Parallel Interview with Jonathan Petherbridge from London Bubble and Tom Bowtell from Coney

Ahead of the General Election in the United Kingdom in May 2015, I asked Jonathan Petherbridge from London Bubble and Tom Bowtell from Coney to participate in a ‘parallel interview’, each responding to the same set of questions. Both London Bubble and Coney have recently foregrounded acts of voting and electoral democracy as themes in their work. Accordingly, each question invites a response to these themes, offering readers an insight into two recent performances that respond to the participation of voters in the election of a new government.

Hopelessly De-Voted (2014-15) is an intergenerational project by London Bubble that explores political disenchantment. The project questions what might make an electorate apathetic about politics in the UK, or that might drive voters to spoil their ballots; it invites newly enfranchised voters to interview MPs, as well as others who are directly invested in party politics; and it does this through a ‘five-stage methodology’, as Petherbridge outlines, culminating in a performance devised after a lengthy phase of research and development.

Coney’s Early Days (of a better nation) premiered in November 2014 at the Ovalhouse in South London as a part of UK Parliament Week, after a preview at King’s College London’s Arts & Humanities Festival 2014, and is touring the UK in April and May 2015 around the General Election. Early Days (of a better nation) invites a playing audience, divided into three groups, to imagine themselves as citizens of a desolated nation who have the chance to build a political system from scratch. Each of the three groups is asked to participate in the work by voting on a range of provocations, including the use of funds to finance particular resources, such as power, medicine and food supply; proposing and contesting each other’s ideas for the political road ahead; and by exploring the best means of facilitating the political process. The result is debate among those who feel motivated enough to raise their voice and take part.

Both of these performances engage with acts of voting, government and enfranchisement. They encourage participants – either as participants in the devising process, or as audience participants – to reflect on their own political values and where these values fit, or fail to fit, within a real or an imagined political system. They highlight the role that theatre can play not only in raising awareness of voting and democracy as issues, but in encouraging people with varying degrees of involvement in politics and in theatre to reflect on what it means to vote and to be a voter. For London Bubble, this means enquiring into and reflecting on voting in an electoral democracy; for Coney, this is to encourage experimentation with and exploration of alternatives to electoral democracies.

In this parallel interview, Petherbridge and Bowtell comment on the motivations and agendas that lie behind and inform Hopelessly De-Voted and Early Days (of a better nation). They pick up on how political parties, candidates, agendas and issues are made to appear to voters and how modes of political appearance affect decisions to participate as a voter. What emerges, contrastingly, are perspectives on the politics of party-political aesthetics and alternatives to a political system that risks jading a public that politics seeks to serve.

– Adam Alston

Adam Alston: Could you begin by telling us how you are currently approaching ‘electoral democracy’ as a theme in your work?

Jonathan Petherbridge: At the time of writing we are just over half way through a nine-month project entitled Hopelessly De-Voted, which involves volunteer participants and artist-facilitators working together on research, creative exploration and performance. Broadly, we want to take a snapshot of the current state of play, and turn the findings into a piece of theatre. We deploy a five-stage methodology which we’ve developed on previous projects and nick-named the Foraging Process. Stage One sees volunteers of all ages foraging for material – conducting interviews, researching statistics, sourcing images, inviting people to contribute memories (including muscle memories) ephemera – all sorts. In Stage Two, this material is then ‘Prepped’ (I’m afraid this is going to be an extended metaphor based on cooking). Prepping involves sorting through the material, trying things out in workshops, experimenting. This is led by an artist-facilitator (me in this case) working with about 30 participants. In the later stages we are joined by a writer and designer who look at how the foraged ingredients have been prepped – and discuss the findings with participants. Stage Three sees the writer and designer taking all the prepped material and writing a recipe – i.e. script and design or scenography. This is read by the group and discussed before another draft is prepared. Eventually when the recipe is agreed, we start Stage Four – cooking (or rehearsing) – which is where we are now. In April we will serve it up – inviting those who gave material at the beginning or helped forage, to The Feast, otherwise known as Stage Five.

So in Stage One, we’ve conducted just under thirty interviews – with a range of people who have opinions on, or use, electoral democracy. These include elected politicians – local councillors, London Assembly members and MPs, politicians who have lost elections, activists, voters, non-voters, ballot spoilers and returning officers. We’ve gathered a further 110 street interviews and also talked to the producer of Question Time, head of Isos MORI (a market research organisation based in the UK) and Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (who used to be an advisor to the Blair Government). Stage Two saw all the material played with and developed in workshops. We’ve looked at statistics, voting methods in other countries and the impact of YouTube Vloggers on the next election. We’ve run specialist workshops on how we might use accessible technology to disrupt the piece, and how rough and instant puppetry might be an appropriate medium to use. There is now a first draft of the script and we will perform the resulting piece in April.

Tom Bowtell: Early Days (of a better nation) casts its audience as survivors of a vicious civil war in a fictional European nation called Dacia. They’re invited by the World Council (a fictionalised UN) to decide how they wish to run their emergency parliament. It’s up to the audience to decide whether to select a parliamentary system based on electoral democracy, or to embrace a radical alternative. Several audiences have plumped for a leaderless collective using consensus-based decision-making, while occasional audiences have adopted direct action, selecting a single leader to guide the nation through the crisis. It has always been important to Annette Mees (the show’s co-creator) and I that the show doesn’t promote any single political system as being better than another; the audience must be free to choose and build the system they think will work best.

The core drama of the show is generated from how the political system adopted (or invented) by the audience responds to the avalanche of challenges the narrative-based set pieces of the show hurl at them. Examples of these include the opening World Council invitation, which forces the audience to choose between freedom and safety, and the second half of the show where the nation of Dacia is crumbling, and the audience need to decide which problems to leave unsolved and which desperate Dacians to abandon. Some of the most exciting (and uproarious) shows have seen anarchist collectives descend into chaos until a single, unelected voice emerges to impose order and essentially become a dictator.

Coney's Early Days (of a better nation) (2014). Image by Ryoko Uyama.

Coney’s Early Days (of a better nation) (2014). Image by Ryoko Uyama.

AA: In October 2013, the comedian Russell Brand was invited to guest edit for The New Statesman. He sparked a controversy in the process after his impassioned defence of the refusal to vote because, as he put it, ‘there is nothing to vote for’. For Brand, ‘it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm’ of electoral democracy in the UK ‘than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box’.1 What do you make of Brand’s view? Has this kind of attitude affected the work that you produce, as a performance maker?

JP: One thing that has surprised me is that Hopelessly De-Voted seems to be a popular topic. People may say they are bored and disillusioned by politics but they are not bored of talking about how we might improve politics. One instance of this was our launch event, where we brought together young people, who can vote for the first time in May, Politicians, and Bite The Ballot, who work to widen voter registration. We were pleasantly surprised when the evening sold out and most people asked afterwards to be kept informed of progress.

In the interviews that our researchers have conducted there is constant reference to Brand’s view. A councillor and an MP both sympathised with his frustration, but went on to explain that the vast majority of elected representatives are good people who strive to maintain a constant dialogue with their constituencies. And the stories we have gathered testify to the effort that is put in from local Councillors and MPs, both during elections and beyond. But we have learned this not through the media but through our enquiry, talking to lots of people and gaining some respect for their work.

Russell Brand also came up when we interviewed the director of Question Time (QT) and got a sense of how the machinery of the BBC confines the agenda to the extent that QT audiences are asked to write down their proposed questions before the programme, in a room that simultaneously has three screens showing that day’s news bulletins. The questions, which as a result reflect the current news agenda, are then grouped into topics and the topics with the greatest numbers of questions are chosen: essentially a closed circle of reference, leading to a self-perpetuating debate, filmed by a production team who are of course looking for sparks, drama and ratings.

Russell Brand is an experienced television performer, who is brilliantly using the medium of TV to criticise the current state of our political system (and sell books). But I wonder if he should be slightly more critical of the part that the media itself is playing – placing distance between candidates and voters, and reducing complex debates to sound bites. The question is: is Russell Brand so willing to bite the hand that feeds him?

TB: Both Annette and I have (the same) personal opinions about Russell Brand’s anti-voting policy (we disagree with it), but it’s important to stress that Early Days is not a vehicle for our own opinions. Our ambition for Early Days is to create a fictional world in which an audience has agency to build and test new political systems and we’ve never directly encouraged people to vote, or supported the current political system. As mentioned above, many audiences have chosen to eschew democracy and voting in favour of consensus-based decision-making.

However, through observing the different ways our show plays out each night, we’ve become aware that participating in Early Days can have a clear impact on our audience’s opinion of politics and politicians. One pattern we’ve noted is that having spent 2 hours being politicians, and facing classic political dilemmas – such as those just noted – our audiences leave with a greater empathy for politicians. As the nation collapses around them, the audience need to make hard decisions, and their limited resources (Dacia’s Treasury is pretty much empty) mean that worthy causes are left unattended. In our post-show discussions, we’ve heard from young people, who admitted to being very much of the Brandian school of thought in advance of the show, having more sympathy for the challenges that politicians face. (But things are never black and white… One of my favourite post-show discussions went something like this: Young Person A: ‘If Politicians have to face situations like that then I understand why they closed my school – maybe the money needed to go to something like hospitals’. Young Person B: ‘Or maybe it was spent on rich people’s bonuses’).

Early Days will tour the UK during the run-up to the general election and we’re running workshops with first-time voters around the shows. We’re interested in Early Days as a tool to fuel debate and allow audiences to experiment with their own political ideas. We don’t begin workshops attempting to persuade people not intending to vote to change their mind, but it is also true that, following our opening series of Workshops at Oval House theatre, 75% of not-intending-to-vote participants changed their mind after playing the workshop version of Early Days.

The most valuable thing that Russell Brand has done is trigger a debate and we would genuinely love him to come to a showing of Early Days and try out some of the intriguing systems he outlines in his book.

AA: As we approach the UK general election in May 2015, the ‘big three’ political parties – the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats – are needing to address a rising tide of interest in the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which brings with it the prospect of a significant shift rightwards on the political spectrum. UKIP came first in the European elections in May 2014 and gained a seat in the House of Commons in October 2014 following the reassignment of Douglas Carswell as MP for Clacton, who forced a by-election after defecting from the Conservatives. What’s the significance of this political context to your recent explorations of ‘nation’ and ‘democracy’ in performance?

JP: Across Europe there currently seems to be a movement of support away from the old centre parties. The parties of both right and left are gaining members, most notably in Greece and Spain (but also in Germany and France), at the expense of the old order. Obviously this is partly a reaction to ‘austerity’ budgeting, but I also suspect it is a reaction to the corporate approach to politics that the old centrist parties have recently adopted. The interview material that our cast and artists have most commented on, has come from the more individual voices: people attached to smaller parties or those who belong to the larger parties but who work very locally and are willing to talk personally and to criticise their own parties. And it seems this local approach is the way to get people engaged in politics. But London is different to Thanet – a different population and economy. We work in Bermondsey, an area which used to be renowned as an active national front/British National Party breeding ground – with regular marches along the main road. Back in the 90s we were approached by a group of local primary schools who asked us to create a project to counter the effect of the extreme right in what were highly multi-ethnic school populations. For several years we ran a project using drama in schools to build cohesion and respect. Some of those primary school children joined our participatory groups and have performed in our subsequent intergenerational or vernacular pieces. So to answer your question, the context informed by UKIP may be reflected on television and in the press, but at a grassroots level, in London, it feels like an old and tired position. While some may blame immigration, many more attach blame to a phenomenon we seemed to have named as ‘the bankers’, apparently connoting the super-rich, the housing market, the basic system of capitalism, hedge fund managers and many other reflections of an economic situation within which people feel powerless. It is this powerlessness that has motivated people to seek out political candidates who speak their language.

TB: Early Days is set in 2034 and imagines a Europe where increasingly nationalistic right-wing parties gradually gained power from 2015 onwards in many European nations. This imagined future, taking current trends to an (almost certainly) exaggerated extreme, offers us a rich narrative world while allowing our audiences freedom to think and act in a fictional space distanced from reality. Two aspects of the current political climate have permeated Early Days: firstly, the show exists as an acknowledgement of growing public cynicism about mainstream politics and as an invitation to audiences to use our model to try out their own solutions; secondly, the issue of nationalism and humanity’s instinctive tribalism is woven throughout the show. We deliberately create situations where historic tribal rivalries are drawn up between different audience groups and they are encouraged to compete with each other for resources. Some shows see these tribal differences becoming entrenched and our nation fracturing into sub-states, while others see the regional and tribal boundaries being dissolved and a new united nation emerging.

Coney's Early Days (of a better nation) (2014). Image by Ryoko Uyama.

Coney’s Early Days (of a better nation) (2014). Image by Ryoko Uyama.

AA: The artist Thomas Hirschhorn says that he does not make political art, but makes art politically. For Hirschhorn, ‘To make art politically means to choose materials that do not intimidate, a format that doesn’t dominate, a device that does not seduce’.2 This ultimately boils down to a distinction between political content and political form in art. How might the distinction Hirschhorn makes between political art and making art politically apply to your performance work? Do you find it a useful distinction?

JP: I call the aesthetic of our intergenerational foraged theatre pieces ‘Vernacular’. Like Vernacular Architecture, it’s something made from local material, by local people, often without a prior design. You could say this is a political decision related to the Transition movement, very much about local community and do-it-yourself. Or you could say it’s in response to the economic circumstances (bear in mind we lost our Arts Council funding in 2008 and were to an extent forced to do things differently).

One of the reference points for Vernacular Theatre is the North American tradition of Barn Raising. When a barn needs to be built, people come together to help. Children are involved, there’s food, and the work is shared. The action is purposeful and social. I think art is increasingly having a social aspect, and of all the arts the theatre is the one that relies above all else on the presence of people. For me, the content is important, but it is secondary to a process of social co-creation.

I am starting to see more and more instances of art which brings people together: art involving people assembling, such as fine art projects involving various levels of participation (some very passive, but some, such as Tino Sehgal’s These Associations,3 highly active). Singing and dancing of course – and sometimes theatre. There seems to be a call for it. I call it Flocking. I’m wondering if this is a new job description that art has been given (possibly without noticing). Perhaps it’s in reaction to the disconnection we feel when using digital devices that apparently connect us, but don’t; perhaps it’s economic; perhaps it’s a vacuum left by the increasing absence of places of public assembly (pubs, churches).

London Bubble's Hopelessly De-voted (2015). Image by Jonathon Vines.

London Bubble’s Hopelessly De-voted (2015). Image by Jonathon Vines.

TB: I think Hirschhorn is pretty spot on. At the risk of repeating myself, in making Early Days we’ve never been interested in the show being a vehicle for our own opinions (although we have many). Instead, we’ve worked to build a show structure which allows an audience to explore their political beliefs. As responsive agents in the space we might use various gambits to invite audiences to question the beliefs they walked in with (while also giving them space to ‘play’ at holding different beliefs), but what we never do is decide what beliefs they should assume instead. If we were to get really semantic about things, I might even suggest that we are creating a third category to add to Hirschhorn’s two – we are making art which lets politics happen.

Zooming out from the content of the show itself, there is undoubtedly something political about the relationship between us as theatre makers and our audience as the ‘stars’ of our immersive show. We have devised a structure which offers the audience agency and responds to their actions, but there are inevitably rules. In order to allow drama to build, and stop things becoming boring, we need to impose time limits, and we sometimes have to make a judgement call when the audience has failed to (or decided not to) come to a definitive decision. These rules, however subtly they are used, are inherently provocative and political and on several occasions audiences have rebelled against us, taking direct action which makes it hard for the show to continue as planned. During one Research & Development performance, the audience staged a mass sit-in, meaning that it became impossible for our ‘walk-in’ voting booths to be used, and bringing the show to a juddering halt. More recently, during the recent ‘finished’ run of the show, our audience re-invented the Occupy movement, invading the gantry where the show’s News Reporter filed his reports from. The News Reporter, dubbed ‘The Media’ in the parlance of the show, is a performer who serves several roles. This kind of media presence provides structure, ensuring that the audience knows what is happening, and also reflection – reframing action which has just happened and reflecting it back to the audience in reports to an imagined TV audience watching at home. Under guidance from Annette and I, the actor pleaded with the audience to step down before asking them (unbidden by us) if he should just leave. The audience decided that he should, and he walked off, leaving the last hour of the show to run without the presence of The Media. While there is always the risk that these instances of audiences breaking the show might mean that their ultimate enjoyment is damaged, they are also the moments when the piece becomes most real and alive, when our audience aren’t playing at politics, but are actually doing it.

AA: What kind of responses do you want from your audience when making performances that engage with themes and/or acts of voting? What’s your agenda?

JP: As you may have gathered, in this sort of project the process is as important as the outcome, so either I have to re-define what you mean by ‘audience’ – and suggest it includes all those who have contributed to the gathering, exploring and presenting of material – or I have to say that getting a positive response from the people who sit and watch the final project is not the be all and end all.

If I have an agenda it is to get people to participate both in making theatre and in politics. I would like audiences to come along to one of the discussions we’ll be hosting and to consider joining the Bubble to help us make our next piece of Vernacular Theatre. That’s not just to recruit more members, but is said with a belief that theatre making can encourage people to get involved elsewhere. Theatre-making involves people making art collaboratively; it requires our presence and opinions. At Bubble, we work from what is offered to us – the stories and words of participants and the wider community and we aim to make work that is performed in found and/or public spaces, partly as an act of occupation. As anyone who has made theatre knows, it increases your feeling of agency and engenders a sense of connection. It’s powerful stuff that can prepare people to speak out in other situations – doing politics with a small ‘p’. And as someone said in one of our interviews – ‘if you don’t do politics, politics will do you’.

London Bubble's Hopelessly De-voted (2015). Image by Jonathon Vines.

London Bubble’s Hopelessly De-voted (2015). Image by Jonathon Vines.

TB: Our agenda is to build and design a show structure which allows an audience to explore new or refined political systems and safely play at holding beliefs which they might not hold in real life. We believe that this ‘trying on’ of new beliefs has genuine transformative potential for our audiences; I read a fascinating (and now lost!) article in the New Scientist which outlined how the very act of arguing for a belief one doesn’t hold builds neural pathways which increase your empathy and understanding of people who do hold that belief. Again, Early Days doesn’t aim to change the political beliefs of audience members, but creating this empathy between people who hold different views is one of our ambitions for the piece. It’s true that we are pleased when people previously disengaged with politics leave our shows frantically emailing their MPs from their smartphones, but that is not our ambition. We wish to use theatre, storytelling and game mechanics to create a world which allows political discourse to evolve, and allows audiences to make up their own mind.

Another ambition for the piece is to explore the degree to which it is possible to simulate for our audience the experience of being part of Government, while also maintaining dramatic tension. A huge challenge in making the show is finding ways to raise the stakes for our audiences: nobody is in any doubt about the fiction of events, and yet for the show to have the impact we want, people need to feel that their decisions are meaningful.

AA: I think the motivation to inspire understanding and a commitment to voting and the motivation to explore and subvert voting stem from contrasting political outlooks. Do you agree? Through your performance work, is it more important to inspire a will to vote and to enhance understanding of how electoral democracies work, or to explore alternatives to electoral democracies, or alternative forms of electoral democracies?

JP: Within our performance is a ritual entitled ‘we need a representative’. It’s a short recurring moment showing a small group, or tribe, considering who is going to be chosen to represent them. After asking about representation, the group think and then simultaneously vote by pointing at the person they wish to choose. The person who is chosen is immediately changed from being one of the tribe, to being the elected representative. Before we ask if we need that process I would ask if we understand that process. There is a huge difference between us wanting to find someone to represent our interests, and the situation we seem to find ourselves in now, which is people asking for our vote.

We certainly aren’t setting out to persuade non-voters to vote. Many of the abstainers, and ballot paper spoilers we have interviewed have given the most interesting and thoughtful arguments for their stance. However, we are timing our performance to allow those who choose to register to vote, to do so (it takes 12 days).

Right at the beginning, at the launch event, Mike from Bite the Ballot pointed out that at the last election only 40% of young people – potential first time voters – registered, and only half of those who registered actually turned out to vote. One in four. He then went on to explain that the vast majority of pensioners voted then and would vote again at the coming election. Basically, while their vote matters to politicians, the votes of young people have less impact. Consider the legislation that had been passed to help pensioners (winter fuel payments, savings bonds, flexible pension arrangements), and compare it to the legislation that has impacted on young people – university fees being the prime example.

In the coming election, with the change in procedure for voter registration from household to independent, it seems that even fewer young people may vote. And I think that suits the current government.

TB: While inspiring a will to vote in audience members has been a satisfying outcome of the show, it’s not our hard ambition. Similarly, we are not focused on driving an audience towards abandoning representative democracy and creating a radical form of government. About 50% of our audience groups do elect to use a recognisable form of representative democracy in their parliament, although they almost always modify it. (After each show we log the different choices made by our audience at different stages, allowing us to look for patterns in how people respond. One of the things we are intrigued to see on tour is whether people in different regions make different choices, and our documentation of the show will explore this element.) There is no right or wrong choice in Early Days (although some shows do end more successfully than others).

Our ambition as makers of theatre is to create a world where the audience can play, and then to tweak the elements at play in the world to see how they impact on audience behaviour. We want Early Days to be an engine which triggers change in our audience, which has a genuine impact on how they interact with politics in their real lives: it’s just that we don’t want to pre-define what that change will be. When in R&Ds of the show we tried to engender specific responses and outcomes from our audience (for a while we tried to make a show which always ended in them revolting against us as theatre makers), but we quickly found that the drama of the piece dropped as the audience sensed that we were only offering them the illusion of agency. As it stands, the show does not have pre-defined outcomes, but the agency our audience has over the show’s outcome is real.

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Jonathan Petherbridge is Creative Director of London Bubble Theatre Company. He has been making different kinds of theatre for three decades, including shows developed from the work of a writer (Shakespeare, Brecht, Brenton), some inspired by places (parks, cliff tops, vaults), and some driven by social purposes (young people, intergenerational projects, theatre for early years). An early practitioner of promenade theatre, he has worked with London Bubble since 1990 to develop a model of an open theatre company that generates great theatre with, and for, local people. He is a member of the board of the Independent Theatre Council and an advisor on the Imagining Autism project at Kent University.

Tom Bowtell is a writer, director and actor and an original co-director of Coney. Tom has co-created numerous Coney productions including A Small Town Anywhere, The Goldbug and Let Them Eat Jam. He has led the development of Adventures in Learning, Coney’s award-winning education programme, which has been experienced by thousands of schoolchildren nationwide. The Astronautical Challenge (co-created with Unlimited Theatre) won the National Charity Award for Arts, Culture and Heritage in 2011. Tom also co-wrote and starred in The Good Neighbour, which was nominated for Best Production for Young People in the 2013 Off West End awards.

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Notes:

  1. Russell Brand, ‘Russell Brand on revolution: “We no longer have the luxury of tradition”’, The New Statesman, 24 October 2013, http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/10/russell-brand-on-revolution [accessed 7 November 2014].
  2. Thomas Hirschhorn quoted in Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), p. 124.
  3. These Associations was an art piece by Tino Seghal which occupied the Tate Modern Turbine Space. It involved between 30 and 80 people, walking and running in patterned swarms, regularly stopping to sing together and occasionally breaking off to engage spectators in one-to-one conversations.

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