2015 Capital Fringe Preview #52: ‘The Paper Game’ by Julia Holleman

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I got the idea for The Paper Game during a series of epic battles with my then health insurance company over who had to pay a $69.50 lab bill.  (The answer? They did. But they thought they could beat me in a war of attrition. Fools.) I was poor and in grad school, and at the time that was a lot of money for me—and, much more importantly, not even a drop in the bucket for them. Many heroic deeds were performed over those months – developing a tolerance for being put on hold ten times by twelve different people, cursing out the collection agency that the insurance company engaged to collect money I didn’t even owe. Truly, it was the age of heroes. A tale, created by insurance shenanigans, full of ‘on hold’ and fury, signifying nothing.

Julia Holleman

Playwright Julia Holleman

Except corruption. It definitely signified corruption.

As I performed these superhuman feats of endurance and elaborate, increasingly creative cursing, I realized how relatively well-equipped I was to navigate their labyrinth. And not just because I have maintained a vast, imaginative vault of curses: I had a basic knowledge of the system. I knew what my insurance had contractually agreed to and I knew what services they were supposed to cover. That’s simply not true for many people, as it’s in these companies’ interest to conceal information from their clients about services they’re obligated to provide.

Now, there is a long and wonderful history of writers in general and playwrights in particular skewering bureaucracy. (A personal favorite is Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum.) But I didn’t know of any works that addressed certain uniquely American elements of institutionalized bureaucracy – particularly, the ingrained classism and racism that are deliberately and consistently ignored in the system. This is echoed in everything from our healthcare and judicial systems to relief missions in predominantly non-white areas (whether those areas are in other countries or in our own cities). When we try to decide how to allocate limited resources, somehow it’s always the poorest people and those of color who end up being de-prioritized.


Which is to say, the particular bureaucratic Minotaur I set out to slay is pretty underwhelming in this context (although slaying it was a personal point of pride for me and I did a series of victory dances, none of which were dignified in the least). But for many people playing bureaucracy’s Kafkaesque game, the stakes are much higher and countless more obstacles are stacked against them.

So, I wrote a play in which the characters live in a world made entirely out of stacks of paper… that collapses on them with disturbing regularity. And how do they get out? Bureaucracy.  Because bureaucracy is a closed system, you can’t beat it from the outside. All that’s left is to try from within.

So Nu Sass Production and I invite you to immerse yourselves in a world of dark absurdity in which bureaucracy decides who lives and who dies. As it does already – at least here, you can laugh at it.

The Paper Game plays through July 25, 2015, at Atlas Performing Arts Center: Sprenger – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

Read the BEST OF THE 2015 CAPITAL FRINGE  review on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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