Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Annette Mees and Tom Bowtell: Early Days (Of A Better Nation)

By | Published on Friday 17 April 2015

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So much politics-related theatre at the moment, and not enough time to take it all in! However, if you get the chance, you should, in my humble opinion, check out ‘Early Days (Of A Better Nation)’, an immersive show with a difference from interactive theatre company Coney.

This is a piece of theatre where the audience are key, helping to create fictional nation from scratch. I put some questions to co-creator and director Annette Mees, and co-creator and writer Tom Bowtell.

CM: Tell us about the show. What are the central themes and aims?
AM: ‘Early Days (Of A Better Nation)’ is an immersive and interactive theatre show in which the audience become inhabitants of Dacia; a fictional nation in ruins. The audience must build the beginnings of a new country each night. What values are most important to them? And how are they going to live together? Each night a new and unique Dacia emerges from the choices each new audience makes. The show creates a space for audiences to explore politics and how we want to live together, how we want to be involved in the shaping of our communities and countries, who we want to be led by and why.

It is going to be very exciting to see all of these Dacias; what remains the same no matter who plays and what the differences are.

CM: Just how interactive is it? How does it all work?
TB: Our ambition is for the audience to feel like they have stepped into an alternative world which responds intelligently to their actions. This responsiveness is key, we want audiences to discover that that they have agency to change the world of the show, and, in doing so, decide how the story ends. While it’s important to have a stable structure at the heart of our show, our aim is to never say “no” to suggestions or ideas from our audience – our skill as artists is to try and respond in the moment to whatever emerges from their brains. When we do this well we hope our audience feel empowered by the realisation that they are co-authoring their experience with us. That’s what immersion means to us.

CM: What inspired the show? What gave you the idea of approaching this subject matter this way?
AM: Over the last years there have seen many developments in different political arenas that seem the share a need to reinvestigate the relationship between political systems and the people the people they represent. Some successful, others not so successful. During the development of the show we looked at movements like Podemos, Arab Spring, 15-M Movement, Iceland’s crowd-sourced constitution and Occupy.

CM: How was the piece developed? How do you go about creating a show in which audience participation is key?
TB: With all due respect to our brilliant actors, the audience are essentially our main character. It’s thus impossible to create this show without them being part of that process. This means it’s vital that after an initial period of research and making, we ‘scratch’ very early versions of a show with audiences, trying out mechanics and narrative structures and then listening – hard – to the feedback they give us. After these test shows we then go away and do further research and making before testing again. This iterative process is long (Early Days has been in gestation for 3 years) and can be pricey, but it is the best way we’ve found of building worlds which our playing audience feel an active part of.

CM: How does the interactive element of a show like this alter the traditional roles of writer and director?
AM: Tom and I, with our actors and creative team, make fictional worlds in which the audience can be heroes. This show is made to be recreated differently each night. That means that the audience in many ways are our co-authors. It’s incredibly exciting to make a show like this as the outcomes surprise us often, audiences are so inventive and creative in their responses.

Our creation process therefore has to be different from ‘traditional theatre’. We combine processes and ideas that come out of theatre but also from gaming, improvisational jazz and many more art forms to make our work.

CM: Do you think it’s possible to change attitudes or affect people’s political beliefs with a show like this?
TB writes: one of my mantras is that we use fictional worlds to make changes in the real one. ‘Early Days’ doesn’t have a political agenda, there’s no right answer to the show, and there is no party political viewpoint we want our audience to adopt. Instead, the change we want to make is more personal: by inviting them into a fictional world which is real enough to be relevant, we offer audiences a chance to take a holiday from their actual beliefs and try others on for size. We invite them to play at being someone slightly different. We believe (and there are some good studies backing this up) that the very act of arguing for a point of view makes one more sympathetic to those who actually hold it.

We have audience members in Early Days who are raging communists in real life but choose to fiercely argue for right wing policies in the show. By the end, they’re still communists, but they have told us that they understand a little better why someone might think otherwise. One change we actively want to make with Early Days is to rescue the political figure from the scrapheap of cynicism. We’ve courted young first time voter audiences for the show and hope that by asking them to become the Government of a shattered nation, they get direct insight into the impossible challenges facing politicians. The show doesn’t tell people to vote, but we hope it will allow audiences to discover why it’s important to do so.

CM: If you could start a nation from scratch, what would you hope to achieve?
AM: I would like politics to have an ongoing conversation with the nation. In these election times you see a real spike in interest both from politicians in their constituents and from voters in politics. In our country voting is just the beginning – we would like to see everyone a lot more involved in how the country is run.

CM: What’s next for ‘Early Days’?
TB: We’re excited to be touring Early Days around the UK around the election. The show isn’t hard science, but we will do analysis of the different choices different audiences make in different parts of the country and see how that compares to real-world election results. Our hope is to continue to tour the show to diverse communities, and we have a plan to take it to other countries in the run up to their own General elections. We’re already talking to partners in Greece and Iceland (both countries with fascinating recent political pasts) and would love to see how the piece will play in the US in the run up to the 2016 election there.

‘Early Days (Of A Better Nation)’ is on at The Four Thieves, near Battersea Arts Centre, until 25 Apr, and then heads out on tour. For more information, see the BAC website here, and find out about the tour dates on the company website here.

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