TASSOS STEVENS IS THE DIRECTOR OF CONEY (@AGENCYOFCONEY), which weaves together theatre and game design to create dynamic shows and experiences that can take place anywhere that people gather. HE’S CO-MADE WORK FOR CONEY INCLUDING ADVENTURE 1, A SMALL TOWN ANYWHERE,THE LOVELINESS PRINCIPLE, A CAT ESCAPES, AND THE BAFTA-WINNING NIGHTMARE HIGH, WEARING HATS INCLUDING DIRECTOR, WRITER, INTERACTION AND PARTICIPATION DESIGNER. he sometimes makes solo work including Jimmy Stewart and Solo Two.
ODYSSEY WORKS: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How does it work and what is the point?
Tassos Stevens: These are often misunderstood words. Immersive for me simply means that the audience is in the world of the play, somehow. Sometimes the world of the play is also the real world, with a little bit of fiction stitched in, in a piece like Adventure 1. Sometimes it is a world we’ve constructed in a theatre, but still resonant with reality, like A Small Town Anywhere.
I also like to describe the work as being where an audience can take a meaningful part, or play, if they choose. There may be actions that an audience member can take that help them make believe that they are in the world of the play. There may be actions that an audience member can make which have influence on their experience or the outcome of their experience, somehow. They may feel they have agency in this world.
Interaction hangs over all of these actions and agency, it’s less well-defined for me. The model of the work - the structures for immersion, play, action, interaction - this all carries meaning. It’s important to choose the model that resonates best with what the play is about. The point is to make work which has an impact on a playing audience, and which leaves them with a good story to tell.
OW: Why create experiences?
TS: Because it’s an ever-fascinating challenge, and because I am continually surprised and delighted by the beautiful, joyous, lovely things which playing audiences will do in response. Why not?
OW: What are you trying to do with your work?
TS: Make the world a slightly better and lovelier place. Make a space where people can do sometimes extraordinary things. Work out how to keep learning, and how to stay open.
OW: We love that you say "The experience starts when you first hear about it, and only ends when you stop thinking and talking about it." What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?
TS: The artist is like a host to their guests, the audience. The artist builds the space - metaphorically speaking - in which the play will happen. They set as a framework some structures and guidelines for play. They may facilitate a particular culture, an ethos for engagement. They may have something they wish to say that will start a conversation with the audience. They may create a world of the play. And then they welcome the audience in, guide them to get going, and then respond to whatever they choose to do.
I don’t know that I am bothered by where the artwork is located. It’s hard to pin down, it’s everywhere - in the dialogue and play between the audience and the work itself, in the construction of the world and structures of play, in the resonance between the world of the play and the real world, in the impact on the audience immediately and their reflection afterwards, and what remains even years down the line.
The point is to make work which has an impact on a playing audience, and which leaves them with a good story to tell.
W: How does your art practice influence your life?
TS: In ways which are continually surprising and complex. They’re quite intertwined, inevitably. I’m inspired by people and ideas that I meet. I think most potently that I see the world around me and people, strangers especially, in a very different way from before when I got involved in the work around the principle of loveliness. Take the art out of it - which I am quite happy to do - and I find myself with a set of tools for helping design better experiences and potential for participation, and it’s sometimes interesting to apply those. For instance, I found myself frustrated at my own lack of agency in the recent general election in the UK and the mostly shit quality of conversations about politics I was having. So I used #agoodquestion to help facilitate better conversations about politics, and promptly found the quality of my discussions greatly improved.
OW: What led you to your current approach to art-making? (What led you to start breaking traditional molds?)
TS: I did a doctorate in experimental psychology and I think that rubbed off into my practice, making me genuinely an experimentalist: what happens if we do this…? For a while I even called myself a theatre scientist. I was always more interested in other work that was genuinely experimental, hanging out in the scene around places in London like Battersea Arts Centre and the Shunt Vaults. I ran a venue myself for a while supporting a host of experimental artists, and mostly only had time to try out small experiments for my own practice. These endless experiments eventually helped me realize the scope of the form. And then one thing led to another, and eventually I got a phone call from Rabbit.
But then I could tell this story another way, around a lot of experience teaching young people. Or doing all different kinds of research and weird jobs meeting people in different ways. Everything you’ve done leads you to where you are now. Although I only started to be able to draw it together into a story which made sense for me a couple of years ago.