A Masterclass with Coney

In June, we held our first Masterclass on interactive theatre for a group of makers and performers looking to immerse themselves in responsive performance practice. The week involved workshops on responsive performance, building characters, creating narrative layers, games in theatre and much more, and resulted in two interactive sharings where our Masterclass participants had the opportunity to ‘test’ out what they had made on a real live audience. Below, participants Gill Wildman and Rebecca Wigmore share their accounts on taking part, and Rebecca’s grandma Joyce shares her experience of the final performance.

Image of The Institute set

The Institute, image by Tracky Crombie

‘We were put into developing ideas from the first day, and each morning had a group bringing a new idea to us to try out, and learn from. Our sharing events, on Friday and Saturday night gave  us a chance to try our work with fresh and receptive people who could give us good feedback. Our piece focused on how people create stories from any clue they have. We gave two separated groups of audience/experts fragments of stories, audio files, some props and some unfolding interruptions by phone, and selected highly active people for secret assignations in Shoreditch Town Hall’s grand men’s toilet. Their goal was to determine which of the elements we had given them had significance if any, and then to work out what the hell was going on in the world.

The week gave me so much in the form of mechanics and working methods that will be highly valuable to work with. We bonded fast, created something new very quickly, and worked so well together.

Every time I just relaxed into what happened, and just being open about what might happen, I was rewarded with some great new insight, understanding this perspective as an approach that works really well, when done really well. The masterclass has helped me understand the dimensions involved and get some great experience. It has applications for the kind of live work we do at Plot. I can also see huge applications in service designing and sharing. Interaction design projects could easily benefit from this kind of immersive world-making, and there is an interesting space here for animating ideas through performance.’

Gill Wildman of Plot London
You can read the full post on Gill’s website here.

Image of the known truths on paper

The known truths, image by Becky Wigmore

‘For a week at the end of June 2013, the streets of Shoreditch ran red with blood. One building in particular seemed especially prone to strange transformation: Shoreditch Town Hall shifted in space and time to become the doomed ballroom of the Titanic, a utopian Gynocracy (with optional inter-dimensional portal), a Mafia-run organic fruit and veg market and a peaceful Italian village with the highest nightly body count in recorded history. It was carnage, certainly but at the end of the week, it resulted in something beautiful.

All the Mod Cons

So it was that Coney held its first immersive theatre Masterclass in which a team of six theatre makers, dancers, live artists and designers embarked on an intensive week of playful discovery. Tom Bowtell, Annette Mees and Tassos Stevens of Coney (supported by their glamorous Dutch assistants Daan and John) took us through the rudiments of game design, “modding,” identifying and supporting hot and cold styles of play, improvisation and open character and set design.  These discussions, workshops and games culminated in a showing of a work we developed utilising a lot of intense tablecloth drawings, a suitcase full of 80s clothing and an absolute faith in an audience’s ability to create its own world. The show was born out of an exercise which explored how far a group of people would go to invent narrative and meaningful links where none are provided. Audience members [a heady mix of friends, colleagues and my grandparents] were invited to divide into teams and solve a curiously undefined world crisis based on their encounters with a room full of enigmatic props, a mysterious tattooed man and a mysterious and their encounters with an organisation  known simply as “The Institute.”

The Ludic Importance of Cheese & Pineapple Nibbles

As it turns out, The Institute was really a committee of mysterious story archivists who delighted both in humans’ talent for storytelling and intensely 80s lifestyle/snack choices. It wasn’t hard to act this delight: each night the audience came up with some truly bizarro world problems and equally inventive solutions. I spent a great deal of my time hiding in the  loos, giving unsuspecting audience members secret missions and tweeting cryptic clues. This was particularly enjoyable on the final night of the performance when the Shoreditch Town Hall also hosted a giant African wedding reception. I have never seen any humans quite as scandalised as the small pageboys who discovered me tweeting frantically in the men’s toilets.

Aside from creating a mild Gendered Space Debacle, the piece went remarkably well: audience were very supportive of the showing, even those who hadn’t experienced immersive theatre before. It felt sort of amazing that we were able to pull together something coherent and interesting in just two days. But the intimate and creative environment the Coney team created made it seem like we could do anything. It was an intense and exhausting week but one of the most useful experiences of my professional life. It was a pleasure working with, and being repeatedly killed by, such a wonderful group of people.’

Rebecca Wigmore

Image of audience holding up paper with their stories

The audience share their stories, image by Tracky Crombie

And from the perspective of the audience, Rebecca’s grandma Joyce wrote this for her Creative Writing group at the Kennington Women’s Institute:

‘“Your country needs you” was the first thing I saw on opening my emails that morning. “Whatever for?” I thought and went onto read the message.

It turned out to be a copy of a leaflet sent by my eldest granddaughter Becky.  She is very interested and active in the Performing Arts and was taking a course at Shoreditch Town Hall.  The climax was to be a performance for visitors on the Friday and Saturday evenings.

Don (her granddad), Debbie (her mum), Steve (her dad) and me (her grandma) all dutifully attended on the Saturday. On arrival we found that we were the eldest amongst a group of about 40 earnest young men and women – and we were the entertainment. One of the young men stamped Debbie’s and my left hands with an illegible black stamp and we were then directed to a serious young lady on the right who gave us name badges.  I was an eminent psychologist.  I told the young lady I knew nothing about psychology but had lived a long time.  She replied, enigmatically “so I see”.  Hmmm.

The stamped group went to the left and the unstamped to the right, into two separate rooms.  I found out later that Becky was stationed in the Gents (to the consternation of the usual inhabitants) in between the two rooms and had been passing helpful information to each side via a mobile phone.

In the room there were all sorts of information dotted in the corners – maps, newspaper cuttings and other items of interest.  We all examined these and reported to “Liz” in the middle of the room, who collected the information.  We then had to decide what the Emergency was and secondly how to deal with it.

After discussion the time was up and we were sent to a 3rd room to meet up with the other team.

Our spokesman told the others that we had decided the Emergency was that Coca Cola was cross with certain Russian teenagers because they were drinking water instead of Coke and had drained all the water into the Caspian Sea, channelling it into the next country, causing plague and floods.  Our chosen ways to deal with the Emergency were an Iceberg and the Dutch Navy.  The Navy unplugged all the drain points after towing the iceberg to a convenient spot near Moscow.  While normal water usage was being restored, the teenagers could suck on the iceberg to stave off dehydration.  The second team came to a similar conclusion and an equally daft solution.  We were then told it had all been a test of our skills but we were now fully fledged members of the Institute and would be called in an Emergency.

A good time was had by one and all.  What a great idea for a WI Coffee Evening?’

Image of the masterclass participants and the Coney team

All the participants and the Coney team! Image by Tracky Crombie

Thank you to Joyce, Gill and Rebecca for writing these contributions, and to all the Masterclass participants for taking part: Gill Wildman, Rebecca Wigmore, Amy Davidson, Phoebe Marsh, Carrie Mueller, Susi Wrenshaw and Jennifer van Exel.

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