- Courtesy of Julius Honnor
- Seth Honnor
If you could spend a small pot of cash on anything you wanted, what would you choose? Some might splurge on new clothes or a fancy dinner. Responsible types might put it toward bills or, with winter on the way, new snow tires. Civic-minded do-gooders would likely invest in a community project or help an underfunded public service. Or maybe you'd just blow it all on scratch tickets and hope for the best. No judgment here.
But what if you had to persuade a roomful of strangers with ideas of their own to spend it on one thing, and one thing only, lest this mysterious windfall vanish? What would you choose, and how would you convince the others that yours is the best idea? Moreover, what if someone else had a better idea?
That's the central conceit behind "The Money," an interactive production created by British artist Seth Honnor. Equal parts game show, unscripted theater and social experiment, "The Money" is a "fiendish, clever show that tests your generosity," according to the UK's Daily Telegraph. It is also a hell of a lot of fun.
When they buy a ticket, audience members choose to be either one of 15 "players" or a "silent witness." Players sit at a table onstage and have one hour to come to a decision about how they will spend a pot of real cash. The silent witnesses watch from the audience — at least at first.
If no consensus in reached, the money rolls over to the next production. However, at any point in the show, silent witnesses can buy in and become players themselves. Likewise, players can opt out of the game by hitting a gong and walking away — though they can buy back in if they're so moved. There is no limit to the number of players in the game once it starts.
Two hosts introduce the show and umpire the game's minimal rules but otherwise have no intervention. Players make pitches for what to spend the money on. The only criteria: It has to be legal, and the money can't go to charity.
"Not because I don't like charity, because I do," Honnor explained in a recent interview from his home in England, "but because it defers responsibility away from the group. It's quite an easy thing to do."
The pot, funded by ticket sales, is usually a few hundred dollars, though it can grow much larger, especially if it rolls over. According to Honnor, the largest pot in the show's 10-year history was about $4,500.
Honnor, who stages similarly provocative interactive installations around Europe through his production company, Kaleider, called "The Money" the "most important piece of work I've made, without a doubt." He's toured the show on five continents, from the Sydney Opera House in Australia to the Houses of Parliament in London.
This week, in collaboration with the Flynn, "The Money" begins an eight-show run of city halls and high school auditoriums in Vermont, with two-night stops each in Burlington, Middlebury, White River Junction and Montpelier. Read on for the rest of Seven Days' conversation with Honnor.
SEVEN DAYS: What are some of your favorite things that the money has been spent on?
SETH HONNOR: There was a really lovely one in the Netherlands where lots and lots of people bought in. Normally, I can get the rhythm of a show, even if it's in another language. But I wasn't next to anyone who could translate, and suddenly everyone was buying in and I was like, "What's going on?"
They bought a boat together, and they called the project "Clean the Shitty." The idea was they had this kind of time-share in this boat that they could use for leisure, but they had to agree to clean the canals as they went. As far as I know, they still have it.
SD: That's awesome. What else?
SH: In China, they had a popularity contest. The players agreed that, after the hour was up, the most popular player with the silent witnesses would take all the money. They all agreed to it, therefore they got the money. So, they held a contest after the hour was up and everyone voted for this guy who got the money. He had come up with the idea, actually.
People do all sorts of things. They go out to dinner with each other. Someone took quite a lot of money to a place where he regularly worked in Africa and gave it out in one-pound denominations to as many people as he could find. I've spoken to him since about the challenges of direct giving and what it is to be a white man going there and giving out money.
SD: Yeah, that's a thorny one.
SH: It was fascinating. It seemed like a good idea around the table. But in reality, there were all sorts of ethical and logistical issues with that. Like, are you actually putting these people in danger giving them the money? Sometimes the stories have these long tails. Sometimes they're beautiful and amazing, and sometimes they're complex. The show kind of continues to ask questions about the power of money.
SD: You've made two TV pilots but never went to series. What happened?
SH: Neither of them managed to capture it. Or they tried too hard to capture it and, in doing so, kind of killed its essence.
SD: It does seem like the sort of thing that would be easy to reality TV-ify and ruin.
SH: It works really well live, and TV really wants to heavily control the format of the work. This show works because it's one hour, bookended, and that's it. And in that hour, anything can happen. So, it's much more like sport in that sense than it is like theater. Although, like sport, it's very theatrical. There's lots of drama.
SD: "The Money" is a game, and it's theater. But it's also a social experiment. What was your hypothesis when you started?
SH: All art is a social experiment, in some sense. And in some ways, "The Money" is not an experiment because no one's judging; no one's got a thesis. I'm not setting people up to be researched.
People are brilliant. They're amazing. They're really, really interesting. And this show is about people's beauty, ingenuity [and] their difficulty with each other. So, for me as an artist, it's important that I respect that in doing a project like this. And it's fun.
I guess if there's any thesis here, it's that I'm interested in money and what our enthrallment with it is. We're all in the same system; I'm not pretending that I'm any different. But we really are all enthralled with it.
SD: You've done this show all over the world. Have you noticed cultural differences in the way people approach the game in different places?
SH: What I always say is that I can't begin to read a culture off a few shows of "The Money" because that would be ridiculous. But...
The reality is that, in the Netherlands, they're really good at coming to a decision. Or, like, in Italy, there tends to be a lot of talking. Or in Australia, they tend to be incredibly competitive about it. There are things that make you go, "Oh, yeah. That makes sense."
SD: What about in America?
SH: One of the most interesting outcomes happened the last time we were in America. We don't let people give to charity. But this guy wanted to make a new charity that gives teddy bears to police officers so that they've got something to give children when they've been caught up in violent crime. He got the money.
Then, a year later, I got a message from a police department in Connecticut. It had a picture of a kid with a teddy bear by a police car, and it said, "There was a terrible incident today, but luckily our police officers were armed with teddy bears from your project."
SD: One of the hardest things for people to do right now is to agree on anything. How does polarization manifest in the game?
SH: Often, we go to arts festivals and someone jokes that they're going to give it to a right-wing party or something. And I long for someone to be represented from that party there, because it would make for a better conversation. And the show can hold those conversations. It's actually really interesting when you get people with opposing values, because then you really do have to talk it through if you're going to come to any sort of agreement.
I know Vermont prides itself on getting out and talking and voting. So, I hope we see a bit of that, of trying to get to some shared values.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.