Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A scratch! Coney and documentation as storytelling

A quick introduction: I've been talking to Coney more or less since Dialogue began about "embedded" criticism, documentation of theatre, rethinking criticism - the whole Dialogue manifesto, basically - and last month co-director Annette Mees emailed me with an invitation: would I be interested in documenting in some way their new work, Early Days (of a Better Nation)? The invitation was an open one: come and play. As such, it was irresistible. 

Here's how Coney describe the show on their website: 

The war is over and the nation lies in ruins. You and your fellow survivors must build the beginnings of a new country. What are the rules you’re going to live by? And can you avoid the mistakes of the past?

What interests all of us is how to document the individual experiences of participants in the show - it's interactive - but also how to trace connections and bigger shapes in those responses: what difference age makes, for instance, or voting history. After the first day in the rehearsal room, I started thinking about the Mass Observation Archive, the Appendix to Orwell's 1984, shifts in journalism as a result of social media, and what a collection of personal writings from this fictional but plausible and not-unfamiliar nation in Europe might look like. I'm interested in how the documentation might slip between fact and fiction, in conveying truthfully how individual audience-members have acted within and responded to Early Days, but communicating that through storytelling. In how people who have attended the show might read the documentation differently from those who haven't.

What follows is a very first scratch at how some of these ideas might translate into words. It's based on that first day in the rehearsal room (6 October, 2014), with performers Milton Lopes, Michael Cusick and Angela Clerkin, director Annette Mees and writer Tom Bowtell. They were working on the opening dilemma of the show: whether or not to accept military aid from a UN-like organisation called the World Council for their ravaged country, Dacia. Anything in quotation marks (apart from the very last bit) is quoted verbatim from something spoken by the actors during an improvised debate driven by the key question: “Freedom vs Safety?” All character names use letters scrambled from my own. I have no idea if this works, if it gives away too much about the show, if it encourages audience-members to take sides before they've even walked into the performance space. Basically, it could all be a failure. But I've really enjoyed writing it, and that at least is something. 

In the spirit of scratch, all feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Collected within the Mass Observation Archive
Held in the Central Library of Dacia, The City
Date: 6 October, 2044

Nella Coats, shop-owner, The Islands
I'M SO ANGRY I CAN BARELY WRITE. The meeting happened today – the organisers managed to find a room in the old Town Hall, sparse and barely furnished but with four walls at least, the city is in ruins, I was horrified to see it – we crammed in, people from across the entire country, and I thought: now, at last, a chance for us to talk together, to remember who we are, the bonds of nationality and history that bind us. I really believe in this, I really believe in Angela when she says that we need to abandon the old ideas of “leaders” - so patrician – and create a new society, rooted in … I don't know: people. Each other! Sharing, looking out for each other. And I understand the city is broken and there are riots but there has always been a strain of selfishness there, of competition, that has made me glad to live elsewhere. And today that selfishness just took control of everything - Milton, the man who has returned to his homeland, war-wounded and attracting sympathy wherever he goes, he demanded that we accept the World Council's offer of military aid and WE SAID YES! We, we – not me, I didn't vote for this, I couldn't vote for soldiers on our streets, pointing guns in our faces. The short-sightedness is unbearable, it's infuriating! Can't they see that “military aid” becomes oppression, dictatorship, we will lose all our autonomy – and it doesn't stop the fighting, it doesn't stop people feeling frustrated at the lack of control over their own lives, it exacerbates that. I had to write this down – I'm in a makeshift bus, there are 20 of us crammed in here, travelling back to the Islands, and no one can talk to each other, everyone is too depressed, surely the wrong decision has been made. They'll see.

Len Stac, Mine-Owner, the Plains
A difficult but satisfying day. Pleased by the turn-out: representatives from the City, the Plains and the Islands, men and women, a mixed group, all clearly passionate about where the country was going. I thought Michael did well facilitating the debate – ultimately I'm glad he was chosen for the job and not me, I have too many interests of my own to consider. And yet, I was surprised by my own responses to the debate. I found Milton, the City representative, and Angela, whom I had encountered before through her writing about the Islands, equally persuasive, although arguing from opposite sides.

For Angela, to bring in the World Council's troops is to perpetuate the cycle of violence. She repeatedly said things like, “If I don't feel free, I don't feel safe”, and “You can't talk to someone who's pointing a gun at you”, and “I feel safer and freer when there's not a gun pointing at me”: all strong arguments against filling the streets with soldiers. But I sympathise with Milton when he says: “We need to have stability before we can be free.” Or: “People are getting killed and there's no one to protect them.” The City is in an appalling state: I felt intimidated just driving to the meeting. There was an extraordinary moment when Milton sat clicking his fingers, the sound was like the ricochet of gunshot, and sure enough, each click, he said, represented someone who had died while Angela was talking. I don't think we can argue with that.

I suppose what Angela never made clear is the lesson of history: the arrival of foreign troops in an unstable country generally causes a rise in instability and insurgency, not less. And while I agree with her that, as a country and a people, we need to take responsibility for our own behaviours and political relationships if we want to prevent another outbreak of war, I also believe Milton when he says that people in the city are starving and can't engage in rational conversation when they are struggling to survive. I'm glad Michael voted with Milton to accept the offer of aid and military support from the World Council. The next step is to create a strong democratic government to ensure that the return from occupation to independence happens smoothly.

Dan Mede, student, The City
Fuck fuck fuck: it's happened, they're bringing in the WC. I couldn't get into the meeting – the doors were barricaded – that says everything, right? I don't know what this means for us – OK it's been hard to get food but we've been living, WE'VE BEEN ALIVE – this stupid fucking country and its conservatism, that guy Milton getting the sympathy vote with his war wounds, I DON'T WANT TO LIVE IN A COUNTRY THAT BELIEVES IN MILITARY RULE we were fighting to change things to make the fighting for a future that's FAIR WHAT IS WRONG WITH THAT???

Mass Observation Record
Writer: Maddy Costa
Observer Number: 114
Date: 6 October, 2044
Place: The City, Dacia

I came here from the Plains by bus: a difficult but not unpleasant journey. The closer we came to the city, the more evident the signs of war. The Plains haven't been free of problems – the influx of refugees has put an appalling strain on our resources, and although we have space, it isn't infinite: shanty towns are growing up on the edges of villages, an uncomfortable situation for everyone – but the horrors of the city are of a different order entirely. Bricks and broken glass line every pavement, one city-dweller I spoke to told me that the streets are swept each morning to clear a path for pedestrians, but by night are filled with rampaging youths (her description) intent on destruction. The graffiti is lurid in colour and violent in expression: it's clear that people here have lost all sense of what they are fighting for. They are simply consumed by aggression.

At 2pm the meeting to discuss the offer from the World Council opened in a small side room in the former Town Hall. Armed guards stood at the door: a reflection of what might be to come, reassuring for many I'm sure. The meeting was ably facilitated by Michael, a journalist from the Plains: as the person (and the area) with the least extreme of viewpoints, it seems right that he should have held that central position. To his left stood Angela, a writer from the Islands; to his right, Milton, a former teacher turned revolution leader, who some say is responsible for the collapse of leadership after not stepping up to the task. Key arguments can be summarised as follows:

-         The violence needs to end, for the safety and security of the people – not just in the City, but across the Plains, too.
-         This is only possible if Dacia accepts the invitation from the World Council of military aid.
-         He understands the need for rational debate about the future direction of the country and its politics, but argues: “How can you talk if there's no one to protect your point of view.”
-         He is ready to listen to arguments for a new organisation of society and government when, and only when, “the problem is solved”: that is, the problem of violence on the City streets.

-         “Freedom or safety” isn't a choice for Angela: they are not mutually exclusive. Her sense of safety is contingent on her sense of freedom.
-         It is impossible to feel free with military troops patrolling the streets.
-         “By sharing resources, we could pacify the threat”, ie of violence. This way, foreign aid would not be required. She refers here to the wealth of resources in the Plains: I'm not sure how aware she is of the refugee problem there.
-         “The way forward is that we all talk.”

Given the polarised nature of the debate, Michael's vote became key: he occupies the middle ground. I believe he gave each argument due consideration before voting in favour of accepting aid from the World Council. Relief was palpable among the older generations of city-dwellers; among its youth, I feel less certain. Islanders by and large seemed unreconciled to the decision: their sense of autonomy is strong. The meeting disbanded with the sounds of relief and resentment in the air. I travelled back to the Plains clear on only one thing: the need to talk to every farmer, every miner, every refugee, even every child in my region, and encourage them to take part in the vital debate over the future of our country.

Before I left, I spoke to Nadia Otas, a City woman, who used to run a shop before the looting and violence made it impossible. Her response to the debate was highly emotional. I have attempted to record her words as accurately as possible.

"At last, at last: someone has listened. We need the World Council here, we need help. I feel so lucky to have been present at this meeting, Milton is such an inspiring speaker, he showed up the Islanders' idealism for what it is. Hollow promises! They have no solutions to the real concrete problems we're facing here. I don't feel frightened any more. I'll be able to find food for my children! We'll be a stable, normal country again. I'm so grateful."