World Factory is an extraordinary theatre project that sets out to explore the impact of globalised production (and by extension, globalised trade) by creating an experiential space for its audience. I saw it in Cambridge last week; it has dates scheduled in Brighton and Manchester between now and Christmas, and may return for another run at Cambridge Junction.
For the show, the audience is seated at tables around the space, each a team charged with running a Chinese textiles factory. Once the experiential part of the production starts, the group has to handle a series of problems and dilemma, starting with whether we should handle a cashflow crisis by cutting wages across the board or firing half the staff.
The four cast members double as ‘dealers,’ issuing the cards, keeping track of the money, and exhorting us to work faster or harder. They also delivered the ‘samples’ of the different types of clothing we were ‘making’ in our factory.
Our decisions were recorded by scanning a barcode on the cards, which also meant that the decisions of each table are recorded in real time.
As you play, at speed (my team lost a lot of money early on by failing to make a decison quickly enough) you’re faced with questions about what goods you’re willing or able to make, about your workers, about dealing with local officials, about compliance and standards, about outsourcing production to other parts of China, about demands for labour rights. And so on.
The experiential part of the game is bookended by sequences that animate the recent history of globalisation and the impact of the global trade system–for example, we were told at the end the amount of water and oil consumed in producing the goods we had ‘made’ collectively during the show.
The play is supported by as vast database of research. At the end of the show we were given a print-out, on a till-roll, of all our decisions as factory owners, with a URL linking to the research that sits behind the question that was on each card. For example, one of the decisions we had to make was whether or not to move from regular wages to piecerates. Here’s the research on this decison.
World Factory is also more than a play in that the group behind it, notably the co-directors Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw, actually went into the business of making a shirt in a Chinese factory as part of the research. A barcode above the pocket reveals the history of its production. It might seem paradoxical that a show that is about over-consumption and over-production should, in effect, have its own merchandising, but perhaps it is a mark of the play’s effectiveness that there seemed to be no-one trying to buy one as we left the theatre.
I’ve read quite a lot about the global production system over the years, and plenty about Chinese factories, though more about the electronics sector than the textile sector. I’ve also sat on the Board of a retailing business, making business decisions in conditions of uncertainty. For me, the surprise of the game (although I shouldn’t have been surprised by this) was the way in which the pace and the relentlessness of it, together with the ambiguity about the possible consequences of many of the decisions, forced you constantly to make choices at speed that reflected the imperative to keep the factory working. Capital has its own logic, as Marx says somewhere, and once in role it is hard to refuse it.
One of the video interviews shown on the screens that surrounded the auditorium was with the owner of the factory that made the World Factory shirt. She had been in debt up to her eyes after her first business folded, to the tune of several hundred thousand RNB. She took a job in a clothes factory that paid 2,000RNB a month, described in the rules of the game as low but enough to live on, so would never have managed to repay her debts, so started another clothes business. As she said, once you have the business, you have to keep going.
The show is also good on the politics, or more accurately the political economy, of the global textile industry. Who knew, for example, that Chinese factories outsource novelty Christmas jumpers to British factories? The quality is low, the margins are thin, and making them close to the end-consumer, with minimal delivery times, allows enough flexibility to respond to fluctuations in demand. They also spelled out the impact of cheap disposal clothes on the countries unlucky enough to get our recycled hand-offs. We think we’re doing people a favour by recycling through charity shops; actually we’re killing off indigenous textiles business in poor countries.
The actor who was also our dealer said that working on the play had changed her attitude towards recycling clothing, from thinking it a good thing to finding it uncomfortable.
One tip if you’re lucky enough to be able to go to see World Factory: decide on your table before you start whether your strategy is going to be about maximising profits or looking after your workers, and then stick to it.
The images are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons licence.