Class Act is a theatre gameshow about class war. It was developed for the Ovalhouse in May 2012, was rebooted for Sprint and Buzzcut in March 2013, and is now ready and hungry and looking for venues for a tour in Spring 2014. This is a wee trailer and progress report from the 2013 edition; you can find blogs from 2012 here.
How Audiences Dealt with Class War
Class Act is a rigged gameshow. The audience is divided into three classes and each is given a different seat and a different starting number of sweets. Players can win sweets by playing in games throughout the show, and every round they have to spend sweets in rent to stay in their seats. The gameshow is designed so that the poorest members of the audience are very likely to run out of sweets halfway through, and those comfy seats the upper classes are sitting in start looking very appealing. Different audiences have totally different ways of coping with this:
- One particularly firey working class roleplayer led a raid on the stockpile of sweets sitting on the stage, which was the in-game equivalent of knocking off Fort Worth, really. He proceeded to distribute these to the other workers, Robin Hood style, all the while refusing to pay any rent at all.
- Rent strikes were a fairly common occurrence. The upper classes usually weren’t bothered — they didn’t need the extra income so much in my very slanted game — but the middle classes frequently got very resentful, as they often kept paying their sweetie mortgages while everyone else was on strike.
- It turned out to be quite hard to get the in game police to do anything to put down crime, unless they were given a lot of extra sweets by the upper classes…
- Once, two sweet-strapped workers decided to squat the more comfortable upper class seats. They were sent numerous threatening letters, until one member of the upper classes decided to pay them in sweets to work as security guards, looking after the other empty chairs and making sure no one else squatted them.
- One landlord set up the Landlord’s Charitable Trust, which began issuing loans to friendly but broke renters in order to keep the property market alive and the entire class system from collapsing.
The Four Star Officially Affable Review: “And stereotypes (as reinforced by ad men and marketing campaigns) were shot down in gales of laughter in Class Act (****) as the affable Harry Giles provided sweets and serious food for thought by playing games about capitalism and the class system with us. Not every performance reached these heights, but overall there was a lot to enjoy and ponder.” (Mary Brennan, The Herald)
The A Sharp Critique of Modern Mythmaking Review: “And in Albion Street, on Saturday, I saw three contrasting shows, beginning with Harry Giles’s Class Act, a 90-minute “game show” which – like the work of several other young Scottish performance artists – occupies the territory between game show, lecture and political polemic, dividing the audience into three classes, handing out sweeties, quizzing us on what we know about class, and then allowing the economic system to do its worst, in promoting inequality and exploitation.” (Joyce Mcmillan, The Scotsman)
The Yes But Is It Art? Review: “There is an obvious and huge amount of research in this work, which is interesting and educational, yet I find myself questioning the definition of this piece. A teacher once told me that art is the friction between form and feeling. Whilst art is often informed by very technical and in-depth research, it is when a small leap is made into abstraction that it tends to create the biggest impact. Harry uses a powerpoint presentation to guide us through his musings and games, encouraging us to fully understand his findings, and taking Class Act as an educational piece, I was fully engaged. I enjoyed myself and was interested in the subject, but there is something about being spoon-fed information and facts rather than being presented with a space in which I might develop my own thoughts on a subject that seems more informative than artistic.” (Tara Boland, Total Theatre)
How Audiences Dealt With Exploited Labour
One of the gameshow’s games, designed with pal James Pollard, is a simulation of Marxist economics using lego and paper money. There’s a factory, a boss, and a bunch of underpaid workers. The audience is encouraged to invest in the factory, and so everyone is ganging up trying to make the workers build little lego widgets as fast as possible for as little money as possible. This led to some brilliant conflicts:
- The most common response was, encouragingly, full strike. Workers had rarely saved up enough money to strike for more than a single round, so success was dependent on a mix of charitable donation, shareholder pressure, and successful haggling. Quite often the outcome of the game was determined by the relative diplomatic skill of the lead union negotiator and the factory boss.
- Clever bosses worked out quickly that the most productive workers (those with the most practice of making tiny lego widgets) could be divided from the rest by offering them higher wages. This frequently broke strikes and prevented successful union organising. Another pre-emptive tactic was paying piecework rates, which kept each worker focussed on their own productivity, destroying workplace solidarity.
- Some workers discovered that the go-slow protest tactic was more effective than the strike: they got paid, but the boss kept losing money. This was very satisfying.
- More satisfying still was the one occasion where a legally-minded worker successfully had the factory shut down for breaching health and safety regulations. (Sharp edges on the lego, or something.) It very nearly succeeded in closing down the whole operation, but the boss managed to bribe the police to reopen the place just in time.
- Sadly, the best result of the initial London run never transpired this time round: a full co-operative takeover, where the workers occupy the factory and run it for the collective good. I’m leaving this here as a challenge to future audiences.
Something I Learned About Marketing
I began a highly unscientific study, whereby I told half the potential audience members I pitched the show to that I was “doing a gameshow about class”, and the other half that I was “doing a gameshow about class war”. The latter were 50% more likely to say “Oh… really…”, and the former were 50% more likely to come to the show. I don’t know what this means, and I don’t know if it will change how I pitch the show.
What Audiences Pledged To Do
At the end of the show, the audience is asked if they’d like to pledge to take actions in a class war. The results were:
- 38 people pledged to hold a reading group about class
- 23 people pledged to go on the next workers’ rights protest they could
- 12 people pledged to join the Industrial Workers of the World
I have, as yet, no evidence that any of these pledges have been fulfilled, and thus can confidently declare them as the overall economic impact of the show. And I did join the IWW in the course of making it.
The Total Theatre review above quite rightly points out that these choices are a bit restrictive. Future versions will definitely have a write in slot! I look forward to seeing what folks come up with.
What Happens Next
Attendees and reviewers persist in telling me that this would work well in schools. If any teachers are happy to let me try and get their classes to declare class war, please get in touch.
The show is definitely finished now, after quite a long development period. I love it, and it’s hungry. So! In all seriousness, I’m currently getting in touch with venues around the country to put a spring tour together, with associated workshops wherever they’ll fit. I’d definitely love to hear from you.