Bank on It: a show about the financial system…for five-year-olds
Published in the Guardian, 21.06.2013
Last year, the Economist published a two-minute video explaining quantitative easing to its readers. Even the Guardian dubbed it a “complicated process” to grasp. Safe to say, it’s not a term you expect to hear in children’s theatre. Ditto “credit crunch”, “financial crash” and “fiscal policy”.
Yet all of these concepts pop up in Bank on It, a new site-responsive promenade show by the innovative company Theatre-Rites that aims to introduce children as young as five to the world of finance. Booking a ticket online replicates the process of joining a bank; the show itself starts with a broken ATM and an evasive bank-manager. “Everyone’s doing work about economics for adults,” says the company’s artistic director, Sue Buckmaster, in a brief rehearsal-break. “Why can’t we do it for kids?”
Buckmaster believes most adults remain economically illiterate – happily so, in fact. “We think: ‘The banks sort it out. Economists sort it out.’ But perhaps it should be a bit more transparent. Perhaps we should be teaching under-fives about it.”
Only one, albeit quite large, problem: how you actually do that. “When adults try and explain what went wrong, they get very complicated very quickly.”
Her proposal was to consult kids themselves. When she asked them to explain a bank, “Five year-olds went: ‘It’s this thing in the wall. You put a card in and get money out. Then you go inside and buy stuff. It’s called a Sainsbury’s Bank or a Tesco Bank.’ They understood it as a shop.” Older children had a slightly different take. Asked why there might be a shortage of money, they suggested robbery and accidental overspending. “They were talking politics in a really simple way.”
Theatre-Rites has never pandered to its young audiences. Founded in 1995 by Buckmaster and the late Penny Bernand, the company often makes work for children outside conventional theatre spaces. “Some amazing site-specific work was going on for adults,” Buckmaster explains. “We just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to let kids have some of this?’”
Recent Theatre-Rites shows have tackled disposability, the nature of genius and the workings of the NHS. Bank on It doesn’t stop at the financial crisis, either. It also addresses data storage, coltan mining and civil disobedience en route.
Buckmaster insists these are economic issues too: “Even love can be thought of economically. When we meet someone we assess our own resources and work out whether we’ve got the resources to love them.”
The thinking comes from Warwick University, where Buckmaster spent five days last year as part of Warwick Arts Centre’s This Is Tomorrow scheme. On the economics day, she remembers the head of department, Abhinay Muthoo, starting by saying, “Economics is everything except God and love.”
Coming from a theatre background, Buckmaster had a different perspective. “Arts is really struggling with economics at the moment, especially with being described as a commodity. One third of art is commodity, but two thirds is process, and it’s much harder to validate that in economic terms. Economics really feels like the enemy of the arts.” Her philosophy, she explains, was “get to know your enemies”.
She wasn’t alone. “A lot of people – artists, friends and parents – said to me, ‘You’ve got to make an anti-banking show. Tell it like it is.’” But one Warwick economist, Michael McMahon, refuted that. “He said: ‘You do not want a society that hasn’t got banks. We just need to help them reform and regulate themselves better.’ And I needed to hear that because no Theatre-Rites show has baddies. We always like to be ambiguous. Kids love baddies, but actually, in this situation, so do adults. They want a scapegoat. They want someone to blame.”
She goes on: “This has been the hardest topic of all, because it’s still such a hot, political subject. There seems to be a need to be moralistic, because we’re in a society that’s hurting, but I don’t want to be moralistic.
“Someone likened it to the seven stages of grief. You get angry, then apathetic. I had to fast-forward to feeling hopeful, because [in theatre for children] you have to go somewhere that’s got some hope. You have to look to a better future.”