The Gossip Game: the impact of chance meetings

Coney makes play designed for meaningful impact, inviting our audiences to play in different ways across all kinds of pieces. Over the years we’ve made a lot of projects, each of which has its own legacy – anything from players’ experiences, to a gift given or received, to a piece of artistic practice shared. Sometimes, the impact of a project finds its way back to us in unexpected and lovely ways, and we get to hear about how it’s continuing to affect people. Here is one of those stories…

A decade ago, Coney developed The Gossip Game, as part of a show called A Small Town AnywhereOne of the people who came across that project is Liz Postlethwaite, a theatre-maker and creative producer and the Director of Small Things Creative Projects. Liz recently got in touch to say she’s been using The Gossip Game in her work for years, and has included it in a treasury of work for participatory artists working with older people, soon to be published by the Baring Foundation.

It’s a completely different context from the original show, and a brilliant example of how techniques and toolkits can live on in new forms. To find out more about how The Gossip Game has been played in new situations, we spoke to Liz about her experience of playing it in different settings:

How did you start using The Gossip Game?
I originally came across the game when I heard Tassos Stevens talking about A Small Town Anywhere at a conference. I was intrigued by the idea of the project but didn’t really think about it again until I was browsing the Ludocity website as research for another project and came across The Gossip Game. Reading about it in more detail it struck me what a brilliant game it would be to play with the youth theatre group that I was working with at the time – an engaging and meaningful way of them starting to get to grips with ideas of purpose and truth as a performer. We played it in a workshop with a group of about 25 young actors aged 15 to 18, who loved it, and so did I. As a consequence it is a game I have revisited many times in various aspects of my creative work – from youth theatre, to work with older people, to actor training!

From your perspective, what is The Gossip Game? 
It’s a cross between an immersive performance and a game. A group of participants / performers create a story together without even realising they are doing so, until they find themselves at the centre of a crisis or scandal or other affair in the world that they have created together. It’s hard to explain the power of that immersive experience until you have been through it yourself, but the way that it draws people into an alternative reality, with all its complexities and dynamics, is quite astonishing on an emotional and psychological level, as well as being great fun.

How does the game play in those different contexts?
I suppose the most striking thing is that in many ways the game plays out in very similar ways regardless of the group who are playing it. So long as you have a group who “buy in” to the concept and to what is being asked of them, the way the game builds and the stakes rise is almost universal. The tactics used may be different, and the way the narrative grows and develops may vary depending upon the people in the room, but there is something about the appeal of the game which feels universal in its accessibility and appeal. The big difference would be the purpose for using the game in different contexts. For example, I may use it with a group of student performers as a way of exploring aspects of stage technique, whilst when working with a group of older people it may purely be a fun game for people to enjoy.

What is most fun about the game?
I love the way that people get involved, and how the characters and scenarios they are faced with become so real as players become absorbed in the game that they are playing. Beyond that I love the things this reveals about community and about human nature – universal elements and motifs that are strikingly familiar, though not always particularly appealing. Behind the facade of a character it can bring out the best and the worst in people and that is fascinating to observe.

Why did you choose to include the game in the treasury you’re currently working on?
I was really keen that although the treasury focuses on participatory arts and older people, it should not simply focus upon “older people’s activities” – whatever that may mean! I think good games and activities have a universal appeal and this game is a good example of that. I really like the idea that this, and many of the other activities in the treasury, have a strong foundation in professional art-making practice. In my own work I have found that connection can be really powerful when working with non-professional artists and performers, as it breaks down hierarchies about who art of all kinds is for. This game is particularly powerful in that respect because it is immediately accessible to more able older people with little modification. Through taking part they experience many aspects of live art and performance that would be much harder to introduce and explore in any other way.

What tips would you give for playing The Gossip Game as part of work with older people?
The game is better suited to more able groups, and probably not dementia friendly. I can see it working really brilliantly in a day-centre or within a similar social setting given the right planning and support. And on that theme, it is really important to invest the time in planning and setting up because getting that right is crucial to the success of the game. Also, give yourself plenty of time to play! At least an hour, if not more. Once a group are involved it can easily last that long and there is nothing worse than having to rush the end when things are getting really dramatic because you haven’t got enough time.

Liz Postlethwaite is a theatre maker and creative producer whose career spans more than twenty years. From imaginative adventures with the youngest children, to artistic discovery with older people living with dementia at the end of life, she has developed and delivered projects in theatres and creative spaces, but also in hospitals, schools, gardens, blocks of flats… She is Director of Small Things Creative Projects, whose work currently focuses upon The Storybox Project, a creative storytelling project which uses imagination and play to engage  and empower people living with dementia alongside the people that support them.

Look out for the release of the treasury on the Baring Foundation’s website. And if you have a story about an impact Coney has had on you or your work, give us a knock – we’d love to hear from you.

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