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Features Published 4 June 2015

World Factory: The Politics of Participation

Zoe Svendsen on the relationship between theatre and politics and the creation of World Factory.
Zoe Svendsen

On the day after the recent General Election I walked down The Cut towards The Young Vic. I was on my way for our second day of technical rehearsal for World Factory’s London run – after having had a lot of fun with audiences in Ipswich at the New Wolsey, where the show premiered. Outside Southwark tube station there is a huge artist’s poster that reads: ‘If history could be folded, where would you put the crease?’. I had previously been slightly irritated by the apparent flippancy of this 40ft-long injunction – but suddenly I felt the answer might be ‘Today, 8th May 2015’, for this was when our moribund election system handed power to people who plan to remove any social and institutional breaks on the operations of capital.

It is frightening. Our culture is tipping back to a wholesale promotion of the inequities of 19th century industrial capitalism: today’s defenses of child labour in Forbes look worryingly like the objections to bills to limit children to working ten hours days that Samuel Taylor Coleridge condemned in 1818. And we need to be talking about it. These are the politics of the participation invited by World Factory; which first opened just pre-election at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and is now running at the Young Vic. These performances of World Factory are the culmination of a research process in the UK and China in which we sought to get under the skin of contemporary consumer capitalism, in collaboration with Zhao Chuan and his theatre company Grass Stage, Shanghai. The final form of the performance is critical to its political intent, and is the result of a long search for a way to express the complexities and scale of the world we were seeking to represent.

What resulted from our research is a theatre show that has a scenario-based game at the heart of it: one where the audience, in small groups of up to six, ‘play’ at running a clothing factory in China. The invitation is to come to play: to be yourself or imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes, to inhabit a moral or social perspective that might or might not be your own. In this sense, it is traditional theatre. One vital shift has taken place however: rather than watching fictional characters take decisions, World Factory offers a series of bespoke stories that unfold according to decisions made by each ‘factory’. The decision to shift the position of the audience emerged from our research, as we began to notice the ease with which we interpret another’s decision as the outcome of a personal psychological journey – rather than a decision circumscribed by the wider situation, a situation of both concrete circumstances and tacit values. It is much easier to judge others than to make a decision ourselves and live with its consequences; especially when we have to do so collectively. Thus rather than the traditional relation between audience and characters, where we judge or empathise with them from a position external to the world represented, we invite our audiences to take up a position within it. The dramaturgical aim is not driven by a desire for an emancipation of the audience or the incursion of consumer ‘choice’ into the very fabric of the work, but a decisive immersion in the conundrums faced by those at the sharper end of the global pressures brought to bear by consumer capitalism.

We have had a great demographic diversity in our audiences, both in workshops and in performances – from a residency in an empty shop in a shopping centre in Ipswich, UK, under the auspices of the New Wolsey Theatre, to a residency in an arts centre based in a former factory in Shenzhen, China, under the auspices of our Chinese collaborators, Grass Stage. Yet there is a core response that is always very similar: the stimulation of political conversation through being faced with a closed, binary choice. Occasionally consensus, or politeness, means the discussion is short and sweet and the game moves on quickly. More often, differences in perspective – and life experiences – start to emerge, and a lively conversation ensues. This form of decision-making where the options oppose one another as kind of conundrum, is also intended to provoke conversations about what other alternatives might be imagined. Through these conversations each element in the story quickly becomes connected to wider social and political questions: principles of action versus in-the-moment expediency.

The form both is highly artificial (a constant reminder this is theatre and not actually just factory life); and yet it it is also representation of our research discoveries – reflecting the reality that most decisions in this world are extremely circumscribed. The circumstances under which the factories producing the goods for the consumer capitalism do not allow for long-term, considered strategies bolstered by ethical priniciples. It is often simply a case of sink or swim. It’s that very Brechtian thing: if you are going to play, you are going to get your hands dirty: ‘eat first, think later’. The original German contrasts animalistic eating with the abstraction of morals, but our research has shown that under the conditions of this form of capitalism, there’s an elision between thinking and ethics. Ethical practice takes time: real life situations are complex, and the ‘right’ course of action is rarely evident. But taking time to make decisions flies in the face of the breakneck speed of contemporary business practice; as our dealers in the show say: time is money. Not everyone wants to be a capitalist. But no one wants to get left behind.

A coda on the relationship between theatre and politics: theatre is a space of embodied engagement, emotional and intellectual, prior to, or outside of, political commitment. The theatre is a space in which to inhabit, for a short time, the mindset of another: briefly, pleasurably, worryingly. Theatre is in itself a kind of rehearsal – of ways of being – and what matters is that it is playful. The liberal hipster might play a hard-hearted capitalist, but the capitalist might also play the social liberal. What is at stake in World Factory on the one hand is the capacity to imagine the ramifications of actions you might or might not take yourself, and on the other, the recognition that there are no heroes. The political landscape of the past 30 years has elevated myopic self-interest to a dominant cultural value. World Factory simply asks: is this really how we want to live?

Main image: David Sandison

World Factory is on at the Young Vic until the 6th June. Find out more on the Metis website and at the digital quilt project.

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Zoe Svendsen is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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