A week with one of the most innovative theatre companies in the world has got to be the best antidote for the craziness that was our final few months at CMU.
Deftly tutored by Anette Mees, Tom Bowtell and some masterful session from Tassos Stevens, their games intern John Gottschalk and Daan Bosch on environments that tell you what to do.
We moved through simple games and improvisational work with scenarios to think with and space to design for immersive theatre. Their approach was revealed in layers of thinking and illustrated with their work, especially the show A Small Town Anywhere, based on the film Le Corbeau. Here the audience is the hero and creates the action within Coney’s thoughtful space and theatrical framework and prompts. My introduction was by reputation and having see Annette Mees with Tassos Stevens speak at the first Story conference back in 2010. The chance to explore how they work, and to extend it into our work was too much to resist, and thankfully they supported that through a bursary.
How it connects to our work is through the Theatre Sandbox workshop I did for Clare Reddington at Bristol’s IShed back in 2010, helping to bring technologists and theatre people together at the start of the commission. I had an introductory slide with ‘insert Coney example here’ that was originally a placeholder but became a joke, as they were so talked about at the time, for their use of other media as well as their distinctive approach.
My other work in this space has come in the form of playful explorations for friends and family, who have been gracious participants in experimental events for Nick’s birthdays, such as the Hampstead spy trail. In this, Nick was sent off on the morning of his birthday to go to a location where he found some good friends waiting, with instructions for the next rendezvous in what became the next point in a chain of agents to meet across the park, and in different venues. Throw in some old friends, surprises, cake and a pub, and the amazing landscape of Hampstead Heath – the actual location of cold war spy liaisons – and you have a personalised trail that reveals delights over time. In Alternative Jack the Ripper Tour, we used the streets of Shoreditch to create a night time trail of clues that, using images of his early work, pointed to Nick being the actual Ripper. Again, friends were located along the route, and as they were passed, joined the journey, which ended (naturally) in the Ten Bells public house.
Stepping back a bit, there is a connection between Coney’s approach and other forms of space-leaving approaches I have seen. I’ve heard designers talk increasingly about participation, but its often occasional and usually minimal. Fortunately there are others who make things more open, or as Alice Taylor from Makie.me calls it in the game world ‘hollow’ – so that players can complete it. The creation of space for people to complete a theatrical event, piece of work, service or product comes back to what the architect Herman Hertzberger calls making space, leaving space. In his thinking, the architect creates a space that invites people to make theirs by use, such as a low wall for people to create their own use – perching on, propping a bag, or even seating a row of children on. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics also talks about the projection that humans do when they see a less well defined, or simpler human image – the more details or character-specific it is, the less they can create their own character backstory and therefore are able to better connect with the character which is partly created in their own imaginations. I have seen this approach over the past few years, and it seems such a vital way of creating new works, or designs. It has a huge potential for designers to engage with people on a deeper level to be a part of the creation of services and products.
More recent experiences of people using drama games as icebreakers in workshops left me feeling concerned that they would make me crawl across the floor as my favourite animal. They didn’t.
We played some great games – mafia, grandmothers footsteps, gossip game, and John’s infuriating numbers game, which even though I didn’t enjoy it (I was useless at gaming it, so lost consistently), there was something about it which I found compelling. They have a wonderful way of developing characters which makes you draw so deeply on your experiences and imagination.
We were put into developing ideas from the first day, and each morning had a group bringing a new idea to us to try out, and learn from. Our sharing events, on Friday and Saturday night gave us a chance to try our work with fresh and receptive people who could give us good feedback. Our piece focussed on how people create stories from any clue they have. We gave two separated groups of audience/experts fragments of stories, audio files, some props and some unfolding interruptions by phone, and selected highly active people for secret assignations in Shoreditch Town Hall’s grand mens toilet. Their goal was to determine which of the elements we had given them had significance if any, and then to work out what the hell was going on in the world. Their job was to then ask the Institute’s staff to deploy their selected resources, such as the world’s teenagers, or faith leaders to resolve the issues. The Institute worked well in the Town Hall’s side and grand rooms, and we brought them together to deliver their stories and their actions to each other. A final reveal of the Insititute being more than it seemed brought the whole thing to an end. They were then treated with the light refreshments of cheese on pineapple and slightly broken biscuits to reinforce our ‘slightly crap’ aesthetic.
The week gave me so much in the form of mechanics and working methods that will be highly valuable to work with. We bonded fast, created something new very quickly, and worked so well together. Here’s some more of what I got from the masterclass week:
• Making new worlds is is a wonderful thing to do, and can be created as small ideas and scaled up into bigger things.
• Sustaining the world needs attention – the continuity of the story as embedded in all of the elements is similar to how brands work across companies. In a similar way any breaking of the world creates dissonance. Rules need to be and be consistent within the context of that particular world.
• Artefacts or props play as important a role – again they need to be designed to contribute the right aspects of the story.
• Making interesting gameplay is important, not just something that feels important to do, but needs its own momentum for people.
• Relaxed responsiveness needs lots of preparation, and then letting go so that what happens is what happens.
Every time I just relaxed into what happened, and just being open about what might happen, I was rewarded with some great new insight, understanding this perspective as an approach that works really well, when done really well. The masterclass has helped me understand the dimensions involved and get some great experience. It has applications for the kind of live work we do at Plot. I can also see huge applications in service designing and sharing. Interaction design projects could easily benefit from this kind of immersive world-making, and there is an interesting space here for animating ideas through performance.