Loveliness, Curiosity, Adventure: Coney’s Interactive Theatre

| Maria Passingham

“Call this number after 5pm”. “Ask the second-hand book merchant to look at this particular page”. “Slip a kind note into a stranger’s pocket”. These are the instructions that I followed across one weekend in 2011, when I unwittingly stepped into a festival-wide game orchestrated by interactive theatre makers Coney

I remember clicking on an animated rabbit on the Latitude website. I remember listening to a recorded message down the phone, moments after we finished putting up the tent and cracked open the first beer. I remember looking out for a person dressed as a rabbit who was doling out coded clues. I remember the sudden fear of getting it wrong when the bookseller’s face looked blankly back at me; the relief when another woman returned the pages I was after.

I remember the thrill tight in my stomach when I leaned a little too close to a man perusing vintage shirts and gently dropped a piece of paper into his hood. I don’t remember the message I wrote. 

Coney says “the experience starts when you first hear about it, and only ends when you stop thinking and talking about it”. Clearly, I’m still thinking about it.

Turns out this game was The Loveliness Principle, and loveliness is itself one of the organisation’s key three principles, alongside curiosity and adventure. Becki Haines (one of Coney’s Joint CEOs & Executive Producer), told me recently that my introduction to Coney was a solid representation of their work, where a minimum of two, but usually all three principles are involved in any Coney project. Each piece of theatre or game aims to bring people together, and encourages interactivity and gift-giving – even if that gift is just conversation or an exchange of knowledge. 

Knowledge and learning are central to Coney’s work, but are always paired with play, bringing theatre and adventure to unexpected places. Collaborating with the likes of The Wellcome Trust, The Financial Times, the Natural History Museum, and Greenpeace, Coney is able to bring their approach to these less conventional spaces.

Coney Perfomers at the Natural History Museum

Haines says often her favourite projects are those co-produced in other sectors, where the arts can transform understanding of a field, and “progress is achieved through fun”. She quotes Plato (who may or may not be responsible) “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation”, and says that the inherent interactivity of Coney’s games encourages individuals and communities to engage with and learn about each other, as a consequence of playing together. 

Working with local people, Coney’s projects are firmly rooted in their locations, and bring together those who have lived there for generations with tourists and passers-by. We Are Shadows: Brick Lane is an immersive smartphone adventure taking place later this month, and has been developed in collaboration with local Bengali women and students from Mulberry Schools Trust: in short, some of those that know the area best. The ‘audience’ or players, will be connected to both Brick Lane’s history and legacy as well as each other within the physical space.

We Are Shadows: Brick Lane

While I spend as much time on my phone as the next millennial, the idea of using tech so heavily in some of these projects seems odd to me. As an outsider, the charm of the Coney pieces is in their organic and analogue nature, the bringing together of people face to face, rather than screen to screen. Haines explains to me that they primarily use tech to reach people that otherwise wouldn’t know about, or take part in the events. Only “pervasive tech” is used, such as social media, texts, and calls rather than complicated apps or entirely new pieces of kit – to make it as easy as possible for everyone to engage. 

She agrees with me though that in order for their work to be as interactive as it is, a certain level of organic flexibility is required, and actually often the responsive work – where the players define the experience – is the most sought after by partnering organisations. Of course, this flexibility requires a lot of background work – where Coney’s team of makers and their collaborators anticipate how players may push the boundaries of the game, and how they can prepare for that. This includes play-testing each game or adventure before the public engage with it. 

Last year Coney worked across 10 sectors, reaching 4,387 people, 37% of which were children and young people. 80% of the projects were accessed for free, and all had social values at their core, something that Haines says is both considered and embedded in their work. “Social responsibility is tied up naturally in what we do, because it’s on every one of our minds”, so of course the individuals effect the organisation. On a more formal level, Coney researches how social impact actually happens in the world, and how play can “spark and sustain” the process. 

In a nutshell, the process starts with an invitation to map your own material for change, then playing games and stories designed to resonate with that material, then reflecting on moments of play with insight for you to make change: aiming to enable your own agency and tools in the process of change.

Coney Annual Review, 2018-19.

Sometimes, the change they’re encouraging is more explicit. Last year the Young Coneys (a group of 6-13 year olds) worked with Greenpeace to hold the diesel industry to account, in a non-violent action. They arrived at a motor industry gala in Mayfair with a pop-up operating theatre ready to share their diagnosis of the industry and its impacts on people and planet. When the Young Coneys were first recruited from schools in Tower Hamlets some had never been to the theatre, now they’re devising adventures and developing their creative skills within workshops, road trips, and collaborative projects. 

Young Coney’s ‘Endangered Friends’

Coney explain that their work is “inspired by the belief that the world can be a magical place where ordinary people can do extraordinary things”. I wouldn’t say that my act of giving a stranger a kind, anonymous note was extraordinary, but it definitely made the world feel magical for a weekend. 

To find out how you could attend a Coney ‘playtest’ click here.

Photos by Coney
Cover Photo by Toby Keane


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