Tassos Stevens, co-director of London-based theatre organisation Coney, discusses their latest project, House of Cards, and the transformative nature of theatre for today’s audience.
Theatre that casts the audience as part of the action is nothing original. It has been done many times over the years and in many different ways, from the physical journeys orchestrated by Punchdrunk to the violent emotional intensity of Tim Crouch’s The Author. Both of these offer audiences something different in their explorations: Punchdrunk productions are perhaps more in the manner of art installations, with the concept of discovery at their heart, whereas Crouch’s play makes the audience culpable for actions that happen.
This latter idea, of making the audience accountable, is important. Perhaps Crouch presses this point too aggressively, but it does offer the audience agency. They are not mere passive observers but an active part of the process, and they have the capacity to take action or not, which ultimately results in a piece of theatre that is empowering. However, if Crouch’s approach is not to your taste, there are groups that strive to explore this concept more gently. One such organisation is Coney.
Tassos Stevens is one of the co-directors of Coney and he seems intent on maintaining an air of mystery around the organisation, its creation and the original members. He states enigmatically: “We were all anonymous and in the shadows.” But if he can’t tell us what exactly Coney is, he can tell us what it isn’t: “It’s not a brand statement that has been dreamt up; it has been discovered and it’s an ongoing evolution.” If that seems vague, it is on purpose. It appears that Coney would rather be defined by what they do rather than what they are. The people that make up Coney are an evolving network and they take a back seat in the experience.
The network comprises people from amateur and professional backgrounds and their one shared attribute is their passion for what they do. Stevens cites the story of a 50-something IT consultant as an example: “He was recruited because he played brilliantly with an adventure about four years ago. He’s incredibly clever and takes good care of people.” This member of the network is unnamed by Stevens, another small nod to anonymity. Though it threatens to tip into overkill, this concern about keeping the identity of Coney unclear comes from a genuine place. The emphasis is very definitely on the audience. The network simply facilitates – the real focus is the relationships between audience members and the decisions they make. With this in mind, the same combination of people from the network will never work on more than one project together: the art transcends the artist.
Stevens explains the ambition of the organisation: “Our prime focus is about the audience experience and trying to give them the opportunity to take whatever agency they want. It’s an exchange and it’s something that we’re doing together and we’re making a space in which that can happen. It’s important because people play better when they have agency.”
“Agency” is a key word for Coney: everything is about giving people the capacity to act. In one very simple alteration of perspective, they move the emphasis of theatre to what is arguably its most fulfilling definition: the call to action. It works particularly well when working with young people. They paint the children into a leading role and Stevens explains that in handing control over to them you place responsibility in their hands and they are motivated by the agency they have: “They don’t really care about the game; what they care about is the notion that people will really be listening to them.”
One of the things that Coney do best is offer this space to people: “It’s kind of presenting the opportunity for people to be heroic.” The audience are given the chance to make choices and to influence outcomes; they can shape the world, even if it is only the safe world of the play. There’s a clear political context here: personal and collective agency is of vital importance to society as when individuals or communities are disenfranchised it leads to social unrest. Coney explore these ideas in two of their more political pieces: A Small Town Anywhere and the newly developed Early Years of a Better Nation.
Loosely inspired by Clouzot’s film, Le Corbeau (1943), about an anonymous sender of poison pen letters, A Small Town Anywhere casts participants as members of a town. The story unfolds in a way that is responsive to the choices that the audience/participants make, both individually and collectively. They can destroy one another and their town or they can thrive. Early Years of a Better Nation is in development but it asks similar questions about community and social structure. Stevens suggests that “politics are ultimately about the relationships that people have with each other.” It’s an astute observation and human stories are certainly at the heart of what Coney do. One of their other projects running this year is at the newly renovated Kensington Palace.
House of Cards is based in the State Apartments and designed to bring the personal stories of the monarchy to life. In the Queen’s Apartments, award winning designer Joanna Scotcher (The Railway Children) has transformed the intimate space into a deception of the rise and fall of the Stuarts as perceived by Little William. His story is a real human tragedy: the boy danced too hard, overheated and died at the age of just 11, spelling the end of the Stuart dynasty. This also marked a change in the relationship between the people and the monarchy, and Coney cleverly incorporate the authentic history within the sad and deeply personal story.
The King’s Apartments offer a more discreet adventure: a simple game of cards that replicates court life. These apartments hold priceless treasures and Coney had a complex set of constraints to work within. This is part of the adventure’s charm though: “One of the great things is that it’s always going to start from the place and the people and from history.” For Coney it’s about fostering engagement between one another but also between people and their surroundings. This ties in with the political aspect: with the site specific projects Coney make their audience more aware of their world and encourage them to take action to shape it. A project that they are developing for LIFT Festival 2012 takes this further: An Adventure Map features a map that acts as a key to a set of adventures across London. It’s about your relationship with the metropolis and your place within it.
Coney refer to many of their theatrical experiences as adventures. The word is perhaps designed to bypass that fear of performance that accompanies many immersive productions. As Stevens says: “That fear is based on an archetype of pantomime. You’re going to get pulled up on stage and get humiliated publicly because you don’t know what to do.” He talks about their belief that participation should be “invitation not obligation.”
It’s a neat way to express how Coney interact with their audience and facilitate their play. It’s not a performance: they make adventures in which people have agency to play and discover and build relationships. There are certain types of immersive theatre where the audience can end up manipulated, or even disempowered, but this is not Coney’s theatre. For Coney: “What’s happening between the people involved in the event is more important than anything else.” It’s empowering and it’s political, in the most personal sense.
LIFT Festival 2012 runs from 8 June – 15 July in various locations around London. Visit www.liftfestival.com for further details. House of Cards runs at Kensington Palace until 31 March 2013. For tickets visit www.hrp.org.uk or call
(+44) (0) 844 4827799. For more information about Coney and other projects visit www.youhavefoundconey.net.