Performance artist gives his entire fee to the audience, asks them to give back what he's worth

Performance artist Mike Daisey's show at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, "The Last Cargo Cult," started with the attendees being handed US currency (notes ranging from $1 to $100) as they came into the theatre. As Daisey's show drew to a close, he revealed that the money the audience had been given was the entire sum that the theatre was paying him to perform that night. He then asked the audience to give back some or all of the money based on their impression of the show -- and if they liked it enough, they were invited to give even more money back. At the end of the show, Daisey had not only made back all the money he'd given away, he'd also cleared $1,169.005 (yes, someone gave him half a penny!).
Here are some choice audience reactions as they entered the theatre:

"Oh my God, I got a dollar!"

"Ten bucks? Dad, I got ten bucks!"

"No thanks. I don't need it."

"Cool. Now I can get a cookie."

"Oh. Did I drop this?"

"I get $5 and he gets $1? I like this!"

"How do I have to humiliate myself to keep this?"

"There's a small hole in this dollar. I bet that's significant."

When handed a $10, a confused woman kept repeating, "But parking was only $5."

How did Mike make out? (Thanks, Paul!)

(Image: kevinberne.com)

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  1. Interesting idea. I like that people who got the $100 bills immediately broke them at the concession. You know, just in case they were fake they got rid of them quickly and took the real change. Clearly most people are paranoid.

  2. I have never been convinced any “pay what it’s worth” idea. Isolated incidents aside, it’s never been seen to be a viable business model by a whole lot of different industries (and that’s not because it hasn’t been tried).

    The issue is one of consumer surplus, or for the non-economic oriented, the value you get from what you bought. If someone asks you to pay what something is worth, they are literally asking you for exactly how much value you got out of it. However, consider this: don’t we buy something because we will get more value out of it than we pay? Otherwise we wouldn’t buy the thing. It’s inherent in the way we process purchases – the phrase “I got a good deal” means that I just got more value from something than I paid.

    So in that sense, if you ask for me to pay the full value of what I got, I’m going to say “hell no” and pay less. But for most people, what they get is a feeling of confusion and in practice this tends to make them avoid the business altogether. I’ve read at least 3 different case studies of restaurants and other businesses trying this strategy out and crashing and burning, even if under their old pricing model they did well.

    This situation is slightly different because everyone was already coming to the venue, so there was no avoidance factor, so it still doesn’t prove the viability of that kind of business model. Mike also gave people a price signal anyway because he gave them money that he made.

    (a side note: “Pay what you think it’s worth” is VASTLY different from “pay what you like” – one asks people to give their whole value, and the other essentially asks people to give a fixed amount below their consumer surplus)

    1. So, you’re saying, if you discount all the incidents where it works perfectly, it doesn’t work at all?

      My antigravity death ray is exactly like that. Except for all the times it doesn’t, it works one hundred percent reliably!

      The pentagon, for some reason, is uninterested. They keep telling me to go away, and they aren’t even polite about it. They’re anti-science, is what it is; I blame Obama.

    2. However, consider this: don’t we buy something because we will get more value out of it than we pay? Otherwise we wouldn’t buy the thing.

      this kind of simplistic folk-economics has gotten us into a lot of trouble. a little more exposure to more sophisticated, dare i say “humanistic” economics will pretty quickly reveal that the proposition you make above is hopelessly inadequate to describe the reasons why people exchange money for goods and services.

      you’re missing out all kinds of things like future discount, opportunity costs, imperfect information, preference formation, and so forth. perhaps the most significant one is that the audience in this case has the option of paying zero for something with more than zero value to them. they are not being asked “is this worth more than the price?” because the price is not determined even after they are in receipt of the value.

      1. @pauldavis,

        you’re missing out all kinds of things like future discount, opportunity costs, imperfect information, preference formation, and so forth

        I think you may be assuming a too-strict definition for the original usage of the word, “value”. Perhaps the original poster should have specified “perceived overall value”? It’s only “simplistic folk-economics” if you assume value is calculated in purely monetary terms.

        perhaps the most significant one is that the audience in this case has the option of paying zero for something with more than zero value to them

        That’s not strictly true; they’ve already paid a non-zero amount for the original tickets. Some audience members may have received an amount equal to their ticket price, and for them it is true, but I’d wager that most of the audience was not in that set.

  3. What a clever idea–as a business model, quite apart from its function in the performance piece itself. Especially clever to mix up the denominations–everyone within ten seats of the people who got $100 bills must have been burning out their monkey brains trying to make sense of it.

    That said, I predict the second person who tries this will make a profit of eighteen cents, and the third will be lucky to get back enough of the original payment for bus fare. Which is just as well for people like me, who are paid far more than what anyone thinks our work is actually “worth.” :)

  4. Perhaps a spoiler alert? I think you’ve just ruined a big piece of the show for viewers. There’s an emotional journey involved in being handed the dough (a $50 bill in my case) at the beginning of the show, wondering why it’s happening, and then having it explored during various parts of the show.

    The end of the show, wherein he explains what the money is and asks to be paid, is a fascinating gambit. It also has a strong emotional impact. You’ve essentially just given away the punchline to a brilliantly-told two-hour joke. This makes me very sad for the people who will see the show in the future and miss out on this excellent experience.

    1. From the fact that someone brought a cut-in-half penny to the last show, it sounds like word had already leaked out. Knowing the plot to an opera before the show doesn’t make the art any less. This is only a spoiler if he decides to do this show again somewhere.

  5. I also love that some people gave NYC metro cards back, rather than cash, thus elegantly leveraging a performance art show to solve minor liquidity crises.

  6. Wait….how much did he make? The article says, “$1,169 and half cent profit”, and it’s the use of “profit” that throws me; is that net (including original fee) minus expenses, or is it — as Cory’s blurb says — the amount over and above the original fee?

  7. was this the same guy who got sort of attacked by a weird audience member, or spit on, or something…years ago, and it made the ‘net news? He looks like him, and my mind can’t recover the details.

    1. Yes. Mike Daisey was doing a monologue at the Zero Arrow Street Theater in Cambridge, MA when a member of a church group took offense to what he was saying and poured a glass of water over his notes as he spoke.

      Daisey tried to engage the audience member, the show was clearly advertised as containing some sexual content, but that person walked out, if memory serves. If memory also serves, the audience member later apologized.

      I saw Daisey perform his monologue on Tesla and he is very good at what he does.

    2. Mike had a bottle of water poured over his notes (the only written documentation of his performances), by an irate patron during a performance of “Invincible Summer” several years ago (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IeMtQ-SZtA), who objected to his rather salty language. Mike eventually tracked down the offended party and had a nice little exchange with them.

      And FWIW, Mike has been performing “The Last Cargo Cult” for a couple of years now as well, and I don’t believe every performance ends with a profit, so there’s that dynamic to consider as well.

      I don’t know whether he’ll elect to comment here, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

  8. Mike Daisy has posted portions of his ‘Cargo Cult’ on youtube …

    I consider him to be one of the most entertaining storytellers in America today, and I am definitely willing to pay the $50-60 per ticket price to see him perform live. I’ve done so at least four times already.

    Daisy’s Cargo Cult monologue does touch upon the meaning of money in our world – linking both the recent financial crisis, and what things are valued on a remote Pacific island, which he tells of visiting. As his monologue winds down, the explanation is given for why you were handed a denomination of dollar bill as you walked in – the ‘experiment’ does fit in with the whole theme of the evening.

    I heard of one person, who was handed $100 at the start of a Daisy show, who kept it – but he was a college student (or was it a struggling actor) on a tight budget, who felt he needed to money more than Daisy did. Most theatre goers, who are already generally financially secure enough to be able to buy a ticket, don’t really need the $1, $5, or $10 refund, and don’t want the bad karma of keeping a portion of a performer’s wage.

    For those in the D.C. area, Daisy is about to start a run of his new show ‘The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ starting March 21 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre (this show, I believe, does not involve handing out money to audience members)

  9. price is money in exchange for products or services and value is everything else one recieves as part of the transaction, including the ground underwhich the transaction occurs, which we call the economy.

    daisy certainly confused the audience with a strong voodoo.

  10. This was a great show – I got a $20 and my wife only got $1. I will admit to feeling superior, even though it was completely luck that I got more. However this played into the show quite nicely, and illustrated that much of the wealth in the US isn’t generated by skill, only luck. It was an interesting examination of the myth of economic mobility within the US.

    I’d like to know how he did overall as well, I spoke with Mike after the show and he said he had someone “crunching the numbers” regarding what his profit was, what venues did better, etc.

  11. I worked on this show when it was in New York in 2009*. I believe he ended up with a net gain in his money there as well. Some bills would come back with notes written on them. A few bills came back torn (a message? or just someone getting rid of that torn bill they can’t use anywhere else?)

    He also received several books, some placed there from the authors themselves.

    *My blog has more info on that for those who are interested: http://www.props.eric-hart.com/how-to/more-on-a-wooden-table/

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