On making work with audiences

Without an audience, Coney’s work doesn’t work. The one thing which unites all of the strange and (we hope) splendid things we make is that they respond to the actions and ideas of the audience. If you’ve spoken to anyone from Coney for more than about seven seconds, they’ll have almost certainly have mentioned how we see the audience as our lead actor, ultimately deciding how the story ends.

Audience at Early Days at In Between Time 2013

Audience at Early Days at IBT 2013, image by Paul Blakemore

One of the big challenges for Coney artists is to create structures which give audiences the agency to step into our worlds in this way –  having first intrigued them enough to make them want to do so. This means that while we do do a little of it, the traditional artistic approach of sitting down and making something on our own doesn’t get us very far. The audience is so intrinsic to the process that the earliest inklings of ideas need to be hurled at them to see if we’re barking up the remotely right tree.  While this makes the process endlessly exciting, it does mean that Coney artists need to be willing to expose work which is fragile, flawed and a million miles from finished to live audiences (although we’re lucky that our audiences tend to be lovely). This process of dialogue means that the audience shape the story of the piece, as well as the story the piece might tell.

Coney’s early years as supported artists at Battersea Arts Centre meant that we grew up with the Scratch process, but the first half of 2013 has seen us inviting audiences into our process in rather different ways. First up there was our night of Big Play in June. This event emerged from a problem Coney artists have been grappling with for the best part of 8 years – how to deliver responsiveness at scale. This question sits at the heart of almost all of Coney’s lines of interest, and Big Play allowed Coney (here represented by Annette Mees, John Gottschalk, Tassos Stevens and Tom Bowtell) to try out 6 theatrical experiments on an audience of more than 60 people. These ranged from exploring how the audience behaved as a group, how they responded to being addressed by an automated screen, how rivalries could be built up within them and what it took to make them cheat. While we’re hopeful that being involved in the earliest stages of thinking of our work was intriguing for our audiences (and host Laura Mugridge made sure that everything was sewn together with panache), this free evening of play delivered several vital slices of learning which will emerge in forthcoming work such as Early Days (of a better nation) and the strictly classified contributions Coney will be making to Nesta’s forthcoming FutureFest.

Image of Masterclass participants and Coney team

Masterclass participants and the Coney team, image by Tracky Crombie

The second opportunity audiences got to see the earliest flickerings of our work came a fortnight later when the ingenious first intake of Coney Masterclass participants hosted an early sharing of their piece, The Institute, which emerged from their week working with us. While the Masterclass week was never all about putting on a show, the fact that the audience is so key to our work meant that our Masterclassers’ experience could only be completed by trying things out on a live audience of actual people. We were staggered at the way in which our Masterclass participants managed, in little more than a day, to conjure something which was far closer to a full show than we ever expected.

Along with fellow co-director Annette Mees, my current focus is our show in development Early Days (of a better nation) and looking back it’s clear how involving audiences has benefited the process: Big Play helped us realise that one particular avenue of exploration for Early Days was likely to prove unsuccessful, while the ways in which our Masterclass participants reimagined how to journey into a building helped us remember that Early Days needs to feel like an adventure, as well as an exploration of real-time politics. To see how we’ve built this thinking into Early Days, why not come along to our Autumnal scratches at Battersea Arts Centre!

We’d like to thank our dear friends at Shoreditch Town Hall for being marvellous hosts of both the Night of Big Play and the first Coney Masterclass.

Tom Bowtell

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