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The ministry of fun

More playful than school, more democratic than the theatre, Coney makes things happen to people of all ages

Irving Wardle | July/August 2014

There is a deafening party with trumpets going on in the Battersea Arts Centre, but round the corner at Fire Exit No.2 all is silence, darkness and cold. I’m there by appointment, along with other shivering citizens, for a meeting that should have started five minutes ago. Finally the door opens a crack and we are let in, one at a time; “keep quiet”, a whisper tells us. We head upstairs to a dimly lit operations room festooned with menacing posters. An organiser appears, splitting us up into groups and briefing us on the emergency amid crackly radio transmissions from the combat zone. The government has collapsed and the top brass have gone into exile. We are in Colonia, which has plunged into anarchy. Outside, the gangs are hanging people from lampposts.

The organiser looks me in the eye. “What did you see on the way here? Did you have any trouble?”

   “No,” I say innocently, “it was quite uneventful.”

   “Uneventful, eh?” His glare is becoming stony.

   “How do we know about the gangs?”

   “That’s the information. Believe it or go home.” He turns away to instruct others.

We have food, radio equipment, weapons, even helicopters—and a chance to oppose the gangs or nego­tiate with them. Colonia’s future is in our hands: we don’t just have to clear the streets, we have to devise a better form of government. The radio gives an ominous hiccup. We adjourn to a council chamber where we can at least see each other. There are about 80 of us.

The mood changes as panic turns to politics. What models may be worth exploring? The organiser points to me. Having given it no thought, I am on my feet advocating a federation of cantons, each the number of people you can know personally. I sit down and get talking to the woman next to me. We notice dominant speakers emerging from each group, becoming confident, even strident. We wonder how they might behave if ever they tasted power. If the organiser had difficulty in getting people to join in, now he has difficulty in controlling them. As we wait to see how he will resolve the tension, the radio crackles again. We have lost the war, and have to escape onto the streets.

On the way back to my train, I meet a drama student from Ohio who is disappointed we lost the war. It seems we both felt doubtful at the start of the event and then became increasingly engaged. To be treated as a citizen rather than a punter is a novel experience. When did you last think seriously about the mechanics of government? How often do you get a chance to draft a constitution? When have you ever played a game with 80 complete strangers and come out having made one or two possible friends? It dawns on us that we have had a great night out.

This was the trial run for a piece called “Early Days (of a Better Nation)”, and it was my first taste of Coney, a charity that operates halfway between the stage and the classroom. Its initial appeal was that it gave me something to do. If that sounds a humdrum claim, I had overdosed on what theatre usually offers—passive captivity. Ever since the explosion of the Greek dithyramb, splitting the chorus into performers and observers, that is what it has meant; but it is hard to recapture that primal rapture when you are stuck in Row M at a mediocre production of “Twelfth Night”, feeling mildly amused at best. Theatre, demo­cracy’s greatest invention, has always been dictatorship, and nothing will alter that. But to the spectator it often feels like a demeaning relationship. All you are allowed to do is clap or boo.

Others have felt frustrated by this and tried to renegotiate terms, notably the visionary Brazilian director Augusto Boal, who coined the term “Theatre of the Oppressed” and formed his own Forum Theatre in which “spect-actors” were encouraged to intervene and propose something better for the characters than the fate the play is threatening to impose on them. In the world of educational drama, Dorothy Heathcote pioneered a reversal in her “Mantle of the Expert” system, in which pupils are designated as expert in some field, and then have to work to earn this status while the teacher adopts the role of an enabler.

These are two of Coney’s main sources, along with the thrilling passage in Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story” when the fat little boy reading a book is summoned into the story to become a superhero. There is some mystery surrounding the name Coney, but one of its forebears is the White Rabbit that Alice follows down the hole into Wonderland. Whether the company are playing to grown-ups or children, the aim is to engage with the real world by abducting the audience into the world of fiction, and then giving them control of the narrative.

Another antecedent is the Theatre in Education movement that flourished in Britain in the 1970s. Some of their shows sound terrific. I’d love to have been there when my actor friend Beryl Mayes led a party of ten-year-olds to clean up Tilbury Fort for the returning English troops after Culloden in 1746—the last battle on British soil. They managed to save one of their Scottish prisoners from execution. There was never any doubt that history would take its course and most of the prisoners would end up in the Tower of London. If Coney had been running the show, Tilbury would have been teleported to somewhere like Colonia and the children could have turfed the garrison into the moat.

Coney has three directors (Tom Bowtell, Tassos Stevens and Annette Mees), two other staff and a supporting network of about 100 artists, producers and designers. As well as the BAC, they have worked in locations ranging from street corners to Kensington Palace. They want to have an impact on the world, and they have succeeded in expanding the definition of community and children’s theatre, thanks in part to a three-year Arts Council grant, which has enabled them to spread to more than 50 schools.

Although the style is always playful, Coney too has its authoritarian side. Some of the speakers who had struck me as potential extremists were actors, planted among us like picadors to poke the beast until it woke up. Among them was the overbearing organiser, whose brief was to test how far he could go before the audience rebelled. Sometimes this tactic has been pushed to the point at which the game breaks down, thus confirming the audience in their role as lead actor. One of Coney’s aims is to offer a voice to people who see themselves as apolitical; another is to develop a version of the show with former young offenders.

Sometimes the power balance can shift against the audience. In a workshop piece, “Remote”, which appeared at the Camden People’s Theatre in January, the audience switched focus between two actors and a set of pre-recorded questions that would have sounded innocuous but for the opening statement: “We want to give you a choice because we understand that people like you like a choice…People like you don’t like the word ‘passive’.”

As a clock ticked, the questions began with soothing banalities and proceeded into nonsense and danger (“What is your choice for an ideal home—a cleaver or a guillotine?”). Then the questioner said he had run out of ideas and asked the audience to take over. It did no such thing, thus confirming the opening implication that people like us were not up to the game. The sketch could be read as a warning against trusting a system that promises agency and then doesn’t deliver. On the night I was there it came over as a demonstration of the Coney game of trying on various hats—including one worn by an enemy of Coney. If the audience had risen to the occasion, the show would have gone a different way. Coney does rely on having an audience capable of seizing the steering wheel.

Keith Johnstone, the guru of improvisation, defines a story as an interrupted routine. Every day X takes the 8.20 train into town, but last Monday a giant bird carried the train away in its claws...Coney translates this into action, so that a real-life routine is disrupted by a fictional event. One prime location for this is the classroom—a model of daily routine, involving people who like nothing better than a spanner in the works. Not the least of Coney’s achievements is persuading so many schools of the benefits of allowing the timetable to be vandalised—the justification being that the vandals then do something educational. Bowtell has worked with a school in Yorkshire whose pupils are told they are going on a geography field trip. They board a coach and set off, only to find a man in a Hazmat suit flagging them down. He says they have contracted an infection that endangers livestock and should enter quarantine. A teacher helps them to escape into the woods, where they learn survival skills and conduct a debate on whether they should obey the man—played, with some relish, by Bowtell.

One of Coney’s Adventures in Learning is a fossil hunt for six-year-olds, who triumphantly confront the Natural History Museum’s head of fossils with trilobites and ammonites they have dug up in the school flowerbed (planted there by Bowtell and company). Another has a class of London five-year-olds finding a huge egg that hatches out into a bird-lizard, played by an actor. They teach it to walk, eat and speak before placing it on a 72 bus to head off into its new life.

Coney’s six-part thriller, “A Cat Escapes”, has played in 40 schools. I witnessed its climax at Our Lady’s, a primary school in Camden Town. Suggested by S.F. Said’s super-cat Varjak Paw novels, it tells of Varjak’s cousin Jasmine, who falls foul of some ill-bred street cats and is rescued by a pair of Egyptian explorers. They think they are doing her a good turn. Jasmine thinks she has been kidnapped and smuggles out badly typed appeals for help which reach the class, by post, over several weeks. In the final episode, the explorers are invited to visit the class, ostensibly to talk about their travels, but really to give Jasmine time to escape from a high window. It will take her 40 minutes, but the explorers can only spare half an hour. The pupils must stop their guests leaving for the ten last minutes.

Along the way, the adventure scoops up all kinds of curricular information. Jasmine is locked in a triangular tower, which leads into geometry; she has to find her way home, so that means learning to read a map. The explorers’ tales mesh into accounts of the pupils’ countries of origin. The story proceeds, starting with Varjak’s appeal for help, which arrives while the class are dying of boredom in a lesson on the history of concrete, and developing into a gentle conspiracy—should the head walk in, the children will pretend to be doing a spelling test. Juliet Desailly, a former primary deputy head who has worked on these projects, says they often begin with an appeal for help, which prompts the children to respond and raises their self-esteem. “That”, she says, “is education!”

To observe Coney you have to play a role, so on the day of the Camden finale I went along as the explorers’ chauffeur. It was their second gig of the morning, and they were lucky to be there as a class in Kilburn had tried to stop them leaving by releasing a lion onto the streets and forming a human chain across the doorway. What delaying tricks did Camden have in store? Walking into the classroom was like setting foot in a power station. The children were fizzing with expectation.

In the visitors’ honour, they had prepared a display of King Tut masks; their presentations, from around six nationalities, were articulate, and felt spontaneous. With eyes sparkling, they thrilled to every pharaonic firework the visitors set off. After half an hour, in came an Egyptian feast. This was the delaying tactic, and it didn’t work. With hurried thanks, the explorers gobbled an olive and made for the door, whence they were escorted by a courteous eight-year-old. I was sure she would lead us by some roundabout route to a remote alleyway and then disappear. But she took us straight back to the playground, and waited to wave goodbye. Unless someone had a brainwave, Jasmine was not going to escape. There seemed to be only one solution: my car must have broken down.

If the children had remained in control, they might have come up with a more satisfactory ending. But would that just have made a better story or given them a better learning experience? Back to the perennial question of whether theatre is of any use. The answer I used to rely on, that theatre retreats from life in order to embrace it, is no help when it comes to particular cases. The current is continuously shifting between the aesthetic and utilitarian extremes. Yes, we resist shows that sell a message. But where does that leave companies like the Teatro Campesino, which taught Californian grape pickers to resist exploitation; or Berlin’s Grips theatre, which puts on plays to help children cope with everyday life? Their work is utilitarian, but it is undoubtedly art.

Coney’s contribution is to renegotiate the narrative contract and find a new way of uniting amateurs and professionals in a common pursuit. It trusts us to make things better for ourselves. And it’s a lot of fun.

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