Tuesday, May 26, 2015

World Factory -- A Play

Audience participation is a rare, but not unheard of, tool in the playwright's toolbox. One of the more famous -- especially, perhaps, for readers of this blog -- is Ayn Rand's play Night of January 16th, in which members of the jury are selected from the audience, and two different endings are available, depending on the verdict.

There is a new play in which this level of audience participation is utilized, titled World Factory. This play puts you in the role of corporate board member, and your job is to make decisions about wages, layoffs, etc. In a certain sense, it is a staged game. Which means, there are programmed rules. And that is where the trouble potentially starts.

The most interesting thing, to me, would be to know what rules are being used to drive the decision-making of the participants. The rules of the game matter. Are the rules the real rules we find in real economic situations, or are the rules what the creators imagine capitalism to be? There is nothing wrong with the latter, so long as we don't pretend that the game represents the real world. There is nothing wrong with What If and alternate scenarios. That is what literature is all about, after all. But it becomes problematic when, as we see with the author of the piece, the fiction is mistaken for reality.

This play creates some interesting possibilities for the creation of new kinds of plays. The uniqueness of performance is certainly heightened, since one cannot script audience members' decisions when they are participating. Here we have the possibility of creating general rules and turning the playing within those rules into art. The line between art and games is here being blurred -- something we are not unfamiliar with, given the advances made in graphics. I have several times already thought I was watching a movie preview, only to find out it was an ad for a video game. Yet this adds another level of verisimilitude in the fact that we are watching people playing a game, and the outcomes of that game are what are of artistic interest.

Art always requires interpretation. The audience is viewing, interpreting the actions; but the participants are also interpreting their own actions. What is -- or should be -- of equal interest is what kinds of thinking was going on in the participants' minds. Where the audience is seeing greed, the board members might be thinking that unless they keep the company running and profitable, there will be all of these people out of work, and far worse off for it, unless hard decisions are made. Isn't it better to have your wages cut than to be unemployed entirely? And there is that aspect missing as well. How many in the audience are truly aware of the conditions of the factory workers in places like China before they could get those factory jobs?

There are complex social dynamics going on which are being simplified. That is what we would expect in a game, and that is what we would expect in a work of art. So long as we remember that that is what we are seeing, there is no problem with it. Play with the rules. Find out what happens. The problems arise if and when the audience walks away thinking they have seen how the world truly is, when they forget that art is a lie -- it may be a lie that lies like the truth, but it is always a lie. And this play is no different in that aspect.

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