The Agency of Coney’s Telephone is a playful invitation into a communal online space, says Robert Reid
The Agency of Coney has been a playful shadowy presence in British theatre and live art communities since the mid 2000s. Probably best known for their participatory theatre events such as A Small Town Anywhere, A Cat Escapes and Remote, the company has also presented the more intimate explorations of playful performance created by company director and founder Tassos Stevens.
The first of these I saw was Jimmy Stewart, when Stevens was in Melbourne in the early 2010s. I remember sitting in a boots upstairs at a city bar on a Monday night, listing to Stephens tell a rambling and surreal tale of an anthropologist from Mars named Jimmy Stewart, who stumbled from one misadventure to another in search of connection.
I remember the gentle inclusions of the audience: invitations to imagine ourselves in a particular scene, or to write notes that might be shared at a later stage, as well as kind of randomization in how the narrative was ordered, a process in which the audience might have been involved. I might be wrong about a lot of this – it feels like a lifetime ago – but I’d love more detail, if anybody remembers that show better than me.
Telephone follows similar lines of inquiry, but this time it’s conducted in the shared conceptual space of Zoom. Again, it is a solo work, with Stevens, who is sitting at a laptop – I’m guessing in the Coney offices in London – interacting with people dotted all over the world, from Kent to Edinburgh, Ljubljana to new New York. Everyone watches from their own rooms, a tessellation of faces.
Stevens invokes the thinnest veil of character in the role of the Operator who connects your call, as he conducts the business of the event and shepherdw us through it – running the exchange, rather than playing the role of an operator. We make calls by raising our hands in the view of the camera to get the operator’s attention and choosing any number of a list of Coney-related phone numbers, give our own phone number – a random set of numbers and letters generated by the simplest of magic coincidence games – and ask to be connected to one of the numbers in the Coney phone book. Stevens then connects the call, by telling us that’s what he’s doing, and reads a prerecorded message, which is a factoid about the telephone or a memory or thought about telecommunications.
I’m not convinced it’s purely random, as the dramaturgical structure of the event seems too satisfyingly to start and end with the same narrative and to place the participation parts of the night in the moments when we need to be shown how to play the game. It feels as if there are tent pegs of dramaturgy holding up a more randomizable canvas of play.
I don’t make any of the calls and I skip out of the interval/act two, where everyone shares drinks and stories about our experiences with telephones or anything else that we decide to talk about. It’s evening on that side of the world, so for them drinks and Zoom is much more relaxed and chatty than it is for me, with a mug of coffee and a grey dawn creeping in.
What’s interesting is seeing how something like Telephone achieves something that we worry theatre – and particularly participatory theatre – will struggle to do in the post-pandemic world. Stevens introduces subtle alterations to social interactions, and then sets up simple rules of engagement so we can experience those alterations.
In this case, he builds an effortless agreement that raising our hands means ringing the exchange and even just having a phone number on that exchange – a truly international telecommunications network or subnetwork crafted by Stephens – that makes all of us participants, whether we make a call or not. Being in the Zoom matters as much as it does being in the room.
I felt the same sense at Moira Finucane’s Love Letters to Melbourne the other night, as Moira welcomed the Zoom audience with their cameras on into the room. It mattered that we were here together.
It’s probably easy to forget that the internet is a public space, that like a theatre it is a two-way medium where we can speak back to the art in real time. It doesn’t have to be broadcast one way like television: it can be hard and clear like glass, and it can also be opaque and porous, like a curtain. Even if we can’t physically reach out and touch each other, we can still make a thing together. We can be a rowdy cabaret audience or an old time international telecommunications network.
There will always be those who say that watching your laptop at home is nothing like being in a theatre with live people all around you, and in one sense they’re correct; these are phenomenologically very different experiences. But there’s more common territory between the theatre and the internet than there is between the internet and the television. We just need to reframe our thinking, and understand that a screen can be as interactive as a telephone.
Telephone, presented by the Agency of Coney over Zoom. Written and performed by Tassos Stevens. Forest Arts Centre, Hampshire. Next performance November 27. Bookings