World Factory is an interactive play/audience participation game (currently playing at the Young Vic in London until June 6) in which theatre-goers are challenged to run a textile factory in China. As they do so, they are faced with a series of challenges about pay and working conditions.
The Guardian has an excellent review by their economics editor, Paul Mason:
The choices were stark: sack a third of our workforce or cut their wages by a third. After a short board meeting we cut their wages, assured they would survive and that, with a bit of cajoling, they would return to our sweatshop in Shenzhen after their two-week break.
But that was only the start. In Zoe Svendsen’s play World Factory at the Young Vic, the audience becomes the cast. Sixteen teams sit around factory desks playing out a carefully constructed game that requires you to run a clothing factory in China. How to deal with a troublemaker? How to dupe the buyers from ethical retail brands? What to do about the ever-present problem of clients that do not pay? Because the choices are binary they are rarely palatable. But what shocked me – and has surprised the theatre – is the capacity of perfectly decent, liberal hipsters on London’s south bank to become ruthless capitalists when seated at the boardroom table.
The classic problem presented by the game is one all managers face: short-term issues, usually involving cashflow, versus the long-term challenge of nurturing your workforce and your client base. Despite the fact that a public-address system was blaring out, in English and Chinese, that “your workforce is your vital asset” our assembled young professionals repeatedly had to be cajoled not to treat them like dirt.
And because the theatre captures data on every choice by every team, for every performance, I know we were not alone. The aggregated flowchart reveals that every audience, on every night, veers towards money and away from ethics.
Svendsen says: “Most people who were given the choice to raise wages – having cut them – did not. There is a route in the decision-tree that will only get played if people pursue a particularly ethical response, but very few people end up there. What we’ve realised is that it is not just the profit motive but also prudence, the need to survive at all costs, that pushes people in the game to go down more capitalist routes.”
In short, many people have no idea what running a business actually means in the 21st century. Yes, suppliers – from East Anglia to Shanghai – will try to break your ethical codes; but most of those giant firms’ commitment to good practice, and environmental sustainability, is real. And yes, the money is all important. But real businesses will take losses, go into debt and pay workers to stay idle in order to maintain the long-term relationships vital in a globalised economy.
Why do so many decent people, when asked to pretend they’re CEOs, become tyrants from central casting? Part of the answer is: capitalism subjects us to economic rationality. It forces us to see ourselves as cashflow generators, profit centres or interest-bearing assets. But that idea is always in conflict with something else: the non-economic priorities of human beings, and the need to sustain the environment. Though World Factory, as a play, is designed to show us the parallels between 19th-century Manchester and 21st-century China, it subtly illustrates what has changed….
Also in The Guardian, their theatre critic describes it as:
Beautifully facilitated by a cast of four, who act like croupiers, dealing each table a new card with a developing scenario and a binary choice, the show is like a speedily played boardgame. Yes, there’s a lack of nuance in the choices offered, and the breakneck speed at which the scenario unfolds doesn’t really allow for reasoned discussion. It sometimes all feels a little earnest and lacks a sense of drama. But it’s sociable, exhaustingly good fun and it would work particularly well with young people, as it clearly connects actions to consequences, and tots up the real cost of cheap clothes in the high street – both to people and the planet.
And in The Independent: