More and more, artists are making work that addresses the recent foreclosure crisis. One of the best pieces out there is “House / Divided,” presented last week at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts by the Builders Association.
The show powerfully juxtaposes technology including video and a running stock ticker (not in real time but animated and accurate) with John Steinbeck’s lyrical prose in his classic 1939 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The excellent cast portrayed current-day mortgage lenders and holders as well as some of the characters in Steinbeck’s book. Yesterday’s Dust Bowl victims (or their descendants) are today’s rapacious bankers and financiers, or maybe today’s foreclosure victims.
As usual, the Builders Association’s set was brilliant. Taking up a large part were fragments of a foreclosed home in Columbus, Ohio, that the company had dismantled.
On the Colwell Playhouse stage, the company set up just a framework of the house as well as parts from the inside, like half a bathtub, and projected video images onto the walls, or scrims, of the house.
Another nice aesthetic touch was one of the Dust Bowl characters using a reel-to-reel analog tape projector to play the prerecorded narration. That harkened back historically to the 1930s Dust Bowl days.
The action in “House / Divided” moved seamlessly and quickly from actors portraying frenzied mortgage financiers, standing at a counter, frantically working the phones, to portraying some of the more laconic '30s Dust Bowl characters, among them the Joads.
Real-life victims and a few people who work in the housing industry told their stories, too, in short video interviews projected on a large screen. I found the interviews a bit jarring, a sort of MSNBC reality popping up in my mind. But my companion for the evening, a TV lover like me, enjoyed them, comparing their being part of the show to “changing the channel.”
Last spring, I did a story on University of Illinois master of fine arts candidate Will Arnold, who created a photography exhibition related to the foreclosure crisis. He focused on an Urbana woman who had lost her home.
I was acquainted with the woman, who spoke off the record because of the stigma still attached to foreclosure. What went down in her case jibed with the text in “House / Divided” — the Builders Association actually used text, now in the public domain, from hearings and conference calls related to the foreclosure crisis, moving the lines around for the sake of narrative.
At one point, an actor portraying a man whose house had been foreclosed walked onto the set, complaining he no longer knew what bank or company held his mortgage.
In some cases, banks that were servicing mortgages that had been pooled into bonds weren’t even able to prove they owned the mortgages, according to a CNBC primer on the foreclosure crisis. Here’s more from the CNBC primer for those of you who don’t quite understand what went down:
“When a mortgage is securitized it is typically sold to a Wall Street firm, which pools the mortgage with thousands of others. Investors buy slices of the pool, entitling them to cash-flows from the mortgage payments. The actual mortgages are assigned to a newly created investment vehicle. A servicer is tasked with ensuring the payments to borrowers get divided up properly and that delinquent borrowers get foreclosed upon.
“Here’s where things get tricky. When a mortgage is securitized, the investors in the mortgage bonds don’t get assignments or notes. The investment vehicle doesn’t get the assignments or notes either. Instead, the physical notes are typically sent to a document repository company. The transfer of interests is noted in an electronic database.
“But during the height of the housing bubble, investment banks were churning out mortgage bonds in such a frenzy, sometimes the assignments never got executed and mortgage notes never got delivered. Keep in mind that this was during the years when lenders were giving out low-doc and no-doc mortgages. It was inevitable that the fast and loose and slightly documented culture would not stop at the mortgage originator but stretch all the way through the process.”
The Builders Association was founded in 1994 and is directed by Seattle native Marianne Weems, who had worked with The Wooster Group, a New York-based ensemble of artists (including actor Willem Dafoe) who collaborate on the development and production of theater and media pieces.
The Builders Assocation spends two years creating each of its productions, basing them on stories from contemporary life, and then tweaking them a bit after the premiere, which for “House / Divided” took place last year at Ohio State University.
The Builders Association’s productions blend (much better than do most multimedia companies) stage performance, text, video, sound and architecture.