Starting REMOTE: playing scale, The Stanley Parable, and an idea in the shower

Posted on March 10th, 2016

Photograph of a crowd holding up pieces of paper.

Hello, we’re Coney. As we’re running a kickstarter campaign to help fund our forthcoming production of REMOTE, Tassos Stevens – who’s a heady combo of writer and game-designer and director for this project – is writing a series of posts about the making of the piece. Starting with how it started.

Exactly how and when the idea for a piece first arrives is sometimes hard to pin down. Often your mind is whirring on various lines of thought, which only later after some work you’ll recognise were the starting points for that work. But the idea for REMOTE arrived in a flash, in the unbelievable creative cliche of me having a shower.

I’d been reflecting on how relatively impractical it seemed to be to travel any of Coney’s pieces of playing theatre. A lot of that is to do with its playing scale. Small Town in its first theatrical release had been a beautiful huge design which took over two big rooms in a theatre but could only handle around 30 people tops. Early Days at that stage was downsizing its scale from 120 to around 60, and also seemed like it required at least a few big rooms. That’s quite a lot to ask of a venue when the number of audience taking part is relatively small, compared to the capacity of most studios.

The number of people who can play together in a piece is one of the single biggest factors in the design and qualities of experience. Think about the kinds of activities which two or three people might do together, versus those for eight to twelve people, for twenty to thirty, for several hundred… and the differences between those in intimacy, spectacle, how many voices can be supported, etc.

I thought about this again in the shower and remember shouting the most ridiculous question: why oh bloody why can’t we make something which could play in like a normal theatre with performers on an end-on proscenium arch for a couple of hundred people…

…and then this collided in my head with another couple of thoughts.

A series of conversations I’d been having with the artist-technologist James Bridle about the human and political consequences of big digital systems (more on those in another blog post).

And a game I’d just been playing, The Stanley Parable.

This, if you don’t know it already, I urge you to get it. It’s a bonafide masterpiece by Davey Wreden and team. It made me laugh and shout and scream. You can get the flavour of it from the trailer here.

Without spoiling either it or REMOTE, The Stanley Parable reflects a lot about the tension between meaningful agency and freedom of choice. That chimed with the politics I’d been talking with James.

REMOTE also gives its audience an avatar to play. She’s named by them, but I’ll call her Sally. But there’s a big difference between Stanley and Sally. Stanley is one player, Sally can be *any* number of playing audience making a choice simultaneously, for what happens next in her story. The basic interactive model being that the majority carries. Which scales nicely, if not infinitely at least into the hundreds. But there’s a really important tension between your own individual choices and the story emerging from consensus, between the individuating effect of making a choice in a system like this, and the communal experience of being in a theatre together with mostly strangers.

And you make choice in this system very simply, by raising a card, or not. Often you’re presented with a binary choice, A or B, and if you raise the card it’s A, while if you do nothing it’s B. Which means that inaction still plays, or – putting it another and more sinister way – there’s no way not to participate. No easy way, anyhow… 😉 That had been a practical choice at first, to make the decision-making snappier and easier to call, but I was also interested in how to make inaction in a game meaningful, to make it as easy as possible for a sit-down audience to take part.

And as we found in a first development sketch at Camden People’s Theatre in January 2014, a couple of months after that shower, the audience experience of this very basic interaction is surprisingly pleasurable. You’re playing ‘what happens next’ with the story, and the potential consequences for their choice ripple through the imagination. It’s sometimes very funny. Just as it is with Stanley. I defy you not to chuckle when you’re presented with your first ‘real’ choice, left or right…

Helped by the design constraint that Sally’s story is realised not visually but entirely in your imagination, through storytelling and sound, designed by Kieran Lucas (of Barrel Organ). Which means we can make anything happen. Even the end of the world.

A lot of the pleasure of The Stanley Parable is the narration by the wonderfully plummy British actor Kevan Brighting, the voice of the system. The system of REMOTE is voiced by two performers as the operators of the system, somewhere between call centre operators and Amazon Fulfilment Centre workers. They are onstage but it’s played that they are in another room in the company headquarters, thousands of miles away, remote. So it’s like we’re playing over skype, which can glitch or fail. The operators’ own agency (or lack of it) is a key element in the politics of this system. We’re lucky to have the brilliant Gemma Brockis and Tom Lyall, both veterans of the legendary Shunt, as devising performers.

The Stanley Parable has been an inspiration, but it was but one starting point. More in the next post. Get the game. But please support our kickstarter for REMOTE, by pledging anything you can afford – and a measly tenner gets you a game you can play online on a device as an entrance into the world of REMOTE – or by simply spreading the word.

Thanks for being here.

REMOTE plays in development at Theatre in The Mill, Bradford on 17 and 18 March, and then runs at Camden People’s Theatre from 19 – 30 April.

Back to all posts

Read more

The Floor is Lava Appreciation Society: making play with SEND students

Associate Director Toby Peach reflects on the creation of The Floor is Lava Appreciation Society, a secret agency created by SEND students at I Am Festival.

Read more

Creative Climate Coalitions: Playful Activism at UCL

Associate Director Toby Peach writes on his time spent exploring Playful Activism with staff and students at University College London.

Read more

Reflecting Community

Director Tassos Stevens shares how a ‘good question’ was the key to adapting Coney’s practice to towards community development in Gloucester.

Read more