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SIFA 2023: An Interview with Samir Veen of Ontroerend Goed, on interactive theatre piece ‘£¥€$ (LIES)’

For the ordinary person going about our lives, it’s already enough of a headache just keeping our finances in order. But if you were suddenly given a chance to join the super-rich and mess around with the world economy, wouldn’t you leap at the opportunity?

At this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed arrives on our shores to present interactive theatre piece £¥€$. With its cryptic title comprising of various currency symbols, one can choose to interpret the title either as ‘eyes’ or ‘lies’, lining up perfectly with its themes of money and corruption.

Known for their participatory theatre works, with £¥€$, Ontroerend Goed invites audience members to now take on the role of a super-rich member of the 1%, with all the resources and money to control the global economy. Over the course of the show, you’ll get a chance to temporarily be a part of the game of high finance, starting your own bank, scheming and trading and in it to win it, as the risk grows higher, you trade in debt. Are you still in control, or is something else controlling you?

Speaking to Samir Veen, a member of Ontroerend Goed’s core artistic team who has been present with the collective since the original production of £¥€$, we found out more about what audience members can expect from this experience, and what it means to create participatory theatre.

“I was still a freelancer with Ontroerend Goed when they created £¥€$ in 2017, and I remember how artistic director Alexander Devriendt came up with this concept, and we’d be doing so much research and having discussions about it,” says Samir. “A lot of it spawned from the fallout from the financial crises of the late 2000s, with banks toppling, the mortgage crisis, and eventually, Occupy Wall Street. People everywhere were getting so angry over this, and that’s why we wanted to create a show focusing on the financial crisis, or simply the banking system.”

In the six years since £¥€$ debuted, the world has changed immensely, with a global pandemic that made a large majority of people realise how unsatisfactory the status quo had been, and a greater willingness to speak up and speak out against inequalities and dissatisfactions in life. “You know, regardless of where we played the show, whether Hong Kong or Australia, Kazakhstan or Australia, the reaction and response was almost always the same,” says Samir. “You get people who become angry at the system, and you get people who become invested and intrigued by the whole affair.”

“A lot of that comes from the concept of money itself – if you look at a $10 bill from America, it says that the Bank of America promises to pay the bearer the sum of $10 on demand when showing this bill. But then you think about it – isn’t this bill itself ‘$10’? What then can they give to you that is ‘$10’? Money is a promise and not something actual, and that’s what gets people intrigued and fascinated and also confused, as they ‘generate’ money during the show.”

There is a recurring belief that for change to happen, one must first get angry. But that is not necessarily the role that theatre has to fulfil, and for Ontroerend Goed, they see their show as a means to expose instead. “We’re not here to educate, but to engage and show people these concepts in a much more simplified way,” says Samir. “The aim is to get them excited through the adrenaline rush, which may lead them to do their own research in their own time about these supposedly complex ideas and systems, and at least, develop an opinion about them.”

While on the surface, £¥€$ seems like a game where the audience is in control, Samir assures us that this is ultimately still a piece of controlled theatre, where the end result and story arc is fixed. “A game gives you agency to create your own ending, but theatre does not. You can interact with the elements, throw some dice and make some money, but we will always end the evening the same way, and the audience has no actual influence over what will happen,” says Samir. “We do however, make it easy to be a part of the production, because they have the choice to decide how much they participate, whether they sit back and observe, or actually ‘play’. We have an artistic responsibility to curate a specific experience to present to people, but how they react and respond to it is up to them.”

Despite the audience not actually having any control over what happens, Samir chooses not to see it as a pessimistic final outcome for the show, but more of the process that’s meant to be fun and engaging. “There’s a lot of jokes, and a lot of enthusiasm from the facilitators’ end in dealing with both the material and the script,” says Samir. “It’s about opening up those doors to ideas and concepts they may not have been exposed to before, or even the rare chance to experience the financial system in a more direct way, so that they can have an informed opinion.”

“I do think that people should come see £¥€$ because it helps people find a new perspective, and develop a stronger world view. In tying back to the festival’s theme of ‘Some People’, I think about how it encourages people to think about money and the economy, and how it’s such a huge part of our lives but it’s really only managed by a few people. What would it be like to be one of the few people to have that kind of control? It changes your perspective, or at least, gives you the chance to think about the economy from that point of view.”

Ultimately, with so much controversy over money, is it truly the root of all evil? “I don’t think so. I think it’s a system, and a very handy one that serves its function well – how else would we be able to trade and deal with each other?” says Samir. “But it’s when harmful ideologies such as capitalism or neoliberalism that are introduced that may corrupt the system, when people end up abusing the economy. That’s why you end up with people who own way too much without doing anything, and people who work hard and contribute a lot but still lead hard lives. It is not money that is the problem, but human greed.”

Photo Credit: Ontroerend Goed

£¥€$ (LIES) plays from 23rd to 28th May 2023 at the SOTA Studio Theatre, as part of the 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts. Tickets and more details available here

The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here

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