When I entered the Alliance Hertz Stage last week for Mike Daisey's The Last Cargo Cult, an usher holding a stack of cash handed me a $10 bill. "Great!" I thought. "This is one of the best plays ever, and it hasn't even started yet!"
During the monologue, Daisey alluded to the money: how it consisted of denominations from $1 to $100, and how no doubt the people who got the higher denominations feel superior to those who got lower ones. One of the play's recurring themes holds that money has no inherent value beyond what we (as a society) agree to assign to it. Then, near the end, Daisey revealed that the money he had distributed was his actual payment for that particular performance. For his last words to the audience, he brought out a glass punch bowl and said that he'd like the money back, since he needs it to live on, but made it optional for his ticket-buying public. We could return it, we could add a little more to support him, we could give back less than we'd received, or keep the whole thing. Since I got in on a press pass and had not actually paid for the show, I would've felt weird hanging onto the $10, so I gave it back. I noted that several of the $100s were in the punchbowl by the time I got to it.
Later, I had a chance to chat with Daisey via email, and I asked him about the money stunt:
The idea was born out of looking for a way to upend the power dynamic in the room. The piece is about money and its pernicious grip over every aspect of our culture--if I don't address the fact that people had to buy tickets with money to see the show, and that I am then paid in money for my performance, I will have failed no matter what I've done. Surrendering the money I live on at each show was the best way to make clear that compact, and allows me to make the abstract notion of money concrete within the monologue itself.
So how much does he usually get back?
It varies immensely--we're compiling data from many cities, and are working with an economist and a statistician. A full report will be available after we've pored over everything.
So far, every city has ended in the black, with the generosity of some making up for those who take. At the moment, we are losing more in Atlanta than anywhere else so far, and I don't know if it is going to improve--here the numbers are flat, people so far rarely give more than they were handed, and some are taking, which is driving our numbers into the red. And the "some are taking" has changed to "many are taking" in houses which are dominated by subscribers. Make of that what you will. It is trending MASSIVELY differently than DC, NYC, Chapel Hill, Seattle, Portland, etc.
Then on Sunday, March 28, Daisey posted this on his Facebook page:
Today's matinee: 1/2 of the subscribers didn't show up to the show, which I am told "happens sometimes". The ones who did come left with hundreds of my dollars, putting us way in the red. Then a board member berated me at length about my use of adult language. Atlanta, I want to like you, but maybe Sherman was right.
If Daisey's correct about the season subscribers, that suggests that the very people who are the most able to afford a little extra scratch are being the most uncool about giving it back. Come on, Atlanta -- what kind of example of Southern hospitality is this?
Photo by Stan Barouh
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