Theater / Performance

Pay Up (Pig Iron Theater Co., 10Sep13)

What they say it is:

Step into a labyrinthine, choose-your-own adventure about buying and selling everything under the sun. Philadelphia’s premier physical theater company re-imagines its 2005 show, post financial crisis style. Part circus, part laboratory experiment, part shopping experience, Pay Up is a pay-as-you-go race against the clock to pick what plays you want to see. You are given plastic booties, five one-dollar bills, and led into all-white warehouse space that has been converted into eight experimental labs/performance rooms, along with hallways, a gathering space, and backrooms. With a loudspeaker announcing the rules, and at times breaking its own rules, you get six chances to choose one of eight shows, each costing $1. Enter a room, sit in a chair, put headphones on, and watch the show. Repeat. But choose wisely and make sure you get there before the big buzzer goes off. Or else.

NEW Clay Says graphic Ernie

Spoiler alert: Pay Up is clearly meant to be a disorienting, surreal experiment, and was best experienced with little or no advance knowledge.  It is almost impossible to discuss the show without “spoiling” some element of the intended immersion, and the production was clearly staged as a kind of unexpected series of surprises–so in the event that Pig Iron re-stages Pay Up at some other date. . . be forewarned that this blog does reveal some show secrets.   In other words….SPOILER ALERT!

I’m not going to spend a ton of time elaborating on the mechanics of the show–the description above is pretty adequate for explaining the physical appearance and layout of Pay Up.    In the lobby of the show, the staff placed colored stickers on our clothing.  We were told that the “red dot” group would enter the exhibit first, and the “yellow dot” group would follow shortly after.  Tara and I were both “yellow dot” . . . and later, I wondered if the “red dot” group were the performers themselves, covertly mingling among us before the start of the show . . . ?  Anyway, after a short wait, we were led up to the third floor by the show’s hosts, handed $5 in real USA currency, and asked to don a pair of white hospital booties (apparently to preserve the gallery’s pristine white flooring).  After getting our footware in order and our handful of dollar bills, we, along with about 50 other attendees, were lead into the show space.

The top floor of the Asian Arts Initiative building–a large gallery/warehouse space–had been completely converted to an antiseptic, brightly lit series of rooms-within-rooms.  These spaces (large standalone cubes, see map below) were the show’s staging areas, most of which included folding chairs and audio headsets for the audience.  Each booth was numbered, but there were no other markings to explain the overall floorplan.  For the first 10 minutes we were free to wander, but you couldn’t help but notice the numerous firm-faced, grim-lipped ‘attendents’ surrounding us.   Eventually, a loud computerized voice–a female version of HAL from 2001, perhaps– announced the rules:  each show would take place inside a cube, each show would cost you $1, and since there were 8 shows total, you would not be able to see them all.  Wait for the buzzer, head to a cube . . . and choose wisely.

Here's a scan of the show map--although neither of us had this during the show, I bought it from a (confused) patron after exiting the building (for $1, naturally)

Here’s a scan of the show map–although neither of us had this during the show, I bought it from a (confused) patron after exiting the building (for $1, naturally).

As we waited for our signal to begin, I realized that we’d been inducted to a science-meets-shopping mall theatrical ‘experiment’ (the numbered booths and rows of cubed areas somehow reminded me of a store, though I’d be hard-pressed to nail down exactly why this occurred to me).  (Almost) everything was white–the costuming for the 20+ actors, the floor, the walls . . . there was a clear sense that we were mice amongst men, ignorant participants in some kind of rat maze for art fans.  I puzzled over the thin blue lines that marked some areas of the floor, the numbering system of the booths (even after the show was over, I could not decipher if the numerical system held any meaning), and whether there was any kind of hidden formula to the staging area.  A woman approached me and curtly inquired if I’d like to “receive a show map, or figure it out for myself”.  I opted for the latter, and was rewarded with an additional sticker-dot (the elusive red-group sticker!) upon my shirt.  It’s tough to convey, but this felt like a kind of reward, although the attendant gave me no overt cue–her face was firm and unintelligible, though there was no denying that there seemed to be something subtly important about having that second dot.  Looking around, i saw that almost no other attendees–except for Tara, of course–had selected the adventurous choice.  You should always pick the red pill.  I love you for that, Tara.

When the first buzzer sounded, I raced toward a nearby booth, following a secluded passage along one of the show walls.  Though I hurried, I was the last person admitted into into the space.  Each performance booth had a limited number of seats (approximately 10 to 15), meaning the entire 90 minutes became a sort of musical-chairs / grab-your-spot experience.  Show staff would politely refuse admission to anyone who’d missed the initial public (seat) offering…..and i immediately loved it.  I gravitate to competition (specifically in the arts) and I worship aesthetic experiment, so Pay Up was pushing my buttons. The rushing timeline and Alice-In-Wonderland ‘can’t be late’ sensibility was an incredibly original way to disrupt standard audience comfort zones.  You don’t typically go to a theater experience and find yourself fighting for a seat.

A glimpse of the hall and the staff (from Pig Iron's website)

A glimpse of the hall and the staff (from Pig Iron’s website)

Maybe I’m just a big jerk, but I enjoyed seeing the survivors separated from the sheep.  The intermission between each four-minute event was approximately two minutes, so if your first selection was at-capacity, you had at least a little time to move to another room–but you HAD to move.  Slowpokes (as I’d see later, during the show’s only exterior-cube performance) got stuck in an uncomfortable “outside the show” limbo, forced to await the next round in an empty hall with the silent, white-clad attendants.

Meanwhile, the on-time audience members were given seats and a headset.  The audio (complete with various forms of elevator music) reminded us to check the volume and wait patiently while the countdown finished.  One of the most critical things to understand about Pay Up’s format was that all theatrical audio was delivered via headset–the players gestured, ‘spoke’, and acted in complete silence.  If you pulled your headset off during the show, the room around you was deathly quiet.  Even more interestingly, the players were miming their lines without headsets of their own.  The pacing of each plot-point was calculated to work like a precision stopwatch with all actors keeping the beat in their minds.  And believe it or not, I never spotted an off-cue moment during all of my six inductions–these people were on point, and although the average scene lasted between 3 and 4 minutes, it was mightily impressive how well the concept worked in practice.

One of the rare group perfomances during the show (from

One of the rare group perfomances during the show (from

My first mini-show set the tone for most of Pay Up‘s thesis: an angsty meditation on life choices, interpersonal relationships, and the omnipresent force of monetary transactions.  Since every audience member saw the show’s pieces in a different order, it is challenging to say with certainty what the “final” summation might be, but there was no escaping a constant background discussion of money-as-power–though what that power might mean varied from scene to scene.  In any case, my first in-cube experience presented two former lovers negotiating the tough question of what to do about their ex-engagement ring. Finally opting for a financial settlement (the woman reimburses her unhappy former fiance for the cost of the ring), the piece confronted how money (often) functions as a best-case pacifier when we’re faced with irreconcilable dilemma.

Other scenes dealt with a pair of siblings cleaning out a parents’ garage and debating who keeps a specific relic (the solution: a financial transaction to offset the emotional pain), a son confronting his aging father about the cost of healthcare (he pays his father’s bill, only to realize his father was actually a ghost), and a comical, virtually nonsensical scene in which a partying club-goer agrees to change his name to “Amanda” for a set sum of money.  Throughout these sections of the show, I suspected that there may be some kind of underlying symbolism at work (the name Amanda recurred throughout multiple part of the show, along with enigmatic butterflies and lab monkeys) but I was never able to quite figure out how all the pieces fit together.  The themes of money, time and power were common threads, but I ultimately exited Pay Up with a definite sense that although the show’s form and experimentation were well conceived, the individual pieces might have been more cohesively aligned. 

Truth be told, this sentiment (excellent visual and theatrical execution paired with somewhat shakier narrative) echos some of my feelings toward previous Pig Iron pieces.  Most of their works seem to be excellently–even brilliantly–conceived, and the visual elements are perfectly rendered.  However, as a narrative, many of their shows end up leaving me feeling, well, hungry.  I’m never quite sure if Pig Iron storylines are intended to be ambiguous, or if this company’s focus is so heavily oriented to the visual and theatrical mechanics that they overlook the need for a defined, cohesive storyline.  Here, Pay Up‘s varied micro-plays are designed to ring the same bell, but the individual tones struggled to find clarity or harmony.  I left the show feeling like I’d seen 6 different voices talking about the same topic, but that the connections were at best unclear, and perhaps (at worst) a confusing hodgepodge.  Lab staff struggle with issues of power and romance while tending their simian subjects (the apes also use money to negotiate and fuel their secret transations), people sell out their true desires for the empty fulfillment of a paper dollar, and the overhead voice reminds us we’re all rats in a maze.  It works, but there’s no denying that some of the pieces felt roughly inserted without much cohesion to the whole.  A lot of ideas were on display here, but I’m not sure they all meant something “together”.

The many ideas (and brisk pace) certainly weren’t everyone’s cup of tea; I couldn’t help but notice the disconcerting effect this show had on many attendees.  Perhaps i’m being a bit snooty, but there seemed to be a look of disorientation on many faces, though I personally don’t understand why  anyone would attend an (openly advertised) edgy art experience expecting anything other than a maelstrom of crazy…’s what you paid for!   Perhaps I’m just lucky, having led a life that includes a significant exposure to offbeat forms of art.  Nevertheless, I could see that the show’s outside-the-box mentality of “no sitting still, lots of confusion and controlled chaos” was difficult for some audiences to comprehend.  One of the events required you to stand outside of a box and peer through small windows to see the enclosed show–this was the only time you could be outside of an enclosure during the allotted performance times–during which, i witnessed several older, confused-looking attendees strolling around with no place to go, apparently having missed the buzzer and never found a seat.  You really had to want to see Pay Up–the experience is designed to encourage snap decision-making and theatrical curiosity…so if you were hoping for a quiet night at the theater, this was not it. 

The show’s critical axis was the moment when you ran out of dollar bills–remember, you’d only been given five–and the sixth show was starting…and then the staff informed you that the prices had just gone up to $2.  Not only were you out of cash, now you were being forced to dip into your own pocket for admittance to something you thought you’d already paid to see.  In a phrase: utter brilliance.  Perhaps more than the genius of the general anticeptic ambiance, or the scurrying pace of frantic musical chairs, I adored this off-kilter method to drive (one of) the show’s points home: you might have paid for something, but there are no guarantees that the payment was what you meant it to be.  We’re all paying someone (or something) all of the time, and it’s not always dollars and cents, and it’s never entirely fair.

Don’t mistake my many varied feelings about this must-see FringeArts experience–Pay Up was glorious fun.  I guess I would just prefer a bit more clarity between the show’s eight sections–ambiguity is a wonderful artistic attribute if handled correctly, but not worth sacrificing some (small) degree of thematic resolution.  Raising questions is one of the most fundamental functions of high art, but I still want the same art to feel like it was created as a cohesive whole.  With respect to Pay Up‘s varied scenes, I couldn’t always say this was the case.   But in spite of my artistic concerns, I can say that it was completely awesome.

NEW Tara Says Graphic

Clay said: “Raising questions is one of the most fundamental functions of high art, but I still want the same art to feel like it was created as a cohesive whole.” 

I agree with the first part and disagree with the second statement.  No other Fringe event this year filled me with questions and awe like Pay Up.  I left the venue reaching for a pen and paper to scribble down what I had just observed.  I attacked Clay for information about which programs he had seen and what they had contained in order to try and “solve” this theatre experience.  I felt that the experience forced questions and community.  Art is paid a lot of lip service about it making us question our culture, society, beliefs, great truths, etc…. but I felt this production – for me- stimulated these lines of questions. 

But…. what is it all about? 

Here are some ideas i jotted down after the show:

CHOICE, choice, and more choice.  This theme resonates with my own questions about my daily decisions.  Does a seemingly small, inconsequential choice have the ability to change the whole trajectory of your life?  Or is that kind of a narcissistic way to see the world- perhaps all the little things don’t matter that much in the “big picture”?  Pay Up couldn’t hit you over the head with the idea of choice enough- were you going to take a map of the event space, or are you going to figure it out for yourself?  Which program are you going to choose to watch?   Where are you going to choose to sit?  How much are you going to choose to pay? 

payup group movement

from Pig Iron’s website

The programs also feature choice.  As Clay said, the choices and accompanying emotions are almost always linked to a financial transaction.  I am choosing to watch a happy/funny/sad show for an agreed price of one or two dollars.  The programs always featured a financial transaction that accompanied an uncomfortable choice- how to handle a treasured butterfly from a deceased parent, an engagement ring with an ex who is moving out, your father who has died because he made the choice that healthcare cost too much and he didn’t want to be a burden to his son, or how a person chooses to participate in the art experience itself – one must choose if they will open the piece of art and forever ruin it’s mystery, or one might appease their curiosity and be satisfied with a valuable riddle containing either shit (literally, according to the box artist) or jewels . . . and the boxes all cost the same amount, regardless of contents (this one was a sort of Schrodinger’s Cat style of art).   The viewer also has to choose how to interpret the characters relations in each skit to each other.  This is what I saw:  Dr. Chen loves Dr. Amanda.  Dr. Amanda is engaged to the box artist.  Perhaps Dr. Amanda breaks up with the box artist for Dr. Chen?…..(I did delay in writing this post and now I can’t quite remember were there two Amanda characters?…)…… does it all fit together!?!??! 🙂

In the box (from Pig Iron's website)

In the box (from Pig Iron’s website)

Anyway, I’m positive that the Amanda who acts as custodian in the ‘monkey money’ sketch is meant to be the same Amanda in the ‘butterfly’ sketch and also the ‘paid sex’ sketch.  This character is identified by an orange butterfly pin.  I was wondering, during the very end of the performance the actors are sorting money on an orange blanket- if this choice of color was symbolic or simple coincidence.

The very end of Pay Up featured a religious procession with hymn-like qualities that invoked a sense of our cultural money-worship, while also highlighting personal choice and reminding us of a number of local events that we missed due to choosing to see this play itself!  As they reminded us, our de cision to attend was now a choice that is unable to be altered- there are no refunds.  The procession then converts into a repressive group yelling at and frisking another group of actors to check if they have stolen money- players who “just want to go home” but can’t escape the money game.

As the audience was deposited back on the sidewalk, I reflected on one of the pieces that featured a monkey being rewarded with grapes when he presents money to the scientist.  As an audience member and witness to this experiment, I have to ask myself . . . am I a subject in the experiment too?

Thank you Pig Iron- I’m always glad to present my money for your grape.



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