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Features Published 21 April 2015

The Money

Catherine Love and Annegret Märten discuss Kaleider's playful piece of game-theatre.
Catherine Love

Catherine Love: Money does funny things in a performance space. Since it’s already representational – a stand-in for ever more murky value – in the theatre it becomes doubly so. Does that mean we can think about it differently here?

This is one of the many questions simmering beneath the deceptively simple surface of Kaleider’s The Money. More game than theatre, it puts a group of strangers and a pot of money in the same room for two hours, challenging the “benefactors” to unanimously agree a way to spend the cash at the end of the time limit. Others, the two of us included, watch on as “silent witnesses”, with the option to buy in at any point. Rules established and clock ticking, it’s then just a case of making a decision.

It should be easy, but of course it’s not. Even among a group of people who decide within the first few minutes that they want to be charitable with the money at their disposal, (polite) disagreement is rife. Should the money be spent on one thing or many? How can it make the greatest impact? Is this an opportunity to change someone’s life, or to do something creative? And what slowly emerges, as much as the value we put on money, is the huge matrix of non-monetary values that we live our lives by.

Annegret Märten: When the whole thing started I very much doubted that the concept would be able to sustain itself over the course of two hours. If you are a benefactor, and able to argue with the 11 other participants, then maybe, but as a silent witness not being able to influence the decision making process? A few minutes in I was already worried that watching people argue about “what good” they could do to the world would become a very tedious spectacle.

But then people started showing their real colours. One of my favourite moments was when someone very confidently declared that they don’t care about children and would object to spending the money on entertaining children on a hospital ward. It was a fascinating moment because however outrageous other benefactors might have found this statement, they weren’t really able to argue out of fear of endangering future interactions with this person.

The setup has such clear rules and yet is kept so minimal; the money is laid out on a big wooden table and all the seats are arranged so that it can be clearly viewed from everywhere, along with a sheet of rules, a bell and an agreement that needs to be filled in at the end. That’s all there is to worry about. These rules are much more clear than the real life rules of how money circulates and is being distributed. I therefore imagine that at some point in the evening each group will reflect collectively on the value of money. Our group too turned away from the issue of what the money should be spent on to very consciously discussing the process of decision-making itself.

You made a point about how money and The Money, as a show in the performance space, were particularly relevant to this venue and group of people. Because the show was at the BAC – which was recently affected by a big fire – helping the building and the staff was a constant reference point in the discussion.

Catherine Love: As you point out, there’s something surprisingly and almost stealthily theatrical about a show which, at the outset, seems as though it could be void of drama. When the clock started ticking, I worried that the minutes would crawl by, but I quickly found myself more compelled by the impromptu unfolding of these discussions than by many a carefully choreographed show of the same length. In the lull after the two hours were up, when Kaleider lay on drinks and encourage all participants to discuss what they’ve just experienced together, one of the benefactors asked us if “characters” emerged during the process, and in a way they did. Of course it wasn’t like watching a play, but the dramatic stakes soon became just as high.

Your mention of the rules and how clearly they structure the event leads me on to thinking about to what extent The Money is a game that can be successfully played and won and to what extent it facilitates a genuine exchange of views between a group of strangers. That’s something that will inevitably change from night to night and group to group, but I was a little surprised by how seriously all the benefactors seemed to be taking it at the performance we attended. I expected a few participants who would push at the boundaries of the game, adopting controversial positions just to shake things up, but I sensed that our group were – as you say – much more interested in the process itself. As a result, the whole thing became fascinatingly self-reflexive, prompting contemplation both of this process and the other, bigger processes that it mirrors.

There was perhaps an added urgency and a heightened sense of what the pot of money on the table was and was not capable of doing because of the fire in the building only a few weeks before. The phrase “drop in the ocean” was used multiple times, raising the question of to whom £130 is a huge sum and to whom it is next to nothing. Money, like all value, is relative. But I was most struck by something BAC artistic director David Jubb brought to the debate, quoting a funder who said that their job was to do the least harm possible with the money they awarded. Not the most good, but the least harm.

It was a point that flipped the whole discussion on its head and reminded me of Harry Giles’s Everything I Bought and How it Made Me Feel, another fascinating piece of theatre about money and how we spend it. In the process of logging a year’s worth of purchases, Giles’s repeatedly frustrated efforts were directed as much towards mitigating harm as towards promoting positive emotions. I wonder if that’s something that The Money is getting at as well; if by forcing us to think about one transaction, it also forces us to rethink our relationship with the many transactions that make up our everyday lives.

Annegret Märten: The game aspect is very crucial, I agree. If the benefactors hadn’t come to a decision the money would have rolled over to the next evening and there were long stretches in which people discussed whether that would be a useful thing or not, whether it would mean losing ‘the game’ or even if the people on a following evening could be trusted with the extra money. I think the piece allows the participants to discover a range of remarkable behaviours people display around money. One of these is the realisation that we are players in a marketplace. As soon as the money is real and not hypothetical Monopoly money the distinction between I and Others comes very much to the forefront. Why should I trust you? What is your agenda? And how I can I convince the other person that my position is more valid than anyone else’s?

Looking at the demographic of the benefactors I was wondering how differently the piece would have looked like with a more diverse group or even when it plays in other countries. I find that there’s a tendency with British people of trying not to offend others and convey their disagreement indirectly. So when there were moments of someone actually saying “No!” to a suggestion it felt as if boundaries of familiarity and agreed behaviour codes were breached.

At various points I felt very tempted to buy in as a benefactor and there was a sense of thrill being watched by the people who had just spent two hours arguing as the last seconds ticked by. Would someone try and spoil the agreement they had worked so hard to reach? The rules set out definitely would have allowed for more room to play and for the participants to perform a persona that’s different from whom they are in real life. In theory there could have been all sorts of interactions with the outer world through social media, phone calls, follow-up conditions: you said you would be tempted to return as a benefactor? Would you “play” more?

Catherine Love: Yes I would be tempted to return as a benefactor, though on this occasion I was really satisfied by just watching. Being a spectator rather than a player allowed me – I think both of us – to reflect on the various different ideas around money, value and decision-making that the piece is capable of raising rather than being immersed in the process of reaching those decisions. There was the thrill of the live and unexpected, knowing that the conversation could go in any direction, along with the same contemplative distance allowed by a play.

If I went again, especially after the experience of being a silent witness, I think I would be tempted to “play” more, but not necessarily by adopting a persona or controversial position. I was really intrigued by the point, made by one benefactor, that we could all donate that £10 to a charitable cause whenever we liked, but the structure of the show affords the opportunity to do something different and more creative with the cash. I’d love to explore that further, to think about all the unexpected ways in which that pot of money might be used – even if, as someone suggested on the night we attended, that’s just chucking it out of the window and watching who picks it up.

As fascinating as the whole experience was, I also wonder if the demographic in the room limited the range of interactions. There was at least some level of underlying consensus, which offered a platform for certain debates and ruled out others. Alongside that, I think there can be a fear of “breaking” interactive theatre and therefore a desire to make the performance work. As much as the possibility of the money rolling over to the next night was discussed, I got the feeling that most people in the room wanted to “win” by reaching a unanimous decision before the time ticked away. What might The Money have looked like if its participants had really pushed the rules of the event?

Annegret Märten: These rules keep popping up in our conversation. There were two constant observers from the company in the back of the room, one benignly smiling, the other one more stern who followed the whole process. Looking back at it, it’s curious that no one challenged if their ceremonial power and authority was justified or what legal effect the instructive pieces of paper that were handed over really had.

They stated that only by playing by the rules and abiding by the law the money could be used for the intended purposes. But which law does that actually refer to? Does the outside law even apply to performance spaces? What if the benefactors had decided to make up their own laws? This is a question that’s particularly potent when thinking of some of the disastrous unregulated financial practices that have contributed to the economic crisis.

Was I the only one who thought of trying to figure out how the enforcing structure could be broken? Screw up the agreement sheet, make some paper origami with the bank notes, gang up and walk out? Stop the clock and defy its inevitable power?

The Money is at Battersea Arts Centre from 15th April – 1st May 2015 

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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