A Small Town Anywhere
A Small Town Anywhere is theatre for around 30 playing audience who take hats and badges to become citizens of a small town for the most momentous week of its history. Originally inspired by Clouzot’s film Le Corbeau, A Small Town Anywhere is about a community at war with itself, riven by gossip, tribalism and petty ambition, and testing if solidarity can survive. It’s also about the roomful of mostly strangers which is the playing audience, and what communal sense emerges through their play. The story of the town which unfolds through the play of the audience is responsive to the choices they make, individually and collectively. An advance interaction with the Small Town Historian – whether online or in person – gives audience the opportunity to cast themselves into the Town and make their own history, including their filthy secret which ends up in the town’s gossip.
A Small Town Anywhere ran as a co-production between Coney and BAC in autumn 2009. It’s currently in development supported by BAC and the Jerwood Foundation to make versions that can travel more lightly, sustainably and responsively, planning to start a national/international tour in 2011/2012.
For more information, please email@example.com and ask about the Town.
Video document by Greg McLaren:
Following are some reviews of the last run and comments on the devising process. Other reviews can be seen here.
Two years in the devising, Coney’s ‘A Small Town Anywhere’ is the understatedly audacious centrepiece of BAC’s ‘Not for Me, Not for You, but for Us’, a festival of new work rooted in that most dreaded of phenomena, audience participation. Billed as a play without actors, each member of the audience is assigned a role (Police Chief, Priest, Minstrel etc) and political party (rightwing Wrens or left-leaning Larks), then left to go about their daily business within the interactive set. In this we are aided by Henri Georges, the Town Historian, who provides context and back-story in a pre-play briefing (and can be engaged with online beforehand - strongly advisable) and also the ethereal tones of performer Melanie Wilson, who exerts a shaping hand on the action as an unseen, omnipotent narrator.
Though initially defined by rural whimsy and the odd skeleton in the closet, ‘A Small Town…’ ultimately serves as an interrogation of ideology and its poisonous effect on community. External events turn the town’s political divide increasingly toxic, until both Wrens and Larks are threatened with destruction. Historical parallels (particularly with Europe’s tumultuous twentieth century) are easy to infer; the drama lies not in behind-closed-doors clichés but in confronting us with the gristliness of realpolitik.
There are moments of confusion and frustration - it’s certainly not for wallflowers - and arguably our lack of genuine ideological investment robs it of some edge. Nonetheless, the fraught final stages feel as complex and electrifying as any actor-based drama. The moral decisions we are asked to take might seem simplistic to a fly on the wall, but the luxury of such detachment is long gone.
From my pulpit, I am engaged in a slur campaign. For no reason other than his political allegiances, I have written several libellous letters concerning the Mayor to my fellow townsfolk. All are, of course, left unsigned. After all, as the town’s priest, I cannot have suspicion turning my way. The following day, when the town council meet to banish one of this community, two names emerge – mine and his – before a surprising turnaround sees him escorted into the wilderness.
Do I feel guilty? Not a jot. Without the Mayor, my own political party of choice – the rigidly traditional Wrens – walk an easy path to victory and take control of the town. Personally, my own standing in the town increases, leaving me free to turn my slander on a new target: the quiet woodsman. Why? Because I can.
This is A Small Town Anywhere and, in it, suspicion and manipulation, paranoia and self-preservation are our rulers. Part balloon-debate, part role-playing game, part unscripted play, A Small Town Anywhere hands over the reins to its audience of participants, each of whom is given a role within the community, and allows history to be shaped by our decisions and snap judgements. Over two hours, a week passes and a dramatic one, at that, filled with elections, allegiances, coups, blossoming relationships and betrayals.
Ostensibly, we are trying to identify and cast out a figure known as The Raven, who knows a bit too much about each of us. I, for example, cannot have details of my affair with La Chantreuse emerge. Others have their own secrets to hide. However, in the course of proceedings, our individual objectives take over. In other words, as in life, there really is no ultimate, collective end. Instead, we find our own targets and employ tactics towards that end.
That this scope for free choice exists without scuppering the event towards chaos is a credit to how well-designed A Small Town Anywhere is as a game. We are observed and monitored through spyholes in the walls, through this never becomes intrusive, and both the disembodied, calming voice of the Town Cryer and the letters received each day serve to keep the game rumbling on apace. In short, the game can adjust to every possibility, including, on this occasion, a well-intentioned mutiny and a final refusal to sacrifice any member of the town.
The pacing is perfect, such that we are gradually immersed in a fiction to the point of investment. The functional rules are explained succinctly and delicately, though there is neither the possibility for nor the pressure of going wrong. Through email encounters with Henri, the small town historian, you gradually invent your character and a backstory of sorts. Yet, this is no Murder Mystery party; there is no sense of acting. You, yourself, are very much present in the small town. Your decisions remain yours, not those that your character might make. Not only does this remove awkward inhibitions, it allows the piece an ethical and political dimension beyond the bounds of the small town. You feel the weight of betrayals as much as the excitement of transgressions.
There are a few nagging concerns. The role of The Raven feels underdeveloped and, at times, a certain arbitrariness creeps in, such that targets are chosen simply to chose a target, but this, of course, brings its own implications. Equally, there is a sense that suspicion is often born of no more than prominence. It was interesting to note that those participants that stuck to running personal businesses were less likely to attract mistrust than those given public duties, such as the Mayor or the Publican. Perhaps, also, there is a feeling that the creators learn more than the players by seeing the range of possibilities and charting a wider history of the many different small towns that spring into existence.
Though I suspect that it may happen in due course, A Small Town Anywhere would benefit from sharing the outside perspective. At present, I know that, as the Priest, I acted less than impeccably with a certain relish. However, there is only a soft sense of specific wrongdoings and the effects of actions. Without some record or judgement post-event, one doesn’t become fully accountable for misdeeds committed. Indeed, it becomes far easier to dismiss A Small Town Anywhere as mere play, despite the strong moral, political and social elements that undoubtedly exist therein. All they need is backing up.
But what if it is just play? Would that be so bad? After all, it is in the bar afterwards – swapping stories, exchanging experiences and dissecting the event – that a real community comes into existence. As strangers connect afterwards, A Small Town Anyway grows in import and the game really does begin to matter.
The letter is not addressed to me, but I open it anyway. Having control over the mail is one of the perks of being the postmistress in a small French town. The anonymous writer is, I discover, making a serious allegation – and it’s about me. There are hints about a murdered baby, its corpse buried under a juniper tree. I am, of course, as guilty as hell.
I look around the town square where the baker and butcher are gossiping, watch the children going into the schoolroom, see the mayor walk by. I wonder who wrote the letter. Then I do what I have done with all the previous letters I’ve intercepted. I destroy it. Then I write several letters of my own, slyly suggesting that the schoolmistress was, last year, rumoured to be pregnant. Soon, the whole town will know.
I’m taking part in A Small Town Anywhere, a theatre piece in which the audience are the performers. It’s currently playing at London’s BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), part of a season of interactive shows that redefine the boundaries of theatre. Here, the show is both drama and game. Audience members – there are about 30 per performance – play characters in an imaginary French town. There is no script; every audience member plays a part in developing the story, and thus becomes responsible for its outcome.
And that outcome is not always pretty. The show ends with the community deciding who must be banished from the town to save the rest.
A Small Town Anywhere is the brainchild of Coney, a company that describes itself as “an agency of adventure and play”. It specialises in interactive theatre, both online and in real spaces. Previous projects include The Goldbug, a six-month-long treasure hunt that was part of Punchdrunk’s 2007 production of The Masque of the Red Death at BAC, and Rabbit: NTT, a flash-mob adventure featuring a radio broadcast with Simon Russell Beale that took place in and around the National in 2006. Coney operates not as a traditional company, but as a community of theatre-makers, artists, architects, games designers and players, whose members assume codenames and meet online to propose ideas and develop projects. “What we are looking for is a willingness to play,” says Tassos Stevens, who co-created A Small Town Anywhere with Tom Bowtell. “As Plato said, you learn more from somebody in an hour of play than from a year of conversation.”
The show has its roots in a French film called Le Corbeau (The Raven), about a mysterious poison-pen writer plaguing a nameless French village. Made by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1943, it was a covert critique of Nazi-occupied France, in which countless people were denouncing their neighbours to the authorities by letter. In A Small Town Anywhere, the denunciations can concern long-buried secrets. The more thought that goes into these, the better they will be, so, while anyone can turn up and participate on the night, those who book in advance can begin developing their role in the town long before they arrive at the theatre, using email, phone and text messages.
By the time I turn up for the show, I have written my own backstory, which includes a grim secret about the murdered baby. The show doesn’t require any acting skills, and, because there is no audience in a traditional sense, all social anxiety about being on show or not doing the right thing quickly evaporates. I play it as if it’s real – and that’s exactly how it feels. For two hours, I lose myself in the show.
Afterwards, in view of my appalling behaviour, I feel lucky to have escaped without the entire town turning on me. But I’m not, it turns out, the only one to have behaved badly. “We’ve had stories of selfish self-preservation,” says Stevens, “but we’ve also seen acts of heroic self-sacrifice to save others.”
At its best, A Small Town Anywhere investigates what it means to be a community – and how, in the face of internal conflict and external pressures (such as war), that community will survive or collapse according to how its members behave. “The fate of the whole town rests on the choices each individual makes,” says Bowtell. “The things they do earlier may haunt them later in the evening. It’s up to them how far they go.”
We started with a challenge from BAC and the National Theatre Studio to take an existing story and make it with a playing audience by themselves in a theatre with no actors. We chose Le Corbeau, a film by Clouzot, because it had a community as a protagonist, which resonated with our basic theatrical set-up. In Phase 1 we developed a game, The Gossip Game, which modelled the story quite closely, through playtesting at BAC, Shunt and Hide & Seek. In Phase 2 at the NT Studio we embedded the game and opened the world out for playing audiences, trying (and failing) to model the story of the film satisfactorily as we kinda knew we would. In Phase 3 at BAC we threw the film out, built a town that would play well as a gameboard and then tried different stories with playing audiences to see what played well. In Phase 4 at the NT Studio we took all the best bits of those stories with elements from the film and other thinking and wrote and plotted a draft of the story-play. In Phase 5 at BAC we scratched that draft with a playing audience and also used a digital advance to get players self-authored secrets into the gossip of the town. After some final development and making, we ran the finished theatrical release with full design in space, light and sound and a full advance both digital and workshops with diverse groups from the local community.
A Small Town Anywhere was originally co-authored by Tom Bowtell, Gary Campbell, Tracky Crombie, Annette Mees, Ben Pacey, Tassos Stevens and Melanie Wilson.