PROPERTY&THEFT: Photos and Reflections
OST has big documentation ambitions. But we’re poor and tired. PROPERTY&THEFT turned out to be such a huge project that, when it was over, we were exhausted. We kept meaning to pull together a full report, and then the next thing kept us busy. So, instead, here are some thoughts from the cast, and a beautiful photoset from Stefanie Tan.
An oldish man came, looked silently over my wares for a few minutes, found a book of poetry and flicked through it. After not much thought, he came to me and asked the price:
“Okay, I’ll take it.”
Why do I think this was funny? Because ‘FREE’ was emblazoned on the front cover. I’m not quite sure whether the man was just absent-minded or whether he actually really, really wanted the book so much that he didn’t care to barter. Perhaps he just had loadsamoney. Perhaps he was just shy.
At the Glue Factory, I found that I had another product that declared itself ‘FREE’, a map of Prague. This time, however, the interaction was more aggressive. One girl got rather angry and frustrated with my selling of a ‘free’ product for £1, and kept on threatening to steal it, saying that she could just take it. I wish she had, that would have been interesting.
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The day that I went out onto the streets of Edinburgh to reactivate my market trading skills before the Glue Factory was very disappointing. I guess though it means I can remember all the interesting bits. The first bit was selling a pack of cards to a man for £1.50 and a haiku about a haiku. Whilst being a sell, I was frustrated afterwards in that I felt I’d given the man too much so that he’d not had room to think about valuation or capitalism or exchange etc. Instead he just found the whole thing surreal. This shallowness I suspect was the result of an over-eagerness on my part, having stood for half-an-hour and getting nothing.
The second and last interaction I got that day was from two nice looking chaps who whilst showing some interest in my goods didn’t buy anything. They were interested in where they’d come from though. Does it reflect how globalisation has increased our interest in the origin of goods? Maybe. Does it reflect how a suitcase full of crap on Grassmarket being staffed by a bloke in a shabby suit looks a little shifty? Probably.
That day was superficially a failure, but arguably it had a profound effect on my performances in the Glue Factory from the beta ones in Edinburgh. Increasingly getting desperate for custom, over the day I shifted out of my robotic “Good afternoon sir/madam, would you like to see my wares?” into random (and sometimes cheeky) compliments: “Those are lovely sunglasses, ma’am!” or picking out of potential customers: “You look like the kind of distinguished gentleman who could do with some lubrication!” Essentially, sitting in the wet for half a day taught me Patter, and I feel my performances thereon dramatically improved. Perhaps from here would be a piece of advice I’d give: Study your failures for what you did get out of them. You might find that they were more constructive than you thought. Don’t immediately think about how you’ll ‘improve’, because in doing that you might miss something.
Performing at the Glue Factory was a lot of fun. I’ve always had a love for abandoned buildings. Over the performances I learned a lot firstly about how to set up my market stall, and there’s still things I think I could have done differently. Clothes were never popular no matter where I put them, even under the brightest light. I was hoping people would get into the spirit of that rummage-jumble-sale feeling that I personally know so well, but it seems not. Perhaps there was too much organisation/installationness to them. I’d probably now spread them all over in between everything else.
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In the key questions that I tried to pose to people: “How much is this worth to you?”, “How long/good/big will this service/product you give me be?” etc., it was remarkable how clueless people seemed to be and how arbitrary their flustered conclusions were. Very few, if any, were able to justify why their stading on one leg for gajillion seconds was worth a bit of metal with ’50p’ written on it. I enjoyed that, I feel that sudden dawning of cluelessness was what we were aiming for.
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Various things that I got, in no particular order, were:
Empty Swedish cigarette packet
Swedish library card (we got a lot of Swedes come through!)
A girl pretending to be a gnome, wearing the hat she wanted to buy. I’d got her to value the hat at 5 minutes gnome-time, but her friends, who had the timer, cleared off and left her. I decided to keep her for way longer than 5 minutes just to see what would happen. Complaining the first time she submitted to my insistence she stay (Ah, the power of acting!) but forcefully argued she’d done her time a little later. I relented.
A drawing of the girl pretending to be a gnome.
A ‘realist’ (it wasn’t bad, I guess) drawing of a Wallace and Gromit video in exchange for the video itself.
A very weird (and frankly poor) drawing of some sort of square thingy. This was interesting because, if I remember rightly, I’d asked for a £5 drawing. On the first ‘draft’, I didn’t think I’d got my £5′s worth, but I decided to get an independent valuation from another guy at the market stall. He said he’d probably pay about £4.50 for it, so I handed it back over to the ‘artist’ and demanded another 50p’s worth. The second time round, I got the valuation again. This time, the guy he’d said he’d probably buy it for £3.50. The person had devalued their drawing by adding more to it, and was being forced to draw more bits of crap on his bit of crap at the slightly perplexed whim of an onlooker valuing his material.
Public readings of books people wanted. At one point I was offered me doing a public reading in exchange for a book, which is obviously a ridiculous exchange, and I consented to do a public reading but demanded something extra.
A nanosecond’s worth of bad dancing, complete with a certificate to say that I’d witnessed it. This was the last interaction I did, and it was The Model Interaction. This girl had justified to me that bad dancing was more valuable than good dancing because it was rarer. I pointed out it was rarer because less people wanted it, but she just boldly sidestepped my introduction of supply and demand into the debate and resolutely insisted rarity arbitrarily bestowed value. This was all in exchange for a book, and I think in the discussion over it we might have discussed the valuation of time, but I can’t quite remember.
5 minutes of counselling, which was good in that it actually gave me an opportunity to develop my character and also put the audience member more in the driving seat, which I enjoyed. Naturally we had to decide how much certain timeframes of counselling were worth, and interestingly enough I vaguely remember settling on a valuation that wasn’t the industry standard, which I think had arisen out of convenience. Convenience trumps genuine value, it perhaps seems.
5 minutes of talking with posh people.
Development of the project? In a way I feel that whilst the preparation we had was useful, it could not, at least not for me and the nature of my performance, fully prepare us for an audience. As performers we could never have objectively played the part of audience members, and whilst conversations I had with Olivia, Harry and Neus the audience members were fun and in places enlightening/developing (for instance, trying to sell for £5 a rubiks cube that we’d both conceded was worth 50p on the grounds of ‘sentimental value’) they were very much on a parallel track to the way conversations with unwitting real audience members, although trying and sometimes succeeding to crash Neus was very good and I think important. Of course, there wasn’t much else that we could do in preparation or development, aside from going out onto the streets, which in my experience had limited scope. The development process was good in that it was basic and straightforward and took us as far as was possible without an audience. The best thing about improvised and interactive theatre of this kind is of course it’s difficult to make that process particularly complicated – so much is in the hands of the audience that to do so would simply be pointless. I guess I’ll leave that as advice, too. Have a framework that is strong enough to direct the audience into interesting thoughts and situations but is open enough to create something new and unexpected.
* * *
So did it develop and change my ideas about theatre and politics? Politics is an interesting one. Hand in hand with my visit and overnight stay at the Free Hetherington, the weekend left me with a greater boldness towards authority. I don’t know if I’ve really had an opportunity to exercise this yet, I guess I’m still looking for one or perhaps there’s a part of me still shying away from it. But for example, in researching a little beforehand on the Grassmarket day, I discovered that what I would be doing was technically illegal. I went out anyway after some panicky middle-class-good-boy bedroom pacing, figuring a guy with a suitcase of crap couldn’t really get into that much trouble with the police, but it opened my eyes to how many stupid laws we have. Just laws everywhere. We’re up to our eyeballs in laws. It felt stupid. The Free Hetherington and its occupants were very interesting and eye-opening. I guess I left Glasgow with more anarchisticish sympathies and a reinforcement of a belief I’ve had for some time that national government does way too much. I also now realise that money, whereas before I had considered it a scientifically inspired necessity to keep everything above board, is in fact just the harbinger of an arbitrary valuation of things that doesn’t take into account the plain fact that value is subjective. The conversation we had after the show has resonated as well as I’ve thought about it. Do I feel betrayed by the Lib Dems? I don’t know. I’m feel more betrayed by the whole system that engenders them and everyone else, to be honest.
I’ve been left a little nonplussed towards non-interactive or improvised theatre. So much of it now just feels like passive consumption of script being read out from memory on stage. I can still enjoy it, but I now turn my attention to more of the stuff I’ve experienced with Property and Theft. Breaking of the fourth wall to me now feels like an integral part of any good theatre experience. It adds so much more exuberence to a piece because you harness the energies of the audience. Having wanted to do something of my own for a while now, I’m going to look at incorporating this kind of stuff in what I do next, perhaps with the new student company I’m involved with, Relief Theatre. If I do anything with Bedlam, it’ll be harder, but I’m intent on finding a way to add high definition spikes to my performance. I say high definition spikes, I dunno why. That’s just how it feels.
* * *
That is everything, really. Can I just say that the whole experience was amazing? Well, I just did. It’s had a big effect on the way I think and the way I live, not to mention the way I perceive and perform drama, one of my passions. Thanks.
I remember the feeling of it dawning on people that the interaction wasn’t going to be uncomfortable. You could see them starting to relax, and play along, and get braver with what they contributed. I think that general feeling of it being an amicable and fun interaction laid the ground for more challenging questions to then be posed. They would open up a bit more and let me interrogate them more incisively about their personal behaviour around money and property.
I also really liked those moments when the audience looked bewildered, and not sure where to put themselves – no audience ‘area’/chairs etc – and that forced them to be part of it, whereas an audience usually just sits back and ‘consumes’. In this show they couldn’t get away with that.
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I remember a great moment with a young Spanish man, who tried to prove that his name on his passport belonged to him by listing all his relatives who had the same name. I ‘confiscated’ his passport, and we had a very interesting interaction as he proved his ownership of it by enacting his nationality in various ways. It was interesting to see how we play out identities which we have been given – family name, nationality etc – and how different we actually are from those ‘scripts’ sometimes.
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The collective development was fun and inclusive and there were great opportunities to experiment. I would have liked more guidance sometimes, but then the freeform improvisation, both in rehearsal and during the performance opened the door to the unexpected.
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I think that being comfortable with yourself as a performer is crucial. Not to have any expectations that it will/will not be ‘good’, so that you don’t push that desperation on the audience member, as it can then come out as defensiveness. I think it’s important to keep the spirit of playfulness there at all times, and don’t try to control the outcome. And say YES to everything that comes at you!! – go with the game that the audience member wants to play (within personal boundaries of course).
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A future huge version would be………
A shop, with a flat above, which we all live in and perform, when we spontaneously feel like it, in the shop below, which is open 24 hours. Members of the public/audience can take over one of the four characters, if they wish, for a few moments….for days on end…..Things can be bought and sold. There’s free food and heating. There would be interactive installations. Items of immense value sold for peanuts. Peanuts sold for whatever is less than peanuts. It should be in a high street location, amongst branches of Marks and Spencer and Tesco. Actors should go grocery shopping in their costumes and in character, taking the ‘world’ of our shop, and it’s values with them, out into the ‘real’ world, becoming like little viruses of absurdity, in the ‘real’ consumer marketplace. The market trader should grow things to sell, planting seeds for the customer and asking them to come back in a few weeks when it’s ready. The debt counsellor could make follow up appointments, and if they can’t repay, then they can repent with Rita, and if they can’t repent……then they can join our circus. Surrender to the absurd….become one of us…… hand over all your property to security….and take refuge ……in the 24 hour store.
It could be a installation/durational performance that goes on for a month or so. Or longer. And it could disappear and then reappear in different parts of the city, or other cities. It could be called ’24 Hour Store’. It’s a way of life, for a while, while it’s in town, for those that seek a breath of air and time off the hamster wheel. And moments of not knowing what’s going to happen next….time away from your calender….just time. Freedom is scary and exciting both!
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I like that this project has the confidence to question capitalism and the economy without becoming a sociology lecture. Which would be boring and probably ineffective. I like that it asks people to question the system, by focussing on how their behaviour shapes it, and is shaped by it, right there and then, on the shop floor. It’s a slap in the face of complacency, and I love that, and think it could be a bigger and harder slap! And without ever becoming overly intellectual, or combative. Maybe by increasing the ‘immersive’ quality to the point that it becomes intoxicating or overwhelming, also the humour and the absurdity would do it, and especially if placed within a ‘real’ context like a shopping high street, where we mirror, mimic, ridicule what is going on around us. Laughter is a very effective political tool. It can be the pin that bursts the bubble of ignorance!!!