Somewhere Pieces and Me: Tom Freshwater writes

We’ve recently kicked off Somewhere Pieces, a development programme for our Associates, supported by Jerwood Arts. Here to tell you more about that is Tom Freshwater, who’s been working with Coney on the project. Tom is Head of Public Programmes for the National Trust, and joins us for several months this year as part of the Clore Fellowship 2018/19.

Me 

I am a newcomer to Coney, and I am an Ear.

My usual day job is leading the public programmes of the National Trust, and I am currently on theClore Fellowship 2018/19. For my three-month secondment, I have swapped the 11,000 colleagues of the Trust, and its 500 plus historic sites and landscapes (Giant’s Causeway, Snowdon, Avebury, castles and houses galore), for the two rooms and core team of six at Coney HQ based in Toynbee Studios. 

It is this difference that I know will give me food for thought far beyond these three months, and I am very grateful to Coney for hosting me, and to the team for their welcome. Instead of Capability Brown landscapes and picnics, I have the urban cityscape of Coney HQ and Brick Lane with most world cuisines available within 500 metres. From feeling grounded by working in institutionally owned historic sites of national significance, to the challenge and freedom of negotiating a space and time to make work, wherever that may be. From meeting the expectations of 5 million paid-up members daily, to the exciting fragility of earning the trust of an unknown audience from anywhere – and giving them an adventure at an agreed moment. 

With me on this journey are some questions of my own: when are people open to new ideas about familiar things; how do we change our minds; how to keep people feeling secure through change; what does inclusion really mean in arts and heritage; and how does my own practice need to change? My time with Coney gives me a rich context for reflection, and benefits from the unique expertise of the team to aid my thinking.

Part of Coney’s innovative approach to making work is giving each of their projects a Director, a Producer and an ‘Ear’. The role involves being a critical friend, a sounding board, a shoulder to lean on. There is no official rulebook, and I am enjoying discovering the role – and it’s clear that listening is crucial, as well as asking good questions (and plenty of tea).

Somewhere Pieces

The first project I am supporting is Somewhere Pieces, a new development and commissions programme supported by Jerwood Arts and led by Rhiannon Armstrong. It is focused on Coney’s Associates, a group of creatives who contribute to making Coney’s diverse and rich programme.

Somewhere Pieces gives a rare opportunity for the Associates to come together and share techniques and approaches that thread through much of Coney’s work. Individually people will gain new knowledge and skills, as well as establishing a shared understanding of some of the core ways of working vital for Coney. My role as Ear is to help plan, document and share these sessions. Toolkits will be created for wider sharing to the sector to encourage more interactive and participatory theatre making.

There will also be three small commissions through this process. Following the sharing and training sessions, Associates can propose a piece for Coney that will be playable remotely – that is, they can be played online and/or downloaded (though not necessarily digital) and experienced by anyone in an appropriate location.

We’ve begun with an intensive weekend of sessions during 9 and 10 February. Our group comprised Associates Astrid Breel, Ben Pacey, Dominic Garfield, Georgina Bednar, Segen Yosef and William Drew together with project leader Rhiannon Armstrong, Ellie Browning (Projects Producer for Coney), Tassos Stevens (Director and Joint CEO of Coney) and me. 

To open the session, we all shared something we are working on, and an experience with Coney. It was interesting to see that this was not the same for everyone. Some had very substantial sets of experiences, while others were more remote – demonstrating, in fact, the value of the programme to bring people together and closer as a team of Associates.

The day saw a varied programme of Coney experiences, selected to foreground key techniques and approaches. Rhiannon shared Stereotype Threat, a way to invite audiences to divide into subgroups, written in Twine – a simple and powerful language for screen-based interactions with a branching narrative. Tassos took us through The Stake, a recent piece for the Natural History Museum, about personal choices and climate change using mobile phone interactions. Rhiannon shared St George, the Dragon and the Princess, a mobile phone Q&A sequence to imaginatively explore a painting in the collections of the William Morris Gallery.

After a pause for breath (and lunch), we dove deep again, this time intoSALT by Gareth Damian Martin, a complex and nuanced interactive story written in Twine and experienced onscreen. Changing gear, we watched as Dom and Segen played Icebreaker – A Gift, a game for two people to get to know each other and share what they want to share, mixing phone, text and a physical surprise. In Flight Entertainment, a playable PDF for two people on a plane, was shared after the session.

Day 2 moved to technical training rather than demonstration. Gareth, author of SALT, joined us and spent the morning going through the practicalities of Twine coding, a totally new experience for some, while others were well-practised. Rhiannon led a discussion about the principles of approaching audiences for interactive theatre making in public spaces. Tassos ended the training weekend with a session on the Magic Phone Platform, and how to turn someone’s everyday device into a tool for adventure and new experience.

There was a lot to pack into these two days, and we’re looking forward to the next session on 23 February when early ideas and responses to the examples and training will be pooled in a discursive format session, before the formal commission proposals are submitted.

It’s great to see a small company thinking big, with the ambition to create tools to shape a sector’s future. It’s exciting for the journey to be underway, and see where it takes us.

Look out for the commissioned pieces by our Associates, soon to be released as part of our Pop-Up Playhouse.

Somewhere Pieces is generously funded by Jerwood Arts.

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