A grainy image of the world

By Paula Crossfield

At lunchtime on a busy Friday at the World Financial Center, I found myself staring at piles of uncooked rice. They had potential, but these grains were not destined for my stomach. They were part of a traveling show by the British theater group Stan’s Café that turns statistics into visual statements: heaps of rice, each grain representing a person, which, when taken together, looked like a three-dimensional bar graph depicted in pyramids.

“Of All the People in All the World: USA” starts subtly. One enters the seemingly bare upper courtyard, and bumps into the simple materials: rice, paper and ink, labeling the item measured, as the voices of power-lunchers from Merrill Lynch careen up and into the balcony. There, individuals silently contemplated the ever changing information (this was a performance after all): how many people will eat at McDonalds today (I couldn’t tell you, but the pile was massive), next to that, the population of Iraq was to my eye the same size, and the largest pile as far as I could tell was Americans without health insurance. Other huge swells include the amount of people who have been killed in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the amount of people who drive alone to work daily in New York City, and the amount of people who served in the military in 1945 (my friend spotted a darker grain and said “that’s Elvis!”).

Juxtaposition is also a crucial element. In one case, a paper with two granules for the Wright brothers was placed next to a pile for how many people fly per day. There is also humor employed to lighten the heavy truths, like hiding a smaller pile labeled “FBI Special Agents” behind a column off to one side.

Further into the exhibit, you see the statisticians at work in their tan scientific coats, behind a table with a few antique weights and measures and laptops with wi-fi. A gram represents 60 people, and the scales enable the team to avoid the daunting task of counting. This show makes you think about where you fall in. “The world is so big,” said Craig Stephens, a member of the group. “We wanted to bring all of those people into one room,” he said.

Numbers can be too immense to visualize. While something like the “Harper’s Index” has the ability to give us details about more than just populations, amounts in numbers can often wash over us. What’s so effective about this show is its ability to give shape to the facts and deliver reality in a more thoughtful way.

Of All the People in All the World: USA. Performed by Stan’s Café. Free performances noon to 6 p.m. Jan. 16-20 at the World Financial Center Courtyard, 220 Vesey Street. Part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival (undertheradarfestival.com).