leaders who are hopelessly compromised or unable to deliver outcomes, I’ll wince slightly at the memory of sitting at the table and having the buck stop with me.
Thanks to Seth Honnor for a top person, for aiding in the revival of this somehow-deleted review. You’re ace Seth.