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CONEY ON THE AUDIENCE AND PLAY

Tassos Stevens, Director of Coney

Tassos Stevens, Director of Coney

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.

CHRISTINE JONES ON THE GIFT AND RECIPROCITY

Christine Jones.

Christine Jones.

CHRISTINE JONES is a Tony-winning set designer and the artistic director of the critically acclaimed Theatre for One, a portable private performing arts space for one performer and one audience member. Most recently, she directed the sensational immersive nightclub dining experience Queen of the Night, which New York Magazine has called the “hottest nightlife experience in town”.

Odyssey Works: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How do they work and what is the point?

Christine Jones: I guess the most straightforward response is to say that immersive experiences operate with no fourth wall, and sometimes no walls at all. There are many degrees of interactivity, but at the core, interactive work doesn't pretend that no one is watching. The watcher and the watched are aware of and responsive to each other. There is an acute awareness of their dependence on each other. If there is no audience, there is no performer, and vice versa. I find that when this interdependence is made a primary part of the experience there is an added depth. I believe this is true of non-theatrical experiences as well, in which there is a giver and a receiver but no performance. When people interact in ways that are fully present in the moment, be it theatrical or magical, their experience can become more transcendent.

 

OW: Why create experiences? 

CJ: As a parent, I am aware of creating a world where Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy exist for my kids. When they die, it's our job to make other kinds of magic. I love what Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere said. He said he wanted to live in a world where anything can happen at any moment. His work makes our world just such a world...I think everyone has a desire to be surprised, delighted, moved, and transported. If we don't do this for each other, no one else will. Our parents will make magic for us when we are young; when we are older, we have to make it for ourselves and each other.

Theatre for One in Times Square.

Theatre for One in Times Square.

OW: What are you trying to do with your work? 

CJ: This probably sounds horribly pretentious, but lately I have been thinking of myself as an artist who uses intimacy the way a painter uses paint. My intention with all of my work is to enhance a feeling of connection and presence that makes people feel seen, and sometimes, especially with Theatre for One, loved. It is always amazing to me how simple acts of kindness and generosity are so deeply appreciated. We very rarely slow down enough to feel truly with other people. I am trying to create fruitful circumstances for a gift exchange between audience and performer. Whether it be a big Broadway show, or an immersive dinner theatre experience, or Theatre for One, I am hoping to create a space and relationships within the space that allow the audience to feel that they are receiving a beautiful experience, and in return they are giving the performers or creators the gift of their full presence and attention.

 

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located? 

CJ: When we worked on Queen of the Night, we did a workshop for the actors with a dominatrix. She described creating a reciprocal energy loop between herself and her clients. I think this is where the artwork is located, if you can create that loop. In the best circumstances the collaboration happens in the contract the artist and the audience make to engage in these roles. "I will perform," "I will watch," or "I will create," "I will receive." Sometimes this is unwritten and happens spur of the moment in a pop-up performance, sometimes it happens with a ticket purchase, or an application process as with Odyssey Works, but there is a moment where artist and audience commit to a relationship, and from there the artwork flows in the energies they exchange and how they are exchanged. Is it an energy loop, or a game of tennis, or two groups on either side of an invisible wall. I love how immersive and interactive work makes us much more aware of our roles as participants.

Queen of the Night .

Queen of the Night.

 

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in your work?

CJ: I once heard someone describe themselves as a serial epiphanist. I think it is a great way to express the desire to be filled with wonder that I think we all have. I visited an installation called The Infinity Room by David Wheeler at a gallery in Chelsea a few years ago. I was struck by how being inside a space that truly did feel infinite felt like what I imagined death might feel like, and I was also struck by how much it felt like being engulfed by love. When we never stop feeling wonder and never stop making discoveries, then it means we live in an infinite world with no end of imagination and generosity. It means that at least while we live, anything is possible and at any moment something you never imagined was possible might happen to you. And how much more beautiful life is when we as mortals and fellow travelers make these experiences come alive for each other.

 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

CJ: I remember the first experience that blew my mind was seeing Fuerza Bruta in Montreal at an International Theatre Festival when I was maybe twenty and just finishing school studying theatre design. The electricity that coursed through my veins to have performers running past me and an apocalyptic universe coming to life all around the space was an eye-opener as to what an event could look and feel like. Later on, having a magician perform a magic trick for me and me alone at a wedding made magic feel like the most beautiful intimate gift one could receive. It was an intoxicating feeling that made me hungry to experience other work in private settings. Lewis Hyde's book The Gift helped me understand what I was trying to do in creating an artistic process of gift exchange. Improv Everywhere, Odyssey Works, Wanderlust (now Sextantworks), have all been extremely influential and inspiring. I feel fortunate to be engaged in so many different but related forms of theatre and experiential work that is both personal and commercial and sometimes even illegal, but all in service of reminding us that the barriers we experience in space and in our relationships can be dissolved.