Have we ever talked so much about work, and how and where we do it? As many of us were working from home during the pandemic, everything was thrown upside down – but the advent of technology meant that the lines between our jobs and our lives blurred long before.
And now, post-pandemic, the world of work seems to have changed irrevocably. The so-called ‘big quit’ has seen workers leaving their jobs at a rate not seen in more than a decade, with many ‘leaving the labor market altogether’; at the start of this year, vacancies were at an all-time high. A recent survey showed that flexible working is now the top priority for job seekers, and another found that most workers don’t expect to return to the office full-time.
Burnout has also become a pervasive term, linked to overwhelming workloads and a lack of work-life balance. A report showed that in 2020-2021, mental health was the cause of half of all work-related illnesses, and Google searches for “burnout symptoms” increased by 75% last year . Some employers, aware of the problem, are experimenting with “burnout breaks” or four-day weeks.
This is a topic that is ripe for exploration. And now a play at the Soho Theatre, work.txt, wants to tackle those very tensions and blurred boundaries – but it does so in a way you’ve probably never experienced before (and, after editing on stage, might never want to again).
Described as “a play without actors”, work.txt is performed entirely by its audience. When they arrive in the room, they are greeted by a projector which gives them instructions. Audience members are told what to say and scripts are printed out for them to play (don’t worry if you’re shy – everything is self-selected and no one is forced to do anything that is). “It’s a fun and immersive experience, and a whole new way of doing theatre,” says its playwright, Nathan Ellis.
It tells the story, during a working day, of “a person in the city who lays down in the middle of the hall at work at the start of the working day, and the consequences of this action”, explains Ellis , describing a scenario that may seem uncomfortably tempting to many. Ellis started writing it three years ago; a digital version of the show, called work_from_home, was staged on Zoom last year.
“The initial question I was interested in when we started working on the play was: where is the work going in a theater if there are no actors there?” said Ellis. Soon he began to “explore the ideas of automation and entrepreneurship and ‘always on’ work”, and even bigger questions about why we work and what we mean by ‘meaningful’ work. .
As part of the research, the creative team visited an Amazon fulfillment center. “Robots and the people working in them really work together. And that’s a little bit what was depressing: obviously, all this work that is automated is automatable. So the troubling question that arose was, if these jobs can be done by a robot, why are they worth saving? Because it’s not a job that actually gives meaningful satisfaction, and the robot could do them better.
Ellis also wanted to “write a play about that feeling in the air that people’s professional lives extend into all areas of their lives. This idea of: being productive, getting things done, turning your hobby into work, answering emails on weekends. »
It only seems more relevant after the pandemic. If you work in an office, “your work can happen anywhere, which means it happens everywhere,” which now means “we’re constantly working,” says Ellis.
In writing a play that would be performed by audiences rather than actors, Ellis wanted to “bring form and content as close as possible, to try to provoke questions out of form”. Being invited to perform in the show itself may be a first for many ticket holders, but it taps right into the theater experience in its most common form.
“It’s something that we lost during Covid, the experience of being in real life with people and doing something that’s impossible to do without all those people working together,” Ellis says. “To me, it shows what’s magical about the theatrical experience, which is how alive it is and how it can’t be replaced by anything else.”
New technologies will continue to emerge and cities will continue to become more expensive; the ingredients of the labor debate may change, but it won’t end anytime soon. But there is a deeper, more fundamental challenge that will last much longer. Ellis says: “I think the big question, which is what should be the ideal purpose of our working life and how we want our society to think about meaningful work – that question was relevant fifty years ago, and will be certainly relevant in the future.”
work.txt is at the Soho Theater from February 28 to March 12; sohotheatre.com