#BHVR2015: EMPOWERING THE AUDIENCE – AN INTERVIEW WITH CONEY’S TOM BOWTELL

This week at Behaviour Festival, we featured two performances from celebrated interactive theatre-makers Coney. Their show, Early Days (of a Better Nation) asked audiences to participate in the rebuilding of an imaginary, war-torn nation called Dacia, using Coney’s specially-designed ‘game board’ to make decisions about the political structures, leadership struggles and political consequences entailed in end-of-the-world state-craft. Equal parts thought experiment and board game, this challenging show proved a hit with the Behaviour audiences this year.

We intervieweed writer Tom Bowtell, who co-created the show with Annette Mees, prior to the performances this week. We held on to the interview until now to avoid spoilers for those who elected to come and play. Below, Bowtell unpacks the origins of Dacia, discusses the relevance of ‘adult play’ – and tells us about some of his favourite audience reactions to Coney’s ground-breaking production.

What do you find giving adults a space to play and explore ideas can achieve? What are some of your favourite reactions/responses from previous audience members?

When audiences play they do extraordinary and unexpected things, but you can’t just dump them in a room and expect them to be brilliant. The challenge for us as artists is to a build a world which offers audiences enough narrative and structural support to empower them to play. Our actors and story are the scaffolding which help audiences reach a place where they are able to take the lead and start co-authoring their experience with us. In Early Days, one of the things audiences are invited to do is take a holiday from their real political beliefs and try other peoples’ on for size. One of my favourite moments was when an audience member who we know to be extremely left-wing in her real-life politics stood up and argued with persuasive passion for the nation to bring in a short-term dictator. Chatting to her after, it was clear that we hadn’t converted her beliefs, but that through the act of arguing from a completely different perspective, she did feel she had more empathy with how someone could believe the things she’d just been arguing for…

One thing I think Early Days does well is offer an audience supported freedom to try any idea out. In the London shows, the most spectacular moments came when an anarchist group in our audience sacked the actor playing ‘The Media’ (essentially our narrator) from the show, as they believed he was corrupt. Backstage, we were thrown into disarray as we tried to work out how to deliver the show with one of our actors in exile. The important thing for us is that (as long as it’s safe and more or less legal) the audience are free to try anything, and that the world we have built around them always responds to what they have decided to do. Interestingly, this means that the audience is empowered to plunge their own show into chaos – even if that ultimately leads to a unsatisfying experience for many of them.

Early Days (of a Better Nation) asks participants to rebuild a nation from scratch, after a cataclysmic conflict. What skills and attitudes are most useful in this situation – who are your ideal participants, if such a thing exists, and why?

The ideal individual participant doesn’t exist. For us, the ideal audience for Early Days is a microcosm of a real community, with people of different ages, backgrounds and opinions coming together to argue, compromise and create. We love it when our audiences do things which surprise (and terrify) us, so mischievousness is something we encourage, but again, that mischievousness becomes most interesting when it causes dramatic  tension with other players who are trying to ‘do it properly.’ This leads to organic moments of drama and has, in another Coney show, led to an audience choosing to put another audience member in prison (made of chairs).

Post-apocalypse or dystopian fiction has become a dominant form and narrative in mainstream culture in recent years. Why would you say this has happened, and what does it tell us about the world’s collective psyche in 2015?

Humans have always daydreamed about future worlds – from Thomas More’s Utopia, through Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, to the The Matrix. I guess what is sharpening things for us now is that science allows us to have a much clearer idea of what cataclysmic disasters might await, and what the world might look after them. Since Hiroshima humans have known unequivocally that we have the means to destroy ourselves, and that background anxiety has been sharpened by our realisation that global warming is already having significant impact on the climate. 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash also added to this feeling that everything is unravelling; fuelling the glut of dystopian fiction. Oddly enough, we chose to set Early Days in the future in order to give some distance from the sharp edges of reality which might stymie an audience’s freedom to play. Wwe don’t want specific racial/religious/political issues stopping audiences from interacting. We also chose the apocalyptic world setting as we needed an extreme starting point for our audience, in order to make unpopular ideas such as emergency leaders being given unilateral decision-making powers a viable option for them to consider.

Our apocalyptic setting was driven by the political ambition of the show: we needed an extreme setting to make it plausible for our audiences to explore radical forms of government. While Early Days takes live threats to peace in Europe today and imagines them all progressing in the most disastrous way, it’s really more of a thought experiment to find a plausible route to a dark future than an illustration of our personal anxieties as artists.

The events of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, the events in Iceland, and the issues raised by the Occupy movement provide thematic inspiration for your new show – it has been a turbulent ten years for the notion of democracy. Why is democracy still an important concept, and what makes a ‘good’ democracy?

The show itself does not promote democracy as the answer (although democratic audience structures often leads to the most successful finales). Indeed, Early Days can be boiled down to a theatrical experiment where audiences are encouraged to build a new system of government which is then tested by the game mechanics of the show. However, zooming out of the world of Early Days, democracy is something which humans have been working on for more than 2000 years, and has certainly become more refined during that time. As individuals, Annette and I agree with Churchill that democracy is still the ‘least worst’ way to run a Government. Another favourite moment in Early Days came when two 18 year old students developed a radical new form of democracy: 10-year Parliament Terms to allow Governments to actually have time to get things done, alongside MP and Government Recall, where if more than 70% of the electorate voted to remove the Government or an individual MP, they are recalled. We had partners from UK Parliament in the audience that show, and they admitted afterwards that this was an entirely new (and pretty promising) form of democracy.

The Early Days… game board. Photo by Ryoko Uyama

Can you tell us anything about the game board?

One of the impacts the show has had on first time voters is underlining how hard it is to be a politician, and puncturing a little of the creeping cynicism around politicians in the process. In their role as members of Dacia’s Parliament, this ‘game board’ allows audiences directly to discover that when resources are limited, impossibly difficult decisions need to be made.

Coney’s Early Days (of a Better Nation) at BHVR2015 has now closed. The show is now on tour around the rest of the UK – follow @agencyofconey for updates.

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