bookmark_borderone Telephone

When I was writing Telephone, I listened on repeat to O Superman by Laurie Anderson. It’s a song which conjures memories of watching it on Top Of The Pops as a kid with my dad, who loved it. So it opens a door in my head to my family home. And there’s something cosmic in its utter strangeness.

I’ve been listening to the song as part of my warm-up for each show. This Saturday morning, my mum’s coming to the piece. I open up the Coney zoom bar early, so my mum can get herself comfortably online. And she pops onto screen at the exact moment Laurie sings:
This is your mother
Are you there?
Are you coming home?

Its the second time for my mum to see the piece. My sister joins as well, for the first time.

Completely by chance, an old childhood friend of my sister, K – who I’m friends with on Facebook – now living in Amherst, Massachusetts, comes to this same performance. She’d booked for that early show in fact by mistake given her timezone, but decided to get up at dawn rather than change it.

In the show, K ends up placing a call to Coney 4315, 14 College Road Ripon. The same number she’d called many many times 30-something years ago to speak with my sister, who’d then take the phone from the hallway into the neighbouring room to shut the door, just as I describe.

Something in that confluence of presence; I feel my dad there. In fact, as I am about to tell the story about his ansamachine message, I hear him in my mind say: I am beside you.

The anniversary of his passing in early June, this email from Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files had landed in my inbox and floored me with that same message: I am beside you.

Later, my sister tells me that she’d already chosen dad to sit in the empty chair beside me, during the call to Coney 2020 which chanced to happen before Coney 4315.

I cry and laugh as she tells how she’d then imagined him playing the directory enquiries telephone operator in the later call to Coney 1996, just how beautifully seriously he’d always play his part.

~~~

In this same performance, there is an audience person from New Zealand, H, who had meant to come the previous weekend but had struggled with a zoom error, so I get her into this performance. Although she is still struggling with the zoom, so sits with video off.

Another audience, S in Leek Staffordshire, places a call to Coney 1876 and so casts herself as Alexander Graham Bell. While S is talking, H in New Zealand excitedly types into the chat – S, is that you? I cast H as Watson to bring her into the call.

It turns out they are old friends and colleagues, who haven’t spoken in ten years, now on opposite sides of the world. They figure out they must have been told about the show by the same mutual friend. Their recreations of the calls between Bell and Watson are joyous.

~~~

Later, me, my mum and sister stay on the line to chat with P, who is the mum of a friend in Hobart, Tasmania, who had sent her along. P’s drinking wine, my mum drinks water. They wish each other good day and good night, and we end the call.

bookmark_borderJimmy Stewart… in cabaret

These recordings of my piece Jimmy Stewart, An Anthropologist From Mars, Analyses Love And Happiness In Humans (And Rabbits) were made for a cabaret curated by a friend in Los Angeles who had previously seen and loved the show in the UK. I recorded some extracts of Jimmy Stewart… on my phone and emailed them over. She commissioned a sound designer then to make these – played to a live audience in a night of short stories.
www.tassosstevens.net/JimmyStewartCabaret1.mp3
www.tassosstevens.net/JimmyStewartCabaret2.mp3

bookmark_borderMake Believe by Jimmy Stewart

Originally delivered in 2010 as a short provocation to Wonderlab, curated by the late great Hide & Seek.

Hello, I’m Tassos Stevens. I’m a co-director and runner of Coney, an agency making play where it’s all about you, founded on principles of adventure, loveliness and reciprocity, amongst others.

But I am not here to talk about that. Actually I’ve brought along something to read by somebody else. There’s this writer I know called Jimmy Stewart – yep, just like but obviously not the Jimmy Stewart – and there’s a short essay of his that I’ve brought along. It does read a bit like an incomplete manifesto, but if he were here, he wouldn’t apologise for that. He’s at least half-Martian which makes his perspective somewhat alien and his language occasionally rather dense. But that’s probably why I like it.

So this is…

Make Believe by Jimmy Stewart

Play is make believe at the double. I look at something and I first see what it is, or at least what I believe it is, be it Simon Russell Beale, a banana, February 14th. But then I make believe what if that what is were something else: Hamlet, a revolver, the feast of St Valentine. What if. What is. We’re playful when we hold two spheres of belief in our brains overlapping. Humans are really good at it. There’s facility especially when it’s conventional, meaning we are practiced at it, or if we are in a collection of other human-people simultaneously doing that same juggle of spheres. But it’s most inspirational when we discover it ourselves together.

The distance between these two spheres of what if and what is, it’s a dynamic space, sparking like the electrical storm of Van der Graaf. Sometimes so close the spheres are almost touching, sometimes miles apart, but the meaning of play is found across that distance. Still what if is only charged if it is grounded and connected to what is. There’s no chance of transformation otherwise.

Play is a live, fluxing reinvention, ever negotiated, always In Play. You can’t make me believe anything unless I want to believe. I don’t want to play by your rules, says the stubborn kid who is sometimes the very best of us. And it matters then in this negotiation whose rules, who is telling that stubborn kid what if, and even who is paying them to do so.

But the best play doesn’t tell you how to act, play invites you to imagine what if and – if then – what do you want to do about it. It’s a principled belief that creates an action-space, where the agent of play is you.

Peter Brook was a theatre director and once asked what it is for an actor to exit pursued by a bear. I see a bear, I feel fear, I run. I see a bear, I run, I feel fear. Two pursuits. Brook argues that they are equivalent, and it only depends on the actor and the director together which suits them best. Too true. But if you want an actor with agency, better to be governed by a principle than ordered into action.

Game arises from play. A ruleset crystallises a set of actions distilled from an experience of play. That crystal can be popped in your pocket to be played with again and again, any time, any place, with anyone entranced by its sparkle. It gets chipped and scratched, then rubbed and polished. It becomes a lens that focuses action in time and space and for one brief encounter let’s us act as if we lived in a simpler world, the kind of world that can be described in a ruleset. But the very best thing about it is that if we want to, we can smash it up and grind it into paste to make believe anew. Even if let alone, its inherent ephemerality will let it pass; like a playful version of the second law of thermodynamics, people stop playing attention and soon the game dissolves into flux. It’s the playful spirit of the game that’s more important than the letter of the rules.

Which is as it should be. Jane McGonigal says reality is broken and let’s fix it with game, a whiff of formalin in the air. Her lens on the world is rather monocular, fundamentalist in the proper sense of the word. It rarely admits failure and dreams of a superhumanity. But I think I can do no better than make play with people, and forcing them into one game they don’t want to play is like trying to choreograph butterflies.

Try to be a theatre director of any scene of people in play and you discover many games tumbling out at once – games of status, of desire, of curiosity, of connection, and of greed, of all the sins and of all the virtues – plus hope – and as an actor here you can’t stop still, moment by moment a different game crackles into life. And in reality, these games are all being played all at once: by different people at different times in different places, interrupting and overlapping. If you look at the crystalline complexity of reality through a monocle, no wonder it looks broken.

Reality is broken. To which the only true playful response is: Yes And. A cascade of Yes Ands, with the odd Yes But, an occasional No Thank You, one step at a time.

Actually it’s where reality breaks that matters. Where one game breaks down and you choose to start playing another. Or simply because someone else asks you to play nicer for them. Augusto Boal was another theatre director who never stopped playing what if with reality, again and again, until it broke and then he asked the audience if they had a better idea and if they wanted to get up and do it.

As a society, as individuals, it’s how we respond to fail more than to epic win that matters. It’s in fail that we find the dimensions of our capacity for resilience: connectedness, the ability to be stretched, our very own agency, powered by accurate reflection of what is with still space to dream what if.


That’s as far as Jimmy got. Slight hyperbole there at the end, sorry about that.

And, by uncanny coincidence, that’s all I’ve got too. Thanks.

bookmark_borderThe experience of an event

originally posted to my old blog in 2011

It’s become somewhat of a cliché for me to say this – get it in Bullshit Bingo any time I’m doing any kind of public speaking – but I’ve been owing a post on the origins of this to Andrew Haydon for nearly a year now. So here goes.

The experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it.

In making the kind of work that I do with Coney, getting this is paramount. The primary focus of any interactive-immersive-playful-whatchamacallit has to be the experience of the audience (or better, specific audiences) from start to finish to understand better what they might do, how they might feel, what might get in the way. We often break the experience down into shorthanded segments – the advance to the event, the event itself, the tail of the event. We also often create audience personae to imagine how they’ll find something we make; currently Horace and Doris, Sonia and Phil, and the Family Smith amongst others are rattling around a piece tba in the devising.

But I think that this saying is incontrovertibly true not just for the kind of play that Coney makes but for any event, for any audience.

The advance includes that which is normally covered by marketing, but marketing is just one particular way of describing the relationship between an event or building and its audience. The audience’s foreknowledge, expectations, anticipations (even fears) of the experience are critical. Which is one reason why I hate most traditional theatre posters, the kind that pepper the walls of tube escalators with their gilded letters and portraits of the cast, because they communicate an expectation of the experience of theatre for audiences who never go to the theatre (and judging by those posters, are right never to do so).

The late great John McGrath in A Good Night Out writes about all of the event much better than I can and how “there are elements in the language of theatre beyond the text, even beyond the production, which are often more decisive, more central to one’s experience of the event than the text or the production…” anyone in any kind of theatre should read this book.

The advance brings the audience to the event, both time and place, but also imaginatively. Coney has used the advance like this for a while. So in advance of A Small Town Anywhere, an audience can choose if they wish to engage in a dialogue with the gatekeeper Small Town Historian, which helps them cast themselves into the Town and write their own history within it.

The event itself is not just the show (let’s talk about a theatre show to make it simple), but the experience of being in the theatre building itself. Matthew Reason did some brilliant research which took teenagers to the Lyceum in Edinburgh to watch Othello; afterwards, he conducted discourse analysis with them to reconstruct their experience. Those who’d been to the theatre – any theatre – several times already talked animatedly about Othello. But for those new to theatre were dominated in their discourse by the experience of being in a posh building surrounded by other predominantly older people, their sense of how they ought to behave and how they’d be told off if they didn’t. Othello didn’t really feature. It takes a few goes before anyone habituates to the experience of the event of theatre.

In the experience of the interactive-immersive event for the interactive-immersive audience, sudden and surprising agency is intoxicating. I just don’t know how long that lasts before habituation and the hangover kicks in.

The tail of an experience is important. Immediately after Small Town, we found it crucial to give all the audience a glass of wine in the Historian’s Salon so that they’d all be more likely to stick with each other and talk about what had just happened. This post-liminal space becomes a decompression chamber. Because their most common question was about how they compared to other nights and other audiences (a sly way also of finding out how much agency they’d really had) then a couple of weeks after the run was finished, the Historian sent them the final chapter of his History which did just that in seeking to distil the ‘average’ Town and failing because none such existed, I liked that they received that after they thought it was over. It’d have been better if it had been a physical tangible object rather than a pdf. I’ve cherished for years the picture of the skypointing blue-footed booby which Chris Goode left in my house at the end of his home performance We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! Every time I pick it up, I remember the show and smile. I guess programmes do the same but they are not necessarily invested with the same charge.

I also liked a thought recently tweeted by @lyngardner, that thinking and talking about a piece of theatre, necessarily transient, keeps it alive in mind. A bit like the ghosts who stick around until everyone has forgotten about them.

bookmark_borderProvocations towards an interactive dramaturgy

Immersive means the audience are present in the world of play.

Interactive means that their actions have consequence.

The interactive model of the work carries dramaturgical meaning. No model is better or worse than another per se; certainly not true that the more ‘freedom’ the audience has, the better. A model is best only as it is the best to reflect meaning, and – especially – best to enable play and take care of its playing audience.

When building a piece of play, don’t start with a story or a game – start with the world of the piece and mapping the systems in play, including the interactions (verbs) between people, places and things (nouns).

When we watch a performance of a play, we make belief (aka suspend disbelief) entirely in response to the conviction with which the performers play, and the care with which the play is made – if you play a penguin, I make believe you are a penguin if you play with conviction, while never forgetting you are not really a penguin.

When we make play, the challenge can be that a playing audience are the performers for each other and themselves – which mean we need to give them actions which help them make believe they are in this role, in this world. These make belief actions are best if they are fun, easy to do however you choose to play, and have no direct interactive consequence on the experience.

Always remember what is real, that is where you and the audience are starting from. We described Small Town as really, a roomful of mostly strangers playing as if they are a community, and the impact was partly how their own relationships changed through play. Safety and care sit with the real; only when they are supported is meaningful play possible.

There are different kinds of narrative experience for audiences, they are all change:
• Changes in (understanding of) the relationships between people, often through action.
• Changes in (understanding of) the systems in play in the world, often through events.

bookmark_borderTriptych

A piece in three hinged parts: two stories to tell, a game for us to play.

An inexplicable vision. A quest for a jedi. An angel on a cliff top.

I don’t know but I guess it’s all about faith.

A piece combining storytelling and play, needing only a big room and at least 5 people in the audience. I’m most interested in presenting it in art galleries or church halls.

Some material first presented in The Territory, a night of unfinished material at Arch 468 in London, curated by Alex Ferguson of Permanent Red, on 22 December 2017.

A first full version presented in Other Ways Of Seeing, a mini-festival at Old Neale’s Auction House in Nottingham, curated by Jack McNamara of New Perspectives, on 30 June 2018.

The piece was then developed in residency at Battersea Arts Centre, May 2019.