Tassos Stevens is in the thick of it. When I speak to him he’s hard at work on the final draft of Remote before its run this week at Camden People’s Theatre (CPT). “I’m going to have a swim and clear my head, and then I’m going to go back at it. I don’t find writing especially easy – especially this. The little maps of what people might want to choose actually do my head in a little bit.”
Coney’s latest production, directed by Stevens, is a branching choose-your-own-adventure play with multiple nested fictional realities and incorporating ideas of choice, consensus, control and capitalism: “But it’s funny. It should be funny. If it’s not funny you should demand your money back. It’s very ticklish – that’s the word Brian Logan (Artistic Director of CPT) used about it – it feels safe because you’re just in your seat being told a story, and then it kind of… prods you a bit.”
That’s right. It’s a Coney show where you don’t leave your seat.
“The world of the piece, which has taken ages to hammer out clearly and richly is that we’re in 2016, but for our reference, to get the fantastical playfulness of it, it’s like 2016 if it had been written in 1997 as a piece of near-future science fiction. So it can be slightly more cartoon, which it needs to be, because so much is being held in the audience in their imagination.”
The ‘Remote’ of the title is the name of a company. And it’s putting on a piece of theatre. “Remote is a little bit like all the Internets – Facebook, Amazon, Google, Uber. Its mission is to deliver freedom through choice. And what the company is doing here – in the show – is an experiment. A kind of theatre of the future. By having a live audience and live actors Remote are trying to capture something of the liveness of people. And within their fiction, the story that you’re playing is the story of a woman who is an employee of Remote.”
“Remote’s catchphrase has been with us from the earliest stage of development – ‘We’re here to help you be more like people like you.’ The choices you make inform the story to be about someone like you. Sally’s world – we call her Sally for ease but one thing that happens is that the audience get to name her, so she’ll be called something different each night – her world is where the performance takes place. I recently scratched a version up in Bradford for Theatre in the Mill who commissioned Remote, which was one act, and some questions. For that, Sally’s world was Bradford. For the CPT run, that world will be West Euston. The people and the challenges that she’s presented will be different depending on the place that we’re in.”
However, whereas other Coney shows have emphasised the individual choices and exploration of a game world, the audience move through Remote as one. “It’s almost a shadow piece to a lot of Coney’s previous work – things like A Small Town Anywhere and Early Days (of a better nation). Here you’re a lot more limited, but there are a lot of reflections on the constraints you’re feeling.”
The model is less ‘choose-your-own-adventure’, more ‘vote-on-our-adventure’. Sally’s actions – indeed who Sally is – are all chosen by consensus: “The choices you’re presented with are binary. You can raise your card for the first option. If you don’t, for whatever reason, you’ve voted for the second option. So there’s no way to not take part. But also no-one’s being put on the spot. And that was both a practical consideration, because we really wanted to make something that could play for a sit-down audience, but that also meant that no-one could simply observe. If you do that you are registering for the default.”
Almost the opposite of much interactive theatre, Remote is designed to constantly show the limits of individual audience members’ choices. “You don’t get to choose the system. Behind ‘freedom of choice’ you find the limits of meaningful agency. For instance you look at the way our world is reflected back to us through our online devices. We make choices, and we really feel like we’re an individual making those choices. But actually we’re one of a crowd of millions of people like us, making choices, and because of the scale of that the world suddenly changes but in ways that we don’t anticipate. So Remote is also about the new models of networked capitalism – I mean, it’s still capitalism.
These big, pervasive systems are at the forefront of Stevens’ mind: “I’ve read too many books by naysayers about the Uberisation of things, so I’m leaning that way at the moment. AirBnB sells itself on being this ‘cool indie person’ who happens to have a spare room, and is renting it out so they can fulfil their dream. That’s the brand. You feel like you’re connecting to another real person, and helping each other out, and you’re breaking a monopoly of hotels. It’s an indie bohemian freedom fable. What tends to happen is that those kind of stories are one percent of the trade that they have, and there’s a lot more where landlords buy up properties – five AirBnB properties next to each other. They don’t have any of the responsibilities that come from being a landlord, and the impact goes onto the smaller and indie B&Bs. The big hotel chain trade isn’t affected. It seems like there’s a movement in society towards us all being private agents. Bidding for other people’s services and selling our own. But there’s a very distant, remote, centralised control over that. Anyway. That’s Act One. And then it goes stranger yet.”
The first act happens next year, the second act five years after that, and the third act, Stevens is reluctant to give any details on at all, but he admits Mr Burns has been a reference point: “I loved that so much, as did others in the company. It feels like Mr Burns is the portrait of a world changing, which is why it’s such a delight when it jumps 75 years into the future and shows the extension of what’s been going on. And we want there to be a sea change in the kind of control that audience have by the time we get to our Act Three. The model will change. The question of control is a huge one inside the piece, and there’s a couple of really big choices which have significant consequence for the way you experience the show.”
“I think I’m still learning what this kind of interactive model can do. I’m sure that the piece will change after the run at the CPT as we learn more. Because we have done quite a lot of short pieces and sketches over the last year and a half and found out how it plays with an audience, so we know it’s engaging and relevant, but there’s still a lot to learn about how people are going to respond to specific things. That’s always the way it is with this kind of work, and you develop in response to audiences.”
“And I guess that the piece is not trying to be about any particular system of choice but resonating with a lot of different ones. Early audiences said it was trying too hard to be the internet, and then we’ve found that by actually allowing the system to be the thing that it is, we let the audience draw their own conclusions. Rather than making it model something it can’t really do.”
One consequence of Remote’s decision-making system is that you can make choices which aren’t reflected in the narrative because the majority went the other way: “That’s also interesting because we’re trying to make something of that tension. People are very different in how they respond to games – it depends on whether they place themselves inside it or position themselves slightly more critically. Some people will want to win. Some people won’t be bothered by that at all. Some people want to explore the edges of what the world has to offer; some just want to have a conversation.”
“You expect that people are going to try to break things, because in stories about systems that exactly what people try to do. People try to overturn them and see what happens. We expect that people will try to do that here. One audience in Bradford was quite brutal, and managed to conjure up a choice which would have completely broken the piece. That caught me by surprise. Luckily they decided not to take that choice.
The simultaneous individual and collective experience of Remote draws attention to the same dual experience of most, if not all performance: “People get lost in their own heads, and then you can jolt them into remembering that they are still sitting next to people in the theatre. Sally’s world is only represented through sound – the storytelling of the Navigators accompanied by a live sound design. It’s not represented visually at all. It happens in your imagination, which gives us more scope to make things like perhaps the end of the world happen.”
“I think it’s always really important for work to look at the different levels of reality in fiction. So within REMOTE there’s a level of fictional reality which is this company running this theatre of the future with you, the live audience, and then the fictional fiction of Sally who you are playing within this world. But there’s also a real reality which is a room full of mostly strangers imagining a future together. Which is sort of like what a theatre is. Perhaps.”
Remote runs 19th – 30th April at Camden People’s Theatre.