In the summer of 2019, I was looking for a collaborator to work with on a performance idea that I had about money, wealth, the early 2000s economic boom in Southeast Asia, and coming into adulthood in the 2008 Great Recession. I wanted someone who shared my migrant background and had no qualms about tackling the topic of money. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far to find Bryn Herdrich—director, thinker, theatrical luminary—who also had experienced financial and cultural instability as an expat/migrant worker.
With the support of Soho Rep. Writer/Director Lab, Bryn and I were underway when the pandemic hit and all our lofty ideas about an in-person devising process quickly became unfeasible. We were searching for a digital way to both escape and expand this project entitled BUST. That’s when Penny Thoughts came along.
Jeesun Choi (Rail): Penny Thoughts (@penny_thoughts_2020) launched on Instagram in September 2020. How did the idea come about?
Bryn Herdrich: So I think first, it actually was a joke. We were contemplating what a digital presentation of BUST might look like at Soho Rep., and we were thinking, what if we asked people for stories and gave them a penny in return? Like a penny for their thoughts. I think it was maybe my bad joke. It sort of went away. We were feeling a little frustrated by the limitations of Zoom and the lack of a direct connection to the audience. Both of us were very invested in having the audience as a real partner in generating narrative. That’s what brought us back to the idea.
Rail: With BUST we were heavily dealing with money as a topic and it was triggering a lot of strong reactions. People were getting very frustrated and angry; there was a lot of baggage that came with money. And we're like, how can we tone this down?
Herdrich: Penny Thoughts was an attempt to give the audience agency over the narrative. We wanted to invite people into a conversation about money in a way that was deeply emotional and personal. And not didactic.
Rail: What made us really excited about Penny Thoughts was how tangible it was. We painted a penny for each of the memories and mailed it to the person in exchange. You could touch the penny, design it, paint on it, and it felt very not intellectual. It wasn’t a metaphor, it was the real thing! I still get messages from people who are like, I still have it, it's sitting up on my bookshelf.
Herdrich: It was so unique to have the opportunity to create something specifically for each contributor as a gesture of gratitude.
Rail: And I think the telescoping, taking a memory that is so huge, and making something so real and so small was delightful, and I think we needed that delight.
Herdrich: What was our process for collecting the memories?
Rail: We used a very uninspiring Google Form. Functional and practical. No bells and whistles. Within it, I think magic happened.
Herdrich: Yeah. The more pennies we posted on Instagram, the more people were willing to contribute their own narratives.
Rail: With those memories, we created a short film. And collaborated with composer and music extraordinaire, Catherine Brookman.
Herdrich: Yeah. For the film, we picked a few small businesses in Brooklyn and filmed them for a day, starting at sunrise and doing a time lapses all the way to sunset. The idea was, if these memories were about people's whole lifetimes, then the video was following financial transactions over the span of a day. We wanted to capture the rhythm of city life.
Rail: Yeah, and the song was a big part of the video. To create the song, we pulled out the memories, snipped them, and rearranged them into lyrics. It was amazing how we could pluck a sentiment or an emotion out of a memory, and when it came together all the other memories, they created new meaning.
Herdrich: Using the lyrics, Catherine composed and performed a 15-minute song for the video. Catherine is an incredible musician and dove into the project with very little information. She was instrumental in helping us home in on the beating human emotional heart inside of this topic that is so politically, socially, and emotionally loaded.
You know, I thought the song lyrics were going to be dry. I anticipated a lot of anxiety. I thought we'd have a lot of political or painful memories. But there was love, there was shame, there was fear, there were silly stories, really moving, sensory stories. There were stories about the first time people contemplated their privilege. At the end, it was just the story of life!
Rail: Totally. I remember there was one memory about a grandpa who ran an auto repair shop in rural Georgia or North Carolina. He would do repairs without asking for payments and he had this drawer full of change. The memory was so tied to a place, so tied to a person and the act of service. The memories I feel like are someone else's treasure. It’s like when kids find a quarter on the ground, it instantly becomes a treasure and they tuck it away into their chest of jewels. I think these memories had that quality.
Herdrich: The short film of Penny Thoughts premiered at the PRELUDE Festival in 2020.
Rail: And now people get to see it this coming March at On Women Festival at Irondale!
Herdrich: So how do you think Penny Thoughts influenced BUST?
Rail: Penny Thoughts was a fun enriching digression that we needed to take. We needed to experience community and humanity. Now that we are in the thick of the writing for BUST, I’m seeing how Penny Thoughts influenced its aesthetic quality. Especially the fish scenes. I see a lot of color and simplicity of image coming through. And also this personal nature of telling your story about money, and how there is a human always attached to it, I think is coming through.
Herdrich: Reading all these narratives helped us understand how people actually feel about money.
Rail: How do we envision BUST now?
Herdrich: BUST, to put it very simply, follows three narratives: a retired economics professor, a high schooler trying to control her Model United Nations club in Thailand in 2008, and then a Fish Grandma under the sea. It follows these three characters in three distinct worlds.
Rail: I was talking about the project with someone the other day. I ended up saying, we all need money. But why do we want money? Like, everyone needs money to survive, but our desire for money is a little bit more complex than pure survival. Capitalism makes it very hard to have pure intentions, and I think it’s important to recognize that and investigate where our desire for wealth stems from, and how that influences the way we value our own lives and ourselves.
Herdrich: You put this really well in an email to me once. You were talking about the difference between concrete and theoretical value of money. If I have five dollars, then I can buy this pizza, versus the potential of money, which is, you know, if I take five dollars and have it sit inside an account with 100,000 dollars of other money, that becomes a mechanism for generating wealth. Money functions at all times in these two worlds. So the way we personally relate to each kind of money is different. At some level, we all have to contend with both of those realms. I think what we've come to realize is that living in the dissonance that is created by those two realms induces a lot of feelings and anxiety. So I think, in one way or another, all the characters in BUST are being confronted by this dissonance.
Rail: Yes. BUST will be done by June, which is exciting.
Herdrich: And it will be ready for production at a theater near you.
Rail: So come one come all! Let the bidding war begin.
Herdrich: Bring it back to money!
Rail: [Laughs] The good thing about theater is that we can turn very little into a lot.
Herdrich: It's true. It's true.
Rail: Yes. So tune into On Women Festival, and then keep your ears and eyes peeled for the culminating event at the Soho Rep. Writer/Director Lab.