Behind the Scenes: Coney Playday

Coney has a bit of a history of filling the Battersea Arts Centre with bewildered but willing participants. It all started with its 2009 hit, A Small Town Anywhere, which was co-produced by BAC and won Time Out’s Critics’ Choice No. 1 Theatre. It brought audience participation and immersive theatre together with the kind of kookiness you would expect of a company founded on “principles of loveliness, adventure and curiosity”. Since then, Coney has built up an impressive portfolio of wildly varied work. The latest in its current season of open events – a free session billed as a “day of play” –  revisited some familiar territory.

Since its initial success, Coney has been developing A Small Town Anywhere for a tour and a stint at BAC in May. The afternoon of playful experimentation was partly designed to try out some new ideas through a game called A Gossiping Town, a piece they describe as a “game-engine”. It is not Coney’s style to explain much, but I spoke to Ellie Robinson – whose unlikely job title is Coney’s Playful Communications Officer – to find out what she expects from theatre events like these. “Every playday is different, and I always look forward to seeing what imaginative stuff gets dreamt up… Game-engine is a term used to describe a basic game structure in a piece of theatre or performance that facilitates the progression of the narrative. Without the engine of a piece, it wouldn’t run.”

So dawns the day of play. A group of about 30 of us loiter awkwardly in the hall, waiting for instructions. Then the Coney game-master – who doubled up as town crier – assigned us each a parochial, turn of the century profession (publican, constable, butcher etc.) and split us into tribes: the newcomers, recently moved from the big city to the small town, and the the local, born and bred small towners. I was the undertaker.

We each chose someone in the room to help and someone to hinder. Once we had got these bare essentials of normal human interaction sorted we were ready to start gossiping about our neighbours. This meant mingling and chatting to each other in character. We could start rumours, flirt, nurse hunches, pass each other notes and – best of all – give letters to the town crier for public announcement, with gossip ranging from accusations of adultery to what the butcher was putting in her pies. Acts of friendliness and selfishness drove the game forward and created a narrative which culminated in a couple of marriages and an election. If you fancy a good look at the rules, they’re available here.

According to Robinson, “Playdays are open spaces to be playful and to meet others who want to do the same. We use them as a place to experiment with ideas (theatrical, game-based or just generally playful in any way) in a low-pressure, no obligation way.” But taking part in these kind of games can sometimes feel like a lot of pressure. There were periods in A Gossiping Town where I felt left out, something which is all part of the process. Inevitably, there are times when your own little narrative (in my case, a ménage à trois with the priest and the curate) get lost as conflicting stories emerge from others in the group. Coney is constantly developing new ways of making the audience take centre stage by putting them in charge of the narrative, but sometimes the mini-narrative you’ve created gets lost on the way. Overall though, it is remarkable to see how a narrative founded on sub-plots does seem to produce fairly coherent stories, with some convincing characters. By the end, you definitely feel you’ve been part of something.

It’s worth pointing out that although hosted by Coney, the day also included a game of cold warfare-cum-tennis by the small company, Venice as a Dolphin. The two games were very different, though as with A Gossiping Town, The Eschaton (by Venice as a Dolphin) created a sense of a world that is familiar, but very different to reality. This time, we were split into small groups that represented countries and states, and we enacted a cold-war scenario. Attacks could be launched by lobbing a tennis ball across the room, and marker cones in primary colours indicated metropolitan centres, military bases and nuclear missile deployment areas, among other things. The continents were roughly marked out with the kind of tape that shows where the goal is in school gyms and we worked tactically in our groups, sending ambassadors on diplomatic missions across the parquet flooring to China. BAC’s large building was a good setting for two games loosely based on how society works.

The only thing Robinson gets nervous about is making sure people have a good time, “although everyone usually says they’ve had loads of fun”. I can imagine that how much fun an event is depends largely on who turns up on the day, something you can’t always predict. At the session I attended there was a good mix of people and certainly not all thespy types. The atmosphere was somewhere between a psychological experiment and Sunday school, and both Coney and Venice as a Dolphin are good at preventing their games from lapsing into feeling like a drama school warm-up session. Even the preliminary games were site-responsive pieces created there and then by participants and practitioners pretty much indistinguishable from each other.

The company’s open events are a natural extension of a gently playful, inclusive digital presence (anyone on Coney’s mailing list will be familiar with the enigmatic, letter-writing Rabbit). In the “Play Around” section of their website it is possible to talk to the moon, walk through a palace of bones using only your ears, and go back to your first day at school. I’d recommend a browse and, if you can’t wait for it to come to a small town near you, a trip to the try-out shows of the newly developed A Small Town Anywhere at BAC in May. What are you waiting for? The games have already begun.

Playdays are part of a series of open events that Coney facilitates which are happening in London and will soon be being held further afield, too. For more information on Coney’s open events, visit the website.

Image credit: A Small Town Anywhere by Coney