Be mean to me
Cruelty and cash in Pig Iron’s Pay Up
I would like to say that what stood out more than anything about Pay Up is the overarching structure. As you enter the playing space—a vast courtyard with eight playing areas boxed off individually—you are handed $5 in ones and told to spend wisely. There are eight scenes to see, six opportunities to see them, and five dollars in your fist. Loudspeakers announce everything, and even the sounds and dialogues in the scenes are played into the ears of the audience through innumerable headphones—the actors are silent and deaf, hearing nothing, making no noise.
Yet their movements are perfectly timed, like dancers’, to the recordings they cannot hear. Like clockwork. And you start to get the sense that, like the mechanism in a clock, everything would run in exactly the same way without actors there.
But what jarred me more than anything—and I do believe that this show is about being jarred—was the moment when a member of the cast snapped me at.
It is the cast’s job to keep this burgeoning crowd in line. At times, that means literally to make us stand in lines. “Let’s just hope no one gets hurt,” said director Dan Rothenberg in his interview with FringeArts. While it’s unlikely that someone would actually get hurt, there are so many moving parts that his fear is understandable. Like any mass undertaking, it is fun for the audience and a nightmare of logistics for the staff. And in this case, the staff is also the cast—there is no dividing backstage.
Everything is timed (a massive digital countdown is projected on a wall in the main area), and there isn’t a huge amount of time between pieces. The cast must ensure that people are seated and plugged in to their headphones when a piece begins. So more understandable would be the fear that some particularly disconnected audience member might get confused and lost, and not be in the right place at the right time.
One cast member was not afraid of being overtly nasty, chiding people for their behavior. “Everyone,” she said, snapping and then pausing to collect herself, “start a line here. Here!”
At one point, even Dito van Reigersberg’s, Philly’s beloved Martha Graham Cracker, was a bit brusque about telling audience members there were no seats left. He held up his hand and said, “Stop! Stop. No more.” Then his eyes scanned the seats, trying to count and make sure exactly how much space he did have left. He only had so much time to make sure that everyone was seated, as the countdown echoed from the loudspeaker. He wasn’t rude or insulting, but in the brief moments he had left before the piece started, he was busily quantifying the access to his bit of art—and he just forgot to be the perfectly polite person you’re supposed to be in non-profit.
Pay Up is about all of the most valuable things we might trade for money—our time, our wedding rings, our keepsakes, our bodies, even our piece of mind. Considering the context of the play, one could imagine Rothenberg saying to his actors: “It’s your job to make sure people follow the rules. Imagine you’re working in a coffee shop, or at an amusement park. If that means that you hate this part of the job, then hate this part of the job. You don’t have to be really nice. It’s not that kind of a show.”
It isn’t, really, that kind of a show. The show is playfully aggressive in weird ways. The concept that you are given $5 to see six $1 shows, to begin with, is enough to confuse people. Even the fact that you’ll never see everything is disappointing and agitating by its very nature.
Another quote of Rothenberg’s from that same interview was that “We realized it was working when people began behaving very strangely—trying to steal money, throwing money on the floor, couples breaking up because the time pressure revealed some deep fault line in their relationship . . .”
There was a point where I got a bit angry because someone leapt in front of me in line. This play is about something that really makes people nasty—money. The moment finances enter into an equation, things can get dark, and friendships—or even minor alliances—can fall apart.
Whenever cash changes hands in Pay Up, a distant rumbling subsumes any other sounds.
Most of the time, no matter how daring a play is meant to be, artists lead us into a comfortable, safe world with a concession stand, a program of events and even a bathroom break. It divides us from even the minor impoliteness of having a snippy barista or nasty neighbor.
I’m certainly not saying, “Go to Pay Up, because someone is going to treat you like a jerk.” Most of the little interactions with cast members were perfectly positive and kind, or at least neutral. What I’m saying, rather, is to pay attention to the little interactions, or how this play affects your own attitude in small ways. It is clear that one of the most impressive elements of this play is the over-arcing structure, and it has been deliberately designed to manufacture personal encounters.