By Alessandro Esculapio

On November 16, 2017 the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts at University of Sussex hosted Metis: World Factory, a participatory theatre performance on fast fashion and the global textile industry. Created by Zoë Svendsen in 2015 and first performed at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and at the Young Vic in London, World Factory is a performance that looks at economic and political similarities between 19th century Manchester and 21st century China through the lens of the textile and fashion industry. It does so by mixing traditional theatre performance, a participatory game with the audience, and thorough research about the historical and contemporary socio-economic contexts in both countries.

World Factory begins with audience members being ushered into the performance space, where they are invited to sit in groups around tables. The tables are part of the stage design, and are connected by an elevated runway-like stage where the actors perform. The performance begins with the actors walking down the runway and posing to recreate the glamour of a fashion show. The fantasy play is then brutally interrupted by some more realistic figures on the environmental and social unsustainability of the fast fashion model. Through short dialogues and with the help of big screens, the performers present different perspectives on the global textile industry.

After this introduction, the game begins. The audience members have to manage a textile factory in China for a year, which translates to an hour of play. Each table is given some money, a list of the factory employees alongside personal and professional profiles, and a bar code reader. During the game each of the four actors is assigned a few tables. At this point, the role of the actors is ambiguous: all the audience members know is that they hand out cards with one or two options based on the decisions made by each team for the duration of the game. Occasionally, however, they will also give players some extra money. At my table, for instance, we could not quite figure out if the money was earnings from sales or a form of incentive from the Chinese government. A couple of discussions arise when we have to make the decision of whether or not to accept the money. We wind up taking it, no questions asked.

Above is an example of the kind of situation players have to face during the game. Will you accept a dinner invitation from a Communist party official? Will you produce for the work clothes sector or will you tap into the burgeoning fast fashion market? Will you outsource when bigger orders come in or will you hire more workers? Will you put your employees on salary or will you pay them per unit? Will you grant them paid holidays for Chinese New Year’s or will you instead offer an incentive to those who decide to keep working rather than go back home? Will you give your workers the right to organise autonomously despite the fact that unions are illegal in the country?

Such key decisions involve complex moral issues, yet have to be made within a few minutes. Thus the players experience the enormous pressure and quick pace of production that Chinese factories have to endure every day. Sometimes this entails sacrificing profit in the name of ethical business or, vice versa, sacrificing sustainability in order to ensure more orders and more jobs. In this sense, the game translates the socio-economic dynamics of global capitalism into real-life situations. It also turns the tables on us fast fashion consumers, forcing us to put ourselves in the shoes of the producers. As journalist Paul Mason put it, World Factory can turn a ‘liberal hipster’ into a ‘capitalist tyrant.’[1]

The results achieved by each factory are then visualised on the screens after the game is over. Usually profits and workers’ rights do not go hand in hand, but tonight the factory that has turned the highest profit is also the one that made the biggest improvement in workers’ rights. This is a first, as the actors later note during the Q&A session.

The final part of the performance sees each actor defending a possible future scenario for the development of a more fair and sustainable global fashion industry. Players are asked to invest their earnings into one or more of them. Among the possibilities are the reshoring of production to the UK, the relocation of production facilities to the African continent and the creation of world-wide textile waste recycling programs. This evening, an overwhelming majority choose to put their money towards the reshoring of production to the UK.

World Factory, then, points to the issues of the global textile industry and, by extension, to the deeply rooted contradictions of neoliberalism. But it also offers some food for thought. It provides prompts that can help us see our complicity in the system and make more informed decisions as consumers, producers, and users of clothing. It also shows that, perhaps, the most effective way of communicating the urgency of political and environmental issues is not achieved through guilt, but through empathy; not through slogans on a t-shirt, but through active participation; not through consumer reports the size of tomes, but through play.