- Enron, Playing in "Little Houston of the North"
Rats in suits, debt-eating dinosaurs, and traders dancing with tables above their heads: unexpected theatrical choices for a play about big business gone bad, yet a paradoxically realistic way of telling the story of Enron. When its bubble imploded just over ten years ago, this hyped-up, yet hollowed [End Page 104] out, superstar company resulted in the largest bankruptcy in American history. In the aftermath, its top executives were dead or jailed for convictions of fraud and conspiracy. Its employees, most of whom had gambled on big stock gain payouts for their retirement, were left with empty pockets.
As someone whose career had centred on public company reporting, the Enron tale was notoriously familiar. Now, I was spectator to a mock-musical documentary of Enron's inglorious fall brought on by greed and executive ego. The play re-presents the back-stabbing rise of Skilling, the self-professed "smartest guy in the room" who fulfills his prophetic statement by ending his career alone in a cell. In January and February 2012, Theatre Calgary produced this play, set in Houston, Texas (in the period 1992 to the present day), under the direction of Antoni Cimolino. My first hint that the Calgary performance might provoke strong audience response was artistic director Dennis Garnhum's program note for this Canadian premiere, which warned, "How you feel about this play will reveal more about you and your life than about those men and women who walked the halls of Enron" (3). Garnhum's warning framed the experience to follow.
The frenzied mix of sound, light, and strutting dance moves in front of big-screen media clips triggered a powerful flashback. I was once again caught up in the strung-out, frantic pace of the downtown business world I had known during the same period that Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were steering the company to the top of stock-market charts. The question of what in this play was fantastical representation and what was the "upsurge of the real" remains unsettled (States 34). There was nothing artificial in this play's hyperrealist portrayal of the business world. The young, eager, and angst-ridden traders were ghostly reflections of past colleagues and me. Playing with millions of dollars on a spreadsheet and dropping the f-bomb every second word—it was like the playwright, Lucy Prebble, took a recorder and played back a memory.
I was once again caught up in the make-believe world of business where brand and perception create inflated stock value. From that perspective, the performance choice to depict the silent and nameless Enron board members with larger-than-life, rats-in-a-suit costumes seemed rational. The fact that they were all white male rats—a statistically representative sample, and one that is unfortunately still applicable for board membership rosters today—delivered an ironically humourous element.
The raptor mascots hidden in the bowels of Enron's staged corporate headquarters were theatrically effective in representing the fabricated shell companies that once held billions of Enron's off-balance-sheet debt. Despite the costumed form of an abstract idea (for these companies never had any physical presence), it worked as performance. These imaginary creatures seemed no more improbable than the convoluted hedges and derivatives that remain difficult to accept as being actual financial instruments with value. We see what we want, or expect, to see, and the raptor constructs seemed as real as the business world, as real as the ideology documented in the play. What the play highlights is that business beliefs and values are constructed. They are not necessarily based on, or tied to, actual objects (an analogy is that our money today is abstract; it is no longer tied to gold sitting somewhere in a vault). There is no difference between the make-believe dinosaurs and the dollar value assigned to business ideas. The market will pay to play. Value is perception; it is the story we tell and buy into.
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