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_bordertowards A Good Question

This is not so much a manifesto as a personal train of thought I’ve had in my swims the last few days (all about the swims). And then me deciding to do something. Which you are invited to join in.

It’s quite lengthy – sorry Internet! – so you might want to make a cup of tea first. But then there’s a challenge. #3 is the key.

I’ll repost the challenge in more sharable form later, but right now I’d really welcome any thoughts in response. This is only a start. Anything you care to write back will undoubtedly help make it better. Or just do it.

~


This UK general election on 7 May 2015 feels more important than any I can remember. And I’m old enough to remember 9 April 1992 as the worst night of my life (so far). So many possible outcomes, so many critical issues. To pick a few: austerity slashing-and-burning public services; the axe-job we’re doing on the environment; the rise of fascism-lite, or whichever lo-cal fascism is UKIP. Yes, I am that green-lefty.

But I don’t feel I’ve any real agency in our current electoral system. I live in Diane Abbott’s constituency, and much as I am happy that she is in Parliament, she’d probably get elected posthumously here. So I might well vote Green to bump up their national percentage, make sure that they are better represented in the next election media. I’ve never joined a political party – although I came close to joining Labour after being filled with anger and despair at seeing kids in my school waving Maggie flags – because I’ve never felt any of them really represent me. I should get over that and get stuck in. But I also feel a little wistful that I am not a voter in one of those key marginal constituencies, the 100,000 people that they always say might really decide the election. I wish I could talk to one of them. But they’re probably very different to a green-lefty like me, why would they listen?

And there’s the first glimmer.

Another thought. The seven-way leadership debate, but especially the quality of media discussion in the aftermath, filled me with disillusion. It’s all about the performance personas of the leaders, and how they play to to their tribes. Cameron and Miliband are striving to project future prime minister, as one of them surely will be, and playing for heavy stake – which means micromanagement of every possible nuance. Miliband is doing better than I expected but actually, why the fuck does his performance matter more than the Labour manifesto? I remember last year talking to a friend, a brilliant clued-up left-leaning friend, who said she couldn’t vote for Labour because she found Miliband annoyingly wet and he had a bit of a lisp. How can these be the grounds on which this brilliant friend might choose to vote?

Back to the debate. Bennett, Sturgeon, and Wood are all pretty exciting – and they’re women, so their presence never mind their strength inside this boys’ club is inspiring. They all have the advantage of a singularly clear call to action: for the SNP and PC, vote for your country to stand up for itself; for the Greens, vote for your beliefs unchallenged by the likelihood of power (yet). I should vote Green though. Clegg has given up, and good riddance. Farage overplays the clown outsider, proclaiming to speak common sense that is anything but. I argue to a friend that his ‘HIV migrants’ line is such venom that it must poison his party, only to read later that it played strongly as designed for UKIP voters, bolstering their resolve to stay in his tribe.

And actually so much of political discourse is tribal. Which lines of script make me feel I belong to this tribe? Which carefully polished images remind me what I hate about that other tribe? And I’m myself also in a tribe, and anyone reading this is probably in my online social networks, and also therefore likely part of a very like-minded tribe. We tend to make friends with people who think the same as us about the world. We follow our tribe on social media and pass back and forth the same links and lenses with which to view the world.

And we don’t often dissect our politics together carefully. I remember the best political election conversation I had in the last 5 years was during the Scottish referendum, with another brilliant friend when we suddenly discovered that we felt very differently and passionately about this issue. We had a fierce argument but still with love and trust between us, so we listened to each other.

Another glimmer.

What stops people having good conversations about election politics? Now I’m thinking a bit more in the abstract, picking up the toolbox of participation design. I often frame participation in any activity as motivated by intrinsic dimensions of agency, connectedness, and learning – so a good conversation is perhaps about the agency to voice your thoughts freely and feel that you are being listened to, about making new or richer connections with other people, about learning something interesting or surprising.
The biggest barrier to participation is a fear of being judged. Political discussion often cuts to our core beliefs, which tribe we’re in, which is the highest degree of judgement. No wonder the discussion can quickly get heated, and you don’t want to get hurt or hurt anyone else, unless you’re a troll drawn to flames. And perhaps you’re fearful of being judged by someone who belongs to a different tribe, nervous about talking to a party zealot who will only try and convert you, worried that you’re just going to say something stupid because actually it’s all quite complicated.

Easier to fall back on the tics and tropes you’ve picked up as part of your tribe, or make judgements based on perceptions of the people who embody each political party. And we’ve heard them all before. So it’s BORING, as another brilliant friend said in the pub, let’s talk about Eurovision instead.

OK, so this turned into a rant. I had to stop swimming and hang off the side of the pool. Take breath. If you really think this, what are you going to do about it? Or rather, what can you feasibly do now that might be useful? You design participation, so do it yourself. Engage differently. How? Keep it simple. Make it quickly and out in the open so that it can learn how it plays best. Make it something that anyone else could do, if it’s any good.

And so this is what I am going to try to do. It’s a challenge to myself and to anyone else who wants to join in.

~


This is a challenge towards having a good conversation about politics in the run-up to the election with someone who is different from you. At least a little bit different. It’s not about trying to change any minds, but perhaps recognising that minds might change themselves when they see things a little more clearly recognising different perspectives. And if you happen to end up talking to one of those mythical 100,000 people…

1. Find someone who is at least a little bit different from you, when it comes to politics.

[Make it easy for yourself. Perhaps start with someone you have some connection with already. An old family member, an old school friend, or someone you interact with in your daily routines. Or just pick a stranger online. I’m going to do all of those, and a few more.]

2. Talk to establish and celebrate your differences as well as what you have in common.

[You agree the grounds on which you describe your differences. Keeping it lovely, aka the principle of loveliness.]

3. One person asks the other a question.

But the other answers it ONLY on one condition: if the question when asked makes them go ‘that’s a good question’. Otherwise they pass for the next question. So the only questions that are answered are ones that both people, however different, agree ‘that’s a good question’.

[I’ve done plenty more thinking about the dimensions of a good question, but I think the reaction ‘that’s a good question’ is good enough. No shame in passing a question, or asking a question that is passed. They help us work out together what is a good question.]

4. You swap.

[ And repeat #3 and #4, if you like. Although there’s an elegance in finding just the one best question you can ask someone different from you.]

5. Ask the other person, if they enjoyed the conversation, to help spread the word.

6. And if you like: post online what you remember as each good question and its answer, and who was asking whom.

And I’d love it if you shared those with me, so I can collect them to share more widely which might inspire more people, etc.

I’ll aim to set up some online infrastructure to make the posting and sharing easy. I’ll do this as Coney because I can then make more time to do this, and because this is very relevant to some lines of thinking there. But Coney here means a very open way. Everyone is welcome, and your questions and answers remain yours.

I’m sorry if you were wanting a violent revolution, or musical theatre, or both. Although I always wanted to be Razamataz the pianist at the end of Bugsy Malone.

Over to you. What do you reckon?