Capitalism is the devil, right? Down with capitalism? And down with big too-big-to-fail banks and fake money scams that don’t make any sense but that our entire global economy depends on, right? Yes, right, unless you’re the one making that money. Then your clear moral vision gets a little cloudy and it gets harder to say ‘no stop all of these terrible things that are destroying the world!’ because you’re too busy making like Mona Lisa Saperstein and saying “MONEY, PLEEEEEASE”. At least this is the moral of the story at LIES, the interactive theatre experience that ran at London’s Almeida Theatre until last Saturday (sorriessss all that cash has destroyed my ability to care that y’all missed it).
But even after 2008, and movies like “The Big Short” explaining to us non-experts how forked up the system is, nothing happened, nothing changed. Why is that? LIES intends to show the audience how precarious the economy really is, and maybe to spark a revolution by getting us to understand how dangerous it is to leave the control and knowledge of the financial world to just a select few.
And it is indeed dangerous for only a few people to have control, as evidenced in the performance I attended by…my own actions. Man, did I get swept up in ‘earning’ money and out-pacing all my tablemates in my returns. Let’s get down to the details. One by one, the audience members were taken into the dark room and sent to one of 10 blackjack-type tables, each with one cast member sitting in the dealer’s position. I’ll refer to them as dealers even though we weren’t playing cards. Unless you are disabled and need to remain with your companion, you don’t sit with the people you came with. I was upset at first that I couldn’t sit with Husbo, but now I totally understand how important it is to be anonymous to the people you’re with, with the freedom to act as depraved as you can.
Our table of six players was a country with our name taken from the first person who was seated at our table. The cast named the tables/nations quickly and impressively, with names like ‘Josovo’ (hilarious!), ‘United Andrew’, and ‘Markocco’. Each table/nation had six players, and each of us was to act as banks, with the dealer acting as the national government/central bank. (Can you tell already that I don’t know how economy do?) So, yeah, when I say this theatre was interactive, I mean it was forking interactive. This would be an absolute nightmare for those of you who hate when you’re in a regular theatre and an actor makes eye contact with you. You are part of this.
The only lights came from bald fluorescent bulbs hanging over each table, so that when you were at your table it felt like you were being interrogated. They also played weird music that made my blood pressure rise, and every so often they would announce how much money the international community earned – and how much the temperature in the room had increased. Creepily, every announcement the Dealer made would be stated in unison with all the other tables’ dealers. When you heard their unison chanting over the din of the room, it was kind of horrifying.
To begin, our dealer man told us to take out all the cash we had on us. I didn’t have my wallet, but luckily we were told by front of house staff to have at least a note or a pound on us, so I had a 5 pound note from Husbo. The dealer told us we could choose to invest up to 20 pounds, so everyone else at my table gave in that maximum, except me, with my fiver. We put our investments in envelopes (so everyone gets back their real money at the end) and we got back chips representing our investments, but in millions. My little baby stack of 5 chips was so baby! The dealer gave each of us a dice and said that the first opportunity for growth was on a deal that paid out at a 1:1 rate, meaning if you risked $1 million and succeeded, you got another $1 million back. To succeed, you had to roll 3, 4, 5, or 6. So the odds were in your favor, and we rolled about 4-5 times. There were only a few losses when you had such good odds of a successful roll.
After a few successful rounds of investment, Dealerman said that the central bank was booming, and our nation could start selling, and we could start buying, government bonds. Okay, I saw at this point that it wasn’t going to be as simple as just ‘rolling dice and doubling your ante’. Dealerman offered me a $10 million loan from the central bank, and I said yes but I don’t think I had a choice (they have to keep the game going and I needed to be competitive). I bought a few bonds as we were told that the value of these would only increase, as long as our central bank stayed healthy.
Next, Dealerman told us that we were doing well as a nation and we could now make investments at a 2:5 return. Meaning, you risked 2 chips but if you rolled 4, 5, or 6, you would win 5 chips. So, higher stakes for losing, and fewer winning rolls, but better returns. I did pretty well rolling high numbers (take me to Vegas! No just kidding I hate it there!) and you could no longer tell that I started at such a deficit compared to my tablemates – but that’s also because the Dealer was giving everyone loans like whoa. To mark your loans, he’d give you 10 chips, and then in the central bank he would put a blank card and write $10 million and your name. These debts became crucial to our central bank’s solvency.
Soon, the cast members from the other tables/nations came around to sell their bonds on the international market, which our Dealer went off to do too. On a board in the middle of the dark room was a list with all our country names and our current credit rating, from A to C. We were at a B, which is fine, but there were already nations with B+ ratings and A-, and even one A. We needed to improve our rating, whatever the heck that means! We started betting even faster and buying lots of bonds. I think. It’s all a money-grabbing blur.
Then things got interesting. Dealerman said that one of our banks could have the opportunity to short deals in order to hedge its losses. This was represented by a Short card, and we had to bid on it to win it. This is where I thought, ‘oh bloody oh, me and my inability to retain financial information.’ See, I’ve seen ‘The Big Short’, several times actually, and every time I understand completely what’s happening, but the second it ends, I forget all the lessons I learned. So I didn’t immediately realize how baller this card would be and how I’d be the ultimate winner. Shorting is like betting against the success of a deal, so that if a bank invests in something but the deal fails, you win. So if one of my tablemates bet on the 2:5 deal but lost, I’d win what they risked if I shorted the deal. I mean I think that’s how it works; don’t quote me. One of my tablemates got it for $12 million. That would have wiped out nearly all my money, so I was too nervous and too unsure of what it would get me. But a few rounds later, the Dealer had one more, a final Short card, for sale. I was going to get this no matter what, and you know what, I did – I paid $21 million for it. And it was worth it. I immediately started doing what the other guy with the Short card at my table was doing – shorting his own investments. Meaning, even when he lost/didn’t roll 5 or 6, he didn’t lose anything. We both started doing that on the 5:15 deals and we were positively swimming in chips like drunk Londoners on Saturday nights. It was SO MUCH FUN. Sure, shorting your own investments probably is illegal, but we were allowed to do it here, so we did. And it would have felt mean to use it on our new friends, like “oh you suck at rolling I bet that you are going to fail again.” That’s not how you make friends.
In the next round, we had the opportunity to make deals on a 5:15 rate of return, rolling only 5 or 6 to win. That’s a huge risk, and it’s so hard to roll just 5 or 6, but it didn’t matter for me with the Short card! I literally could never lose. It got almost impossible for me to count all my returns at the end of every round. One time, I did mess up when counting the returns - I put some of them in my capital pile. It was all just too much to keep track of! But that was tax evasion, and so I had to play a round with red dice! How embarrassing.
Even more fun, Dealerman then said we had the opportunity for two mergers to happen in our nation. The animalistic drive of capitalism had already gotten to us, so my buddy with the other Short card and I merged our banks. We would be unstoppable, and, as the Dealer told us, we were now too big to fail, for the sake of our nation’s economic health. We played, I mean invested, more 5:15 rounds, bought and sold more bonds on the national and international markets, and soon I couldn’t even count my returns at the end of every round (to pay my share of taxes to the central bank) without the Dealer’s assistance.
And everything the Dealer paid out from central was getting more and more unwieldy – my return of $15 million each winning roll was decreasing rapidly in the number of chips it had versus cards: it started with 15 chips, but then it was 10 chips and 5 bond cards (a mix of ours and other nations’), then it was 5 chips and 10 cards – both of bonds and debt holdings from other players. We reached a point by the end where I was getting maybe 1-2 chips and the rest was different kinds of cards to keep track of, awkward ‘financial products’ that mixed cash, national bonds, international bonds, and debt cards from all my fellow players. And this is where the truth kind of started to kick in – what was this money we were making? So much of it these cards that kind of represented money out of thin air, with nothing of substance backing it up. Sure I could try to make some of the players pay their debt cards off with actual chips, but it would still count exactly the same for me. And if you tried to pay off your debt with the central bank, it would hurt it, and possibly affect our rating. One of my tablemates wanted to pay off some of his debt with the central bank once he made a lot of money, and Dealer said he could – but to think about it, because having that debt helped shore up our government’s economy and losing it could hurt our nation. Obviously he didn’t pay it off, and we all kind of realized how so much of the economy is based on literally nothing, all houses made of playing cards, which was a little on the nose here.
But red alert! Four of the 10 nations in the room were crashing! They were all in dire need of a bailout, but the international community was told we could only save one of them, leaving the other three to crash. It would be decided by a vote, so each table voted on the one whose products they had the most of – like if we bought more bonds of one of those countries than others, we were voting to save them, because otherwise their products would be worthless. So one of them was saved, and whatever we had from the other three was indeed worthless.
We started getting a little more nervous about what was going on with the international community – but we were also rolling in dough and winning each roll was addictive. I am hundo p a democratic socialist – I think rich people should pay a whole lot more in taxes for the good of everyone and I don’t think billionaires should exist – but in this environment, I was a RAGING CAPITALIST. It was insane, how focused everyone remained on making money and how we didn’t really stop to think about whether the weird financial products we were creating as time went on were really worth any actual money, or whether they should be. By the time they stopped us, I had earned $130 million! And I started with 5 pounds! Man alive for an instant I was like ‘I’M GONNA BE A TRADER! I MEAN A GAMBLER! I MEAN I DON’T KNOW WHAT I MEAN!’ But then I came back to my senses and was like, oh this is troubling, and man alive the world economy desperately needs to change.
Good game, Ontario Reverend Goatherd, good game.
The show ran a straight two hours of intense concentration and really high blood pressure. They let you bring in water bottles but nothing that could spill (and nothing could be kept on the table). If you’re me, you needed ice cream afterwards, but others will need a hard drink – which explains why every banker is addicted to drugs.