Middle Days of our better nation

Posted on October 16th, 2014

Photograph of an event at the Camden People's Theatre for The Coney Theatre Group, with large boxes hung up filled with light and letters on them.

Tom Bowtell, who co-created the show with fellow Coney co-director Annette Mees writes about the core questions that fuel Early Days (of a Better Nation), which premieres in London this autumn

Two questions have always hovered close to the heart of Coney’s Early Days (of a better nation). These are:

“If people could start again from scratch, what sort of a nation would they build?”


“Can a piece of immersive theatre change people’s minds about politics?”

By casting the audience as a makeshift Government of a war-ruined state, the whole show is an experiment to find an answer to the first question, so I’m going to focus here on the slightly knottier second question (some of my thinking builds on what I spoke about here at TEDx Stormont).

We should stress from the outset that Early Days isn’t a piece of propaganda. There’s no single political viewpoint that Coney or the show wishes to make people adopt. Instead, our ambition is to create a space, which gives our audience freedom to explore their own beliefs, and perhaps try others on for size.

We hope to do this by inviting our audience to play at being people who hold beliefs different from their own. There exists an article, very possibly in the New Scientist, which outlines some research that found the very act of arguing for a position, even it is one we definitively don’t hold, creates neurological pathways which make us more sympathetic towards it. Annoyingly, I can’t actually find said article and would be very grateful if anyone can track down a link.

This theory was borne out in one of my three favourite moments of Early Days (the other two are coming in a bit) when a friend of Coney’s (and an ardent socialist), got to her feet and passionately argued in favour of giving temporary dictatorial powers to her leader and imposing martial law. She adopted this position due to the very loose ‘role’ assigned her in the play: she was a citizen of the City, and her family were at risk from ruthless thugs. When, inevitably, she was challenged by leftist voices from other parts of our fictional nation, it was magnificent (if occasionally unnerving) to see her bombastically and persuasively defend her extreme position. While her life politics weren’t altered our audience member did confirm that the process of constructing her argument gave her insight into why people might adopt this position (she did also admit that she argued so vehemently because she just really wanted to win the debate.)

The fiction of our nation is key here. We have set our show in Dacia, a Central European state that doesn’t exist. We have also rolled history forward 20 years to 2034 to give some distance from the present (spoiler alert – things are going to get tricky). But behind this buffer of fiction, we have constructed real-world political dilemmas and systems. Professor Rod Dacombe, a Political Economist at King’s College has worked with us for the last 12 months, applying rigour and historical case studies to our enthusiastic brainstorming. With Rod and his colleagues we identified the “4 key questions you need to answer if you are setting up a country” and these are embedded at the heart of our show.

Our aim in all of this is to position the show on a teeter point between fiction and reality. The cloak of fiction allows audiences the freedom to explore the more radical ideas in the show without fear of becoming social pariahs, while the tethers to real political thinking ensure that the piece remains relevant to people’s actual lives and ideas.

Alongside our ambition to make audiences more sympathetic to viewpoints they disagree with, there’s another way we hope to change our audience’s mind about politics. This is a direct response to the prevailing disenchantment with mainstream politics, particularly among young people. Early Days is being staged as part of UK Parliament Week (http://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/parliament-week/), and our ambition is that show might offer some people a bridge back into political engagement.

Our thinking is that if we can do a half-decent job of simulating the challenges facing actual politicians, then we might soften the edge of people’s cynicism. One way in which we’re doing this is using the fascinating ‘Freedom versus Safety’ debate. Off the cuff, most would say that both are good things and a nation should provide them both. But the truth is that the more you have of one, the less you have of another, forcing the decision-maker to make a compromise. We’ve built several dilemmas such as this into the show to gently impel our audience to make decisions that could have difficult consequences either way. We don’t apologise for flaws in politicians, but we do hope to show that their job isn’t always easy.

During our current development period we’re working with groups of young people who will be able to vote for the first time in 2015, but are not necessarily planning to do so. We’re going to ask them to be brutally honest with us about whether or not participating in Early Days has any impact about their intention to vote.

(The second of my 3 favourite Early Days moments so far came when two 15 year old boys turned up in a scratch of the show at BAC. They apparently came to Early Days by mistake, and were initially bemused, but ultimately stayed. At the end of the show we held a feedback session during which one of the boys said: “yeah, I hadn’t thought about that stuff before but I will now”, and his friend grunted a “ yeah, ‘s’interestin’”, in support.)

Traditionally, when writing blogposts about this show, I have ended with a quip about these being “the Early Days” of our development. Now, more than 2 years into the process, I can’t really get away with that. I can, however, confirm that the Middle Days of our better nation are shaping up very intriguingly. The show isn’t proper science, but it is an experiment and Annette and I are excited to see how our audiences respond, and what impact it has in their political viewpoint.

(For completists out there, the third of my favourite Early Days moments was when two 21 year old girls at an Early Days scratch rather insouciantly invented their own radical modification on Democracy. To paraphrase them, they said: “We feel that at the moment 4 or 5 years is too short for a Government to do anything useful, so we would have 10 year stretches. But we’d have that recall thing someone here just mentioned where if the people don’t like an MP they can vote to have them sacked. That way people wouldn’t be stuck with someone awful.” We were lucky enough to have a representative of UK Parliament in that audience, who was able to confirm that this was indeed a new idea – and that it actually seemed a pretty feasible alternative.)

Early Days (of a better nation) will be performed as part of the Arts and Humanities Festival at King’s College on Sunday 19th October at 3pm and will then run at Ovalhouse Theatre during UK Parliament Week on Friday 14th, Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th November

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