Sign holders in the spotlight in 'Everything Must Go'

David Harris, Katie Kaufmann
David Harris (left), as Kevin, and Katie Kaufmann, as Marcie, star as sign holders in "Everything Must Go" by Mischka Productions.
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis

You've probably seen sign holders on street corners or in front of grand openings. Being a walking advertisement can be a menial and monotonous job, but in "Everything Must Go," opening Friday night at the Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis, two workers rise above the indignity to form an unlikely friendship.

Imagine hoisting a sign, maybe even putting on a costume and becoming a human placard for hours at a time. Some people would just refuse, regardless of the circumstances. Others might feel, especially in this broken economy, like it's their only choice.

"First day."

"I know."

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"Nice to meet you."

Statue of Liberty
An actor portrays a sign holder dressed as the Statue of Liberty in the play "Everything Must Go" by Mischka Productions.
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis

Marcie and Kevin are thrust into each others lives as so-called sign spinners in "Everything Must Go." Sign Spinners. Sign Twirlers. The business speak term is 'human directionals.' Kevin is a veteran sign holder who won't admit he's given up on finding something better. Marcie has just been let go from a job she loved; being an administrative assistant.

"So, I'm just supposed to stand here right?" Marcie says.

"Yep. Simple."

It's almost impossible for the 'Great Recession' not to loom over this play. But co-creators David Harris, who plays Kevin, and Katie Kaufmann, who's Marcie, were more interested in the laboratory of human relationships than reflecting hard times.

"We kinda just wanted to do a show about two people who shared a job and were sort forced to be together," Harris said.

They chose sign spinning because of the comedy and pathos such a job can produce. You're braving the elements. You're enduring the sneers and jeers of passersby. You're contending with extreme boredom. It turns out both Harris and Kaufmann have come closer than most to considering sign holding as a viable occupational option. Harris is an under-employed freelance tech service worker.

"I was recently laid off about a year and a half ago," he said. "So I sort of been struggling with employment and trying to figure out, well, 'what do I do now and where do I go with that?"

And Katie Kaufmann, as a theater artist, has gone through some pretty desperate periods.

"I did actually think about doing things like singing telegrams and sign holding and passing out flyers, but it never came to that," Kaufmann said.

Kaufmann and Harris describe "Everything Must Go" as a physical comedy that isn't afraid to explore the harsh realities of a nowhere job. There are long silences in the play. The two characters let themselves get carried away by their weird fantasies and daydreams. They talk to each from opposite street corners, but on stage, they're far apart, emphasizing their isolation.

"So what do you do to pass the time out here?" Marcie says.

"I think a lot. Sometimes I read."

"What do you read?"

"Mostly business and self-help sort of stuff. I got this one at a garage sale: 'Getting Started in the Sign Business.' I thought it would be about this. But it's actually about printing signs. Very disappointing. No pictures."

"That's also another theme of the show ... letting another person into your world and how much you allow yourself to make friends with somebody you might not normally interact with," Kaufmann said.

"It seems like an easy thing, but for some people it's not," Harris said.

Harris and Kaufmann say their play is about human resilience. It's about how people make their way through challenges and use their imaginations to re-invent themselves. Kaufmann has seen a lot of that as the economy continues its dramatic transition, and people go from extreme consumption.

"[They go] to a place where they're happy with what they have even though it's not much, and we're gonna hold tight to this job that we don't like and not try to find another one, and we're gonna deal with our crappy insurance because it's better than nothing," she said.

Kaufmann said people have an amazing ability to find happiness in the most trying, dreary and hopeless situations. She wanted the two sign holders in "Everything Must Go," to demonstrate that.