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  • The Tragic Spectator: Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Pay Up
  • Robert Quillen Camp (bio)

Tragedy revolves around the primary contract of man and nature, the contract fulfilled by man’s death, death being, as we say, the debt he owes to nature.

—Northrop Frye, Fools of Time1

The situation is an appeal: it surrounds us, offering us solutions which it’s up to us to choose.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, “For a Theater of Situations”2

Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Pay Up,3 originally produced for the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in 2005 and most recently revived in September 2013, is not so much a piece of interactive theater as an interactive situation, in which theater, radically abbreviated, is offered.4 I wrote the text for Pay Up in collaboration with the company, and my hope in this essay is to examine some of the ways in which the experience of making Pay Up invites reflection into the pleasures and discomforts of interactive performance.5 In particular, I would like to consider how a raucous performance piece marked by the everyday victories and disappointments of simple consumer choices might somehow also open out onto something as unlikely as tragedy—how the existentialist dramaturgy of Sartre as well as the classical poetics of tragedy might be mobilized to treat an interactive performance in which the spectator has become the protagonist. Finally, I want to offer the proposition that an emancipated spectator (in the frequently cited formulation of the political philosopher Jacques Rancière) might also be a tragic spectator, following Sartre’s observation that “the chief source of great tragedy—the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles, of Corneille—is human freedom.”6 [End Page 117]

At first glance Pay Up does not appear to adhere to any traditional understanding of tragedy. When an audience member enters the all-white, brightly lit warehouse space that houses Pay Up, he or she is given white elastic booties to wear (to preserve the white floor), a map, and five crisp green dollar bills. Throughout the space, immaculately designed by Anna Kiraly, are eight small performance cubicles, and at designated times audience members are invited to spend their money to gain entrance to these cubicles to witness short scenes. These scenes are about handling money, primarily concerning the (real-life) Yale economist Keith Chen’s efforts to teach capuchin monkeys to use currency.7 In addition to the eight cubicles, there are several “black market scenes,” performed in unfinished hallways and dimly lit bathrooms, and two large musical-theater-style dance numbers that are offered to the audience as a whole at no charge. Although the scenes connect to one another, they are not segments of one coherent linear narrative, nor is it possible for any single audience member to see them all without attending the show more than once. The inspiration for this configuration of the piece came early in the creative process, when Dan Rothenberg, the director of the show and one of the artistic directors of Pig Iron, brought in the psychologist Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice, which argues that increased consumer choice tends to produce anxiety.8 We wanted to see if we could establish rules of play, modeled on the ordinary consumer experience, that would provoke that kind of anxiety in the theater. Indeed, Pay Up feels like a game, perhaps more so than a piece like Punchdrunk’s immersive hit Sleep No More, in part because certain individual choices are raised to the status of moves, isolated into the quanta of irreversible financial transactions.9 This invites the spectator to adopt a strategic mentality—how can I maximize my experience? But in its finale Pay Up directs its attention to each audience member’s real-life decision to attend Pay Up, and the inevitable opportunity costs of that decision, not just in terms of money, but in terms of time. Self-determination always comes at a price—as Terry Eagleton writes about tragedy:

the term “self-determination” also suggests setting limits to one’s liberty in the act of exercising it, diminishing the self in the process of realizing it. The self-determining animal is...


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pp. 117-134
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