Features Published 8 May 2015

The Flipping of a Coin

"Democratic process in action." Duška Radosavljevic on the dramaturgy - and drama - of Kaleider's The Money.
Duska Radosavljevic

I went to see The Money by Kaleider at the BAC last week, and I ended up feeling both thrilled and shortchanged. Its dramaturgical simplicity is extremely seductive – a pile of money on the table, a ticking clock and the audience alone (required to reach a unanimous decision within 90 minutes). No actors, no script, no bells and whistles, just democratic process in action. It’s the kind of event that makes you want to discuss it for days afterwards and thank god for Twitter, but this is also difficult because each subsequent audience has a completely different experience, making it difficult to weave conversations across audiences.

On the night I saw it (29 April) Seth Honnor, the Kaleider Artistic Director tweeted

This was reiterated by the company at least once more on the night, but despite repeated queries by audience members, no further detail or response has been provided on exactly what caused this radical gesture. It’s a tricky issue, granted, and further conversation about it in the public domain might have made matters even more controversial – but why tickle the public’s curiosity if you are not willing to divulge the full story, or even give the audience members who had participated on the night the benefit of the full picture. On other nights, similarly tantalizing, similarly elusive comments have been made. Here’s one from Allegra Galvin:

For this reason I would like to share with you my own record – as detailed as I could possibly make it – on what happened the night I was there. With the caveat of course, that on every other night it would have been completely different.

Except for the fact that up until 24 April at least the following elements have recurred on every occasion:

So on 29 April (the night a lawyer had to be called), this is what happened): Person with helmet brings metal suitcase in, usherette takes out the money, counts it, returns suitcase to the person with helmet, and brings the money, together with a bell and some sheets of paper on a tray onto the table in the centre of the performance space.

We are sitting in rows around the four sides of the table – two facing sides are the ‘benefactors’ and the other two ‘silent witnesses’. We are told the benefactors have 90 minutes to reach a unanimous decision about what to do with the money. They all have to put their signature on a sheet of paper pledging their consent. If we don’t, the money will be rolled over to the following night. A sheet with the rules of the game is pointed out to us, lying on the table, and the usherette leaves us to it.

Characters soon emerge. The person who picks up the rules and reads them out to us, the person who counts the money, the person who speaks first. The person who loves the idea of a creative solution but she is not herself creative.

It is quickly established this is not a large amount of money, so how do we best spend it so it has a real impact, how can we increase it perhaps? Charity and random acts of kindness emerge pretty quickly as good ways to spend the money and hopefully easy to reach a consensus on. BAC Phoenix fund, Nepal, the homeless, are all flagged up as worthy causes.

A devil’s advocate emerges, a drama lecturer: ‘What if we symbolically burn the money?’, he asks. What if we challenge the neo-liberal conceptions of charity?

Chat. All agree they should commit to perform an act of kindness anyway, in their own time.

Someone suggests that all benefactors briefly introduce themselves and what they are passionate about, what they believe in.

Lots of causes are represented – John a recent convert from a silent witness to a benefactor goes for wildlife, a man born in 1989 in the 27th week of pregnancy goes for charity Bliss, others are keen on giving education to prisoners, helping homeless people, the victims of disasters in Nepal or Lampedusa. There is a young idealist passionate about LGBTQ issues. He suggests they should all create an artwork together and sell it, thus raising more money for their cause. There is a lady, an emergency nurse – one of three emergency nurses in attendance (who also loves the idea of creativity though she is not herself creative) – says she definitely wouldn’t like the money to be rolled over and she would prefer for it not to be shared between causes. She will soon suggest that all the possibilities are written on pieces of paper and drawn from a hat. For most of the rest of the proceedings she is tearing little pieces of paper from her diary on which to write these options to be taken out of a hat.

Kaleider's The Money

Kaleider’s The Money

The note-taker tries to recap on what the options are, tries to group them by theme. Someone observes how noble everyone has been not to suggest the possibility of personal interest. Another emergency nurse (one wearing sparkly ballerina shoes) notes it’s a small amount of money; if it had been several thousand, she might be motivated by personal interest, especially considering she is currently trying to get a mortgage – this way, no, the amount is too small.

The LGBTQ man suggests they should all meet together again to work on their strategy for raising more money for the cause they believe in. The lady who read the instructions explains politely she does not want to commit any more time to the project beyond tonight.

New converts trickle in. According to the rules each new convert has to ring the bell standing on the table before they sit down.

An Asian lady strides in a petulant manner, puts her money down, rings the bell and on taking her seat, asks ‘does no one want to question the structure of this show which makes you pay for the privilege of participating’. (She introduces herself, is passionate about many things, about feminism, about alternative things). A silent witness breaks the rule pointing out we might be paying for the privilege of staying silent. Someone, the note taker explains that the benefactor ticket was cheaper than the silent witness ticket. The Asian lady is obviously not just a devil’s advocate, she is a new kind of character in this drama – a contrarian, an articulate and highly politicized dissenter. A discussion ensues about power structures, the majority, and how the majority makes decisions on behalf of the minority. The Asian lady points out that we all immediately decided to think about how to spend the money rather than discuss issues around it. To her discussing the issues is a lot more valuable and interesting. She will not give her consent easily, she would prefer for the money to roll over than to sign up to something she doesn’t believe in. The note taker challenges her on positioning herself as an outsider, rather than being one of us.

The not creative emergency nurse is still tearing pieces of paper out of her diary for the options to be written on and put into a hat. A man is pulling a banknote out of his wallet preparing to come in. An Australian man puts his money down saying ‘I will not give my consent to anything unless you pay me £20’. Silent witnesses break into a rapturous applause.

The man who was getting ready to come in, puts his money back into his wallet.

The emergency nurse with sparkly shoes is tapping her foot.

A CEO of a charity sitting at the opposite end of the room from the Australian convert asks why. Australian explains he’s just collecting money for his travels, he has to leave the country in order to apply for a visa to come back. The CEO offers to give him £20 out of his own pocket to leave the game, to stay silent, in fact, to leave the room! The benefactors break into a rapturous applause. The Australian refuses. He explains he will give his consent to whatever the majority decides but wants £20 for it. The note-taker offers the Asian lady the same deal – £20 for her consent. After some negotiation, she accepts. A little later, the Australian and the Asian lady will be cast as the black sheep, as blackmailers. They are shamed for their selfish motives, for not appreciating the good that everyone including the emergency nurses want to do here. The Australian says ‘This is only theatre’. I break into rapturous applause.

The note taker is pointing out that the clock is ticking and we have to get a decision on what to spend the money on. The dithering convert, brings the money out again and joins in. He would like to start by asking how many more of the silent witnesses plan to join in. The usherette says the silent witnesses have to remain silent. He asks for a show of hands. She declines. He picks up the sheet with the rules on to see what it says about the possibility of a show of hands of silent witnesses and takes a seat.

The Bliss man says he will put his signature down on the blank paper anyway. This snowballs and others join in. The LBGTQ man suggest the first to sign should be the blackmailers, their signatures are needed. The sheet is going around the room. The note-taker insists on the decision.

The recent convert studying the rules declares that there is indeed a rule about the show of hands and silent witnesses and proceeds to put his proposal forward: there should be an opportunity for us to do good the way the majority decides but also there should be space in this for a radical gesture – say, we take £20 out of the pile and burn it or bet it on a horse. We could decide which by flipping a coin.

The drama lecturer who wants to burn the money says he would agree to that if the blackmailers would relinquish their payout. Negotiations take place whereby the blackmailers agree to relinquish half of their payout for this purpose. The note-taker insists on the decision.

John has a proposal. He goes to Namibia often. He will take the money and double it; he will convert it to Namibian currency, go into a slum, seek out the poorest people and give each person the equivalent of £1 which will mean a lot more to them than to most other potential recipients of the same amount. That way the impact would be enhanced. The majority seems to agree with this. The Asian lady refuses – she does not know who John is, why should she trust him?

How will we know that he will indeed do this? The new convert with the radical streak says John is his brother so he will vouch for him. It will all go on Twitter. The LBTQ man asks, what if we are not all on Twitter? John is changing his mind-what if he turns up in a slum with all this money and gets mugged. The Australian guy declares John would be like a reverse of the Nigerian email. Everyone breaks into rapturous applause.

A show of hands is asked for. The man who wants to burn the money abstains. When asked why, he says because there are still 5 minutes left – anything can happen.

In anticipation of the happy ending everyone including the Asian lady and the Australian guy seems pleased. The Australian guy exclaims this is the craziest thing he’s ever done.

But wait, what if we flip the coin and bet on a horse and win the money what then, what then??? Will John still double it? He will! Even if we wins £10, 000. Yes, he will. He puts his address down on the sheet of paper making the pledge which will be signed by everyone indicating unanimous consent. The lady who read the instructions now reads the agreement out to all.

The usherette declares the ending to the show, silent witnesses can speak, everyone can now have a glass of wine.

A silent witness asks for the coin to be flipped. John’s brother gets a coin out, asks the man who wants to burn the money to pick heads or tails. He picks heads. Heads for burning, tails for betting.

The coin is flipped.

It’s heads.

Catherine Love and Annegret Marten on Kaleider’s The Money

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Duska Radosavljevic

Duska Radosavljevic is a dramaturg, teacher and scholar. She is the author of Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century (2013) and editor of The Contemporary Ensemble: Interviews with Theatre-Makers (2013). Duska has also contributed to The Stage Newspaper since 1998 as well as a number of academic and online publications in English and in Serbian.

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