Monday, 26 October 2009

A Small Town Anywhere - Battersea Arts Centre

A Small Town Anywhere
An audience made piece by Coney

Reviewer: Honour Bayes

It starts with an email exchange between myself and a social historian called Henri Georges, a charmingly Gaelic man whose written tone is a mixture of witty gentility and probing exploration that sets the style of the upcoming reenactment of A Small Town Anywhere. It is a correspondence founded on bartering; give me something of yourself and I will reveal something of this small town and it engenders a sense of warm familiarity between you and this place and its ancestors. But the last question posed to me ‘when you play, do you play to win or play to play?’ sends a shiver down my back; just what is my new friend Henri going to expect of me?

For this is not a theatre piece as we know it. Given the monika of a ‘theatre playing’ there are no actors involved, only audience members who are thrown into a room to play through the lives of the town’s folk during a 2 hour concertina like week.

Armed with our roles (and incredibly fun signature hats) we are given acts we must commit as a town and have to deal with the consequences of these acts. A softly spoken town crier leads us through the day and notes are delivered which serve both as external reminders of daily practicalities (talent contests, sermons, best business competitions to win) and little prompts from fellow small towners, which are both friendly and occasionally laced with a blackmailing menace. It accounts for a fairly hectic schedule to follow which at points crushes the space needed for exploration in play whilst undoubtably being a fairly necessary way of prompting interaction. Also rather puzzlingly Georges and his assistants encourage divisions and whisperings to inspire conflict which may make for good drama but could be seen as contradictory to the idea of neighborhood that we are being asked to create.

But in spite of all this gossip a small community is formed from these previously disparate strangers. Suddenly my initial worries about my skills as a performer seem silly - it is no longer about if it’s entertaining or good but if it’s the right thing to do for this town, about morals and social choices and roles which you carve out for yourself. Whether you are a bombastic official, quietly unassuming church goer, socially upstanding member of society, scathing journo or town clown, each person drives their own narrative within a communal weave which is slowly grown around us.

A theatre playing may seem like a scarily demanding idea but it is actually a very gentle experience and one in which you can be as proactive or reactive as you want. Left in our hands this leads to some unfocused moments, as with all improvisational lead experiences, but it is one which wholly engages you and puts you at the heart of the question ‘what is community?’. Most importantly the connections that are made are ones which continue after the piece has ended; at the end when we all say goodbye to each other it’s like we’re familiar friends.

A Small Town Anywhere may at points be muddled and lack the polish of a crafted piece but in this individualistic world, experiences like this are wholly important in highlighting that it is still possible for each of us to be part of something and not just to be pulling apart in different directions. I still may not know what a community is, but I know now that it potentially lies within any group and we simply need to put ourselves in the right place to find and form it.
Photos: Briony Campbell
Runs until 7 November
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