Article Title

The Tragic Spectator: Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Pay Up


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Tragedy revolves around the primary contract of man and nature, the contract fulfilled by man’s death, death being, as we say, the debt he owes to nature.
—Northrop Frye, Fools of Time1

The situation is an appeal: it surrounds us, offering us solutions which it’s up to us to choose.
—Jean-Paul Sartre, “For a Theater of Situations”2

Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Pay Up,3 originally produced for the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in 2005 and most recently revived in September 2013, is not so much a piece of interactive theater as an interactive situation, in which theater, radically abbreviated, is offered.4 I wrote the text for Pay Up in collaboration with the company, and my hope in this essay is to examine some of the ways in which the experience of making Pay Up invites reflection into the pleasures and discomforts of interactive performance.5 In particular, I would like to consider how a raucous performance piece marked by the everyday victories and disappointments of simple consumer choices might somehow also open out onto something as unlikely as tragedy—how the existentialist dramaturgy of Sartre as well as the classical poetics of tragedy might be mobilized to treat an interactive performance in which the spectator has become the protagonist. Finally, I want to offer the proposition that an emancipated spectator (in the frequently cited formulation of the political philosopher Jacques Rancière) might also be a tragic spectator, following Sartre’s observation that “the chief source of great tragedy—the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles, of Corneille—is human freedom.”6


1 Northrop Frye, Fools of Time (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 4.

2 Jean-Paul Sartre, “For a Theater of Situations,” in Writings, ed. Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, trans. Richard McCleary, vol. 2 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 186.

3 Pig Iron Theatre Company is a physical theater company based in Philadelphia. For overviews of the company’s history and methods, see Nick Salvato, “‘Ta Daaaa’: Presenting Pig Iron Theatre Company,” TDR/The Drama Review 54, no. 4 (2010): 206–223; and Krista Apple, “A Wild, Wild West of Their Own,” American Theatre, February 2010, 28–30.

4 “Situation” refers here to Sartre’s use of the term, as in the quotation that precedes the essay. This should be distinguished from Guy Debord’s “constructed situations,” which were intended as direct interventions in everyday life. See Guy Debord, “Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency,” in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. Tom McDonough (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 44–49.

5 The core creators of the original production of Pay Up were Dan Rothenberg (director), Robert Quillen Camp (text and sound design), Anna Kiraly (production design), Quinn Bauriedel, Morgan Eckert, Johnnie Hobbs III, Christie Parker, and Dito Van Reigersberg. Pig Iron’s process of devising work is truly collaborative, and the text for Pay Up was created in tandem with every other element of the production.

6 Sartre, “For a Theater of Situations,” 185.

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