So… what are you wearing?
Who made it? How much were they paid for their work? With stories like the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh killing hundreds of workers only occasionally making the headlines in the Western world, we are largely insulated from the harsh truths of the ruthless industry that supplies almost everything we wear. World Factory unapologetically throws its audiences into a piece of game theatre where your challenge is to run a garment factory, competing against other teams of audience members for business and for employees.
Stepping into the theatre space, not much has been done to hide the brutalist breeze block walls, except for 4 large screens projecting footage of factories and shipping ports. The lighting is unforgiving and the sound effects of of juddering and clattering sewing machines are relentless. We sit in teams of up to 6 at small tables, easily able to see the other audience, our competition. It does feel like we’re in a factory. This show has been 3 years in the making: it was painstakingly researched in China and the industrial towns of northern England, so it’s wonderful to see verbatim theatre used to convey their findings. Our 4 actors/gamesmasters strut and pose on the various gantries, presenting facts and giving us a bit of historical context, from the birth of the free market to the people who lost their jobs as business and production moved abroad, to the factory owners constantly under pressure to have the edge over their rivals. It’s informative, engaging and perhaps most importantly, provokes debate during the course of the game.
The game itself is very straightforward to play. Many people will remember those little ‘choose your own adventure’ game books which ask you to make decisions: “To go down the dark tunnel, p34. To climb the creaky staircase, p6.” It’s like that, only hugely scaled up (to 5 million possible permutations) and with tougher choices affecting your business model, finances and staff. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of technology at work in order to allow a game as complex as this to function as smoothly as it does. Everything has a consequence – but there’s no telling what that will be.
And very few of the choices are… nice. You need to cut your wage bill, so do you fire half of your workforce or give them all a paycut? It’s Monopoly meets “Would You Rather…?”, set in a sweatshop. Although given the options, it’s perhaps better described as “Would You Least Object To…?” You are given cards with assignments and choices that must be made: the decisions that will be meted out on your staff are selected simply by scanning a bar code. It all feels horribly clinical – and it’s supposed to.
The dynamic on our table was certainly interesting – only 2 of the 6 of us were expecting this to be participatory, so decision-making was initially a little difficult. While it’s important to have a discussion about the least-worst option, in being slow to make decisions, you are losing money faster than you can make it. In trying to be ethical, our slowness brought us close to bankruptcy, threatening the livelihoods of the workers we were trying to look after. We are constantly reminded that “time is money, and money is power”, whether by our gamesmaster – or by sinister phonecall.
It’s hard to say what the object of the game is: to make money? To provide jobs, even with low wages? To take good care of people? To keep up with the insatiable hunger for disposable fashion? There is no clear way to ‘win’, but all strategies and ideals have their pitfalls. In our desire to take care of our workers, we ended up not earning enough money to give them the payrise we were hoping to and we lost business to other factories who were prepared to be a little more cut-throat. Is it possible to aspire to ethical practices AND make money in this game? Other teams certainly managed it far better than we did.
However it was the stats at the end that proved very telling: showing across all the teams how we did compared to each other on raising profits, wages, productivity, standards etc. But there were also some very hard-hitting numbers: how many staff were children working illegally, the % of factories paying below a living wage, and the one that caught me in the throat, “Number of workers killed = 1”. Until that, I don’t think I’d realised how emotionally involved I had become. While this is “only a game”, it’s a scenario that is playing out for millions of workers thousands of miles away. As I stare at my print-out receipt of every choice we made, I have a sinking feeling in my stomach.
I challenge anyone to walk out at the end and not think about where their clothes come from the next time they go shopping. I would go back and see this again in a heartbeat.
World Factory is on until Saturday 6th June 2015 at th Young Vic Theatre, 66 The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 8LZ. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes. For tickets and more information go to http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/world-factory