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Introduction by Abhinay Muthoo

Originally published in the Barbican Events Guide

An imaginative new play for children draws on fairy tales and folklore to explore the adult world of money and economics.

The recent financial crisis contains the hallmarks of classic tragedy. The worst economic collapse since the Great Depression could serve as a backdrop for a drama about greed, fear, blame, manipulation and the falling fortunes of individuals, businesses and entire nations. Even now, this drama plays on, with the world as its political stage and the final curtain yet to fall. But, improbably enough, the same crisis has provided inspiration for an entirely different kind of theatrical experience – one designed to get children as young as five thinking about an invisible, powerful and sometimes misunderstood force we call the economy.

Sue Buckmaster, the artistic director of Theatre-Rites, has converted the complex matter of the crisis into the subject of a children’s play. Her immersive theatre creation, Bank On It, leads children through a magical World of Finance, a place in which children play with, of all things, economics. The setting of Bank On It offers an emblem for our times. It takes place in a building that appears to be a run-down bank, one at odds with the upscale image suggested online. This is a venue where something has gone very wrong and where things are often not what they seem. Children see elements of failure, but they are also encouraged to undertake problem solving and to think about new possibilities. They explore the power of money, but they examine the worth of other investments, such as human resources that are equally valuable. They explore ways in which competition and cooperation can lead towards productive or destructive ends. A parallel emerges here. The quintessential dynamics of the playground are also the seminal issues underlying meaningful economic research.

The creative enterprise that helped to bring this remarkable production to life comes as a revelation to me. I am proud to say that elements of Bank On It grew out of discussions between Sue, me and other professors at the University of Warwick Department of Economics as part of This_Is_Tomorrow, an innovative programme begun last year to bring artists and academics together.

From these early conversations, Sue embarked on a careful, collaborative process with all the participating artists to create this show, the debut creation of the This_Is_Tomorrow experiment. The artistic-academic interplay that underlies Bank On It has made me think about the value of these unconventional conversations. Our research broadened Sue’s vision of economics, a social science that examines matters of money, yes, but far more – particularly the questions of how to use the most valuable and finite resources of all: our time and effort.

In turn, her creativity expanded my view of how economic issues may be conveyed in ways that far exceed the reach of the data, graphs and mathematical equations that are the standard lexicon of economics. In the same spirit, I expect Bank On It to generate new discussions and to expand points of view, particularly about ways in which young minds may be engaged in the difficult issues of our day. Perhaps the next generation of economic problem solvers will be inspired by this creative experience. Now that would represent a truly fantastic return on investment.

Abhinay Muthoo is Professor of Economics and Head of the Department of Economics, University of Warwick