An exciting but somewhat hidden away live arts venue on the Kings Road, Chelsea Theatre stages an annual festival called Sacred during October and November. Amongst this year’s US Radical acts is Sara Juli’s The Money Conversation. A show that has become somewhat fabled and even famed within circles of non-theatregoers, Juli’s show is more of a social experiment than a piece performance art.
With a green deposit box spotlit to the side of the stage throughout the show, Juli gradually gives away her life savings of $5000 dollars. The Money Conversation. She discusses with the audience just what money means, and the arbitrary, representational value of paper notes. ‘What is $40?’, she questions, ‘What is $1000?’
Juli initially hands the money out to the audience members with ease. Gradually, however, she makes it harder for them to obtain the proffered sums. She taunts them with the money bills, waves them in their face between her toes, before finally secreting the money underneath her clothes and asking the more intrepid members of the audience to venture a little further to obtain their financial gift.
On the night I saw it, the questions raised by Juli’s provocative show suddenly became very real. Giving away a large lump sum to one selected member of the audience, Juli then left the stage. It was up to him whether or not to give it back. Political or provocative theatre seldom has a measurable effect on its audience, but on this occasion the relationship many people bear to money was laid plain for all to see. Attempting to take the money away, the fortunate/unfortunate audience member was accosted on his way out of the theatre. There was shouting, arguing and chants of ‘GIVE IT BACK, GIVE IT BACK!’
It seems that the most theatrical asepct of Juli’s piece occurs outside the theatre – but I’m sure she’d be pleased with this result. Many of us may not agree with a stranger walking off with someone else’s bank balance, and the protests were indicative of the strength of people’s belief in a work ethic and in entitlement. Yet, if money is freely up for grabs – as it ostensibly is in Juli’s performance – why shouldn’t we take it? There’s an audacity in pressing your audience’s ethics in the way that Juli chooses to. The outcome relies on whether a particular person will value opportunism and serendipity over pride.