Set against the economic optimism and then despair of a family-owned paper company going public, Trade Practices, presented by HERE on Governors Island, asks audience members to invest in its story lines. The immersive theater production that kicked off on Labor Day Weekend stages the experience around a trading floor, where your interest in various characters is turned into an experiment in value.
The enjoyable if somewhat cumbersome production, directed by HERE Co-founder and Artistic Director Kristin Marting and co-created with David Evans Morris, invites a small audience into Pershing Hall, one of the disused former military structures on the island, its entry lined with WPA war murals. There you’re introduced by intern Darlene (Brooke Ishibashi) to the office of Tender, Inc., a family business headed by a musical theater–inclined, outgoing CEO, Jim Tender (Peter McCabe), and his successor, the eye-patch-sporting Polly (Mary Rasmussen), ambitiously waiting in the wings.
After following a randomly selected introductory scene for one of the four story paths, each by a different writer, things get more complicated as you’re offered fake money to buy stock in the owners, middle management, communications, or workers, to decide what you’ll see for the next couple of hours. You’re not entirely stuck in one office drudgery or another, though; the quick-paced production regularly brings you back to the trading floor, where you can exchange or buy new stocks to follow new paths.
This structure produces some fairly stark tonal disconnects. The management track, written by Robert Lyons, deftly captures the mundane ruthlessness of two sorority sisters — Brenda McCall (Megan Hill) and Circe Boudreaux (Mariana Newhard) — rising through Tender’s middle management ranks; the much more surreal workers narrative, written by Qui Nguyen, follows a man named Franklin (Daniel Kublick) who engages in a sword battle with his bosses and is tormented by a robot computer. Then there is the owners story line, written by Chris Wells, featuring a cabaret flare of impromptu song, dance, and a fixation on the overlooked American Revolutionary War patriot Israel Bissell.
I aimed for a mix of as many stories as possible (although I wasn’t able to catch any of communications line, written by KJ Sanchez), but ended up with a major case of FOMO, especially after hearing my friend describe the worker Franklin encountering a television that dripped blood and a ghost coming out of the wall just after I’d switched back to the owners’ press conference. Like any sort of choose-your-own-adventure storytelling — or in any average office, really — you could only get as much of the story as was happening in your department.
If it all sounds a little confusing, it is, and while the program you’re given at the end explains that you’ve witnessed “a completely unique performances of Trade Practices that will never be repeated,” it’s not clear how buying the stock that seemed apportioned to keep the audience evenly divided impacted the inevitable downfall of Tender. Ultimately, all your stock was relatively useless, tradable for tchotchkes (a pencil or money magnet), three cents to the dollar, or origami made of the fake money. Still, even if the trading didn’t amount to much — a perhaps unintentional comment on the failure of the housing bubble and the sudden uselessness of what once had value — the cast and crew were incredibly engaged in their tale, and it’s exciting to see an empty building on Governors Island being revived through theater. Plus, the idea of making the characters you follow a form of monetary investing is certainly not detached from the larger New York arts world, with its trends towards crowdfunding and competitive spectacles to get a share of audience cash.
Trade Practices continues at Pershing Hall on Governors Island through September 17.