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THE BODY IN QUESTION


The theatre of rehearsing for life

Robert Reid, Coney [UK] and new games

Robert Reid is a playwright, academic and theatre maker. He is Artistic Director of the Melbourne-based New Games collective, Pop Up Playground.

Image: Coney, A Small Town Anywhere, BAC Scratch 2012 Image: Coney, A Small Town Anywhere, BAC Scratch 2012
photo Matt Howey Nunn
In 2009 the Battersea Arts Centre in London hosted A Small Town Anywhere, a new work by UK-based company Coney. In it around 30 participants took on the role of villagers in a small country town. Each concealed a terrible secret and likewise had a mortal enemy among the other villagers.

A Small Town Anywhere condensed an entire week of drama into the space of roughly two hours; days and nights passed with subtle shifts in lighting; paper snow fell at one point and gossip, treachery and paranoia threatened to tear the little community apart.

Tom Bowtell and Tassos Stevens, two of the company’s co-directors, describe Coney as mixing “live and digital art forms to create immersive stories and play.” Their work, as well as the work of other groups such as Hide and Seek, Slingshot, Splash and Ripple and The Larks, is part of an emerging practice that, for ease of reference, I’ll call New Games. Their work varies widely encompassing Tiny Games, a series of 99 “easy to play” site-specific games designed for the streets of London by Hide and Seek, and 2.8 Hours Later, a city-wide zombie chase game, by Slingshot.

In recent years around the globe there has been an increased interest in play. In America campus games of Killer have turned into a worldwide nerf war (based on foam-based toy weaponry. Eds), with Humans vs Zombies. Real World Alternate Reality Games have been produced as marketing tools for Hollywood blockbusters such as Why So Serious? (for The Dark Knight, 2008) and The Beast (for Spielberg’s AI, as far back as 2001). In America there has also been a renewed interest in physical games: street sports mapping classic board game patterns onto the grid of New York streets in PacManhatten and festivals such as Come Out and Play. At the same time, across the UK and Europe, festivals of new games and playful experiences have spread including IGFEST, Play Publik and w00t.

New Games shares territory with the immersive work of English companies such as Shunt and Punchdrunk, in which audiences are free to explore a theatricalised space in order to discover hidden performance and narrative elements placed throughout. Earlier precedents can be found in interactive video art, such as Nightwalks and Frozen Palaces by Forced Entertainment, and technology enhanced Live Art such as Blast Theory’s A Machine to See With, Uncle Roy All Around You, Rider Spoke and Can You See Me Now (all of which utilise various levels of bespoke digital technology to enable audience/player agency within constructed social and performative events.) This is not to suggest a directly causative relationship but to demonstrate the emergence of a common theme in contemporary theatre and Live Art that is shared by contemporary play; participation, immersion and reactivity.

New Games blur the lines between technology, social interaction, location and story. What they have in common is the placement of the participant at the centre of the experience. In most cases, the convergence of specific rule sets, designed environments, narrative elements and participant agency (or some combination of these) generates a shared social experience. These experiences are designed to position participants within an abstracted system of organised performance relying on person to person interactions in the physical world to generate emergent narratives.

Alex Fleetwood, director of Hide and Seek, describes A Small Town Anywhere as “a vitally important step in the development of participatory dramaturgy.” Andrezj Lukowski, reviewing for Time Out UK, describes the experience as “an interrogation of ideology and its poisonous effect on community” and notes that “the fraught final stages feel as complex and electrifying as any actor-based drama. The moral decisions we are asked to make might seem simplistic to a fly on the wall, but the luxury of such detachment is long gone.”

Coney, A Small Town Anywhere, BAC, 2009 Coney, A Small Town Anywhere, BAC, 2009
photo Bryony Campbell
In a work like Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere everyone in the room is playing (or is at least aware that a play state is in existence) and governs themselves accordingly. Participants are performing and not performing at the same time. As Guardian reviewer Lynette Gardner describes her experience of the production, “By the time I turn up for the show, I have written my own backstory, which includes a grim secret about (a) murdered baby. The show doesn’t require any acting skills, and, because there is no audience in a traditional sense, all social anxiety about being on show or not doing the right thing quickly evaporates. I play it as if it’s real—and that’s exactly how it feels. For two hours, I lose myself in the show.”

In an interview in 2012, Coney’s Co-director Tassos Stevens explains to me that, “In some ways, Coney’s work is more about giving present audiences the space to play than it is ‘making play,’ certainly that more than ‘making games.’ The essential commonality between all the very different kinds of things Coney makes is the focus on the playing audience experience. Small Town is a framework that we create, which audiences fill in with their play. It’s about the group, the Town, the roomful of mostly strangers and everything about the group mind. It’s also about the web of individual narratives that players make for themselves, and how those interplay and a set of external challenges that change the stakes and the game (if they are paying attention). It’s about a community under pressure and what happens between a roomful of mostly strangers playing.”

Since 2009 Coney has built on the work of A Small Town Anywhere with the creation of Early Days (of a Better Nation) in which “the audience become part of a Small Country that can be anything it wants to be.” Early Days is the concept of Annette Mees, developed in response to the events of the Arab Spring, Occupy, Anonymous as well as the London Riots.

Play-tested in various locations from Stoke Newington International Airport to the Battersea Arts Centre, Coney describes Early Days as containing “elements of constitution, economic cuts, an assassination, a leadership election, an economy of beans and a live news channel.” The playtests so far have involved seven performers including “one noble leader, two clerks representing the governing machine, (and) three media reporters who were streamed live to a 24hr news broadcast in the room.”

In one way or another, New Games such as A Small Town Anywhere and Early Days (of a Better Nation) are systemic engagements designed to give shape to lived experience. They allow for and respond to player agency within constructed narrative environments. They give participants the chance to practise ‘ways of being’ in ‘not for real spaces.’


Coney, A Small Town Anywhere, Battersea Arts Centre, August 2009; Early Days (of a Better Nation), ongoing development from 2012

Robert Reid is a playwright, academic and theatre maker. He is Artistic Director of the Melbourne-based New Games collective, Pop Up Playground.

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 13

© Robert Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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