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Interview with director Zoë Svendsen: World Factory at the Young Vic

2 May 2015 Marina Nenadic

World Factory is an interdisciplinary, interactive performance in which the audience plays a game of decision and consequence, exploring the harsh reality of the garment industry. London Calling talks to Director Zoë Svendsen about capitalist culture…

London Calling: Can you tell our readers a little bit about World Factory, and how it came about?

Zoë Svendsen: It started in China. I was in a bar in Shanghai one night talking to theatre maker Zhao Chuan, who runs a theatre company called Grass Stage. He was talking to me about communism and capitalism and clothing and factories and I was thinking of the ‘Made in China’ labels on our clothes; then realized he was actually talking to me about Manchester! He’d been to the Manchester International Festival and picked up a bit of tourist info which said about Manchester being the ‘World Factory’ and the industrial revolution, and that’s where the title of the piece came from.

People talk all the time in China about it being the ‘World Factory’ and so we were really fascinated by this connection between Manchester as a site of this extremely frenzied capitalist production. That was the seed of the project. Zhao Chuan and Grass Stage have made a theatre show in China and we’ve made our show here.

LC: How did the collaboration between the two companies work?

ZS: Well we visited each other, as nothing beats face-to-face interaction, so we made a big effort to enable that to happen. We were with Zhao Chuan doing a National Theatre studio residency when the factory disaster happened in Bangladesh. It was interesting to see how much attention this issue got after that happened.

Our show focuses on textiles and the history of the industrial revolution in Manchester, as a site of global cotton exchange. Zhao Chuan focuses more on mass production and working conditions in China. So we took different directions because of our particular contexts, and try to focus our energies on exchanging ideas and research.

LC: As part of your research, you had a shirt made in a Chinese factory from design to completion. How has this informed the performance?

ZS: Yes, that gave us a very clear, strong insight into how the garment industry works, and it enabled us to spend a bit of time in the factory where we had the shirt made. We met all of the workers and the factory owners. The show itself takes the audience on different journeys based on this World Factory model, providing further situations and encounters depending on the decisions that they make. The experience of us seeing this process in action was hugely influential on the narrative of the piece.

LC: How do you think the game aspect of the performance will impact on audience experience?

ZS: It’s at the heart of it really; the audience sits in a designed factory complex that we’ve created, around small tables. The game is a kind of cross between Monopoly and Poker, except that you’re running a clothing factory, and the decisions you make take you forward in the story, which is all represented on cards. Money, workers, and the associated consequences of the audience decisions are also represented within the game. So it’s really about the conversations between that small audience group, and the decisions that they have to make together.

LC: So there’s both a performance aspect to the piece but also audience participation. Can you tell us about any of the characters included in the show?

ZS: We’ve got an interview with a factory owner; she started out as a textile worker herself and then borrowed money to start up a factory of her own. As such she had quite a large sense of responsibility for her workers, which apparently is quite common in the smaller factories. It’s not all big capitalists just exploiting people. In other factories, which we visited, the situation can be very different. So it’s quite an interesting contrast.

The idea of forming the piece in this way was to put the audience into the position of decision maker, as the factory owner. So they’re not just sat back and looking at something at a distance, whether that’s geographically or emotionally or socially. They have to make the difficult decisions themselves, under those compromised circumstances that working in the garment industry actually involves.

LC: What kind of audience do you think that this show will appeal to?

ZS: It’s not a form of participation where the audience is in any way exposed, you don’t have to get up and do a dance or anything. The conversations are quite private, just among the people on the tables. So I think there’s a very broad spectrum of appeal, whether you’re interested in politics, fashion, or just in global interconnections between us all. Or just in the fun of a show that has this kind of element that means that you get to actually make decisions within it and see where it goes.

LC: What’s been the biggest challenge of putting this project together?

ZS: The system behind the cards. Although, the process of translating those complicated knock on effects and relationships between different global stories has actually been a huge pleasure. The technical aspect of the game enables a really concrete set of stories to be played and that’s what we were looking for. It’s a reflection on the topic, there are 259 million migrant workers in china who power these factories, who travel for two days to get to the city where they work and only get to go home at the Spring Festival – Chinese New Year, to see their families. The scale of production in china is mind boggling, and what we’ve done is pool that down into lots of individual stories that interconnect.

LC: What would you like your audience to learn from this experience?

ZS: I think there’s something about precariousness, unpredictability, excitement and risk - that you don’t know what’s round the corner. And that’s great in a theatre show, it’s really fun, it’s dangerous and tough. I think we’re culturally in a position now that we’re in danger of losing some of the securities that we’ve taken for granted for a long time. When you look at the factory workers in China and the degree of precariousness that they experience, moving between factories, losing jobs and having to get another one. That’s somewhat mirrored in Britain these days with schemes like zero hour contracts. The performance feeds off of that, the unpredictability and pleasure of risk, but also comments on that not being a viable societal structure.

LC: The Young Vic provides a fantastic platform for new and experimental work. Where are you hoping to take the project from here?

ZS: Where we go with it will depend on our audiences and the conversations we have with them. The format of the show sparks conversations and engagement, and each stage of the project sparks new ideas for us. We’ll be taking stock of what happens in each show. The subject matter itself is completely fascinating and there are always new elements to the stories to uncover.

World Factory is at the Young Vic Theatre  11th- 30th May 2015 – Click here to book your tickets.


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