Winner of the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement from The Royal Town Planning Institute
In Spring 2015 Cap-a-Pie worked with Dr Paul Cowie, a research associate at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University to create a new professional piece of theatre – The Town Meeting. The show is an immersive and interactive show for one actor, playing shambolic Junior Planning Offier Benjamin Rennold, and a playing audience of 25 who take on the role of a community with a big decision to make. The play is set in the fictional Little Rikjord, a small mining town voted most picturesque town in Greater Doggerland four years running. Little Rikjord is a vibrant and affluent community, however, with the town’s prosperity owing much to the open cast iron ore mine and with the current seam close to exhaustion, uncertainty looms.
As the story unfolds, the audience learn plans are being considered to begin mining a new seam of iron ore situated directly under their town. The audience, in their role as the town’s residents, are faced with the decision to stop the mining, thereby losing their jobs and the town’s economic viability, or to keep mining and move the town!
The creative team worked with Dr Paul Cowie extensively to make the show. Paul not only gave us his expertise but collaborated with us closely on creating the form of the show and the storyline. Paul regularly spent time in the rehearsal room devising the show, watched and commented on all aspects of the production and provided his expertise to ensure the piece had a strong basis in reality – everything that happens in the show could happen in real life. This was important both to give valid data for Paul’s research but also to give audiences a realistic scenario within which to play.
Cap-a-Pie was keen to explore whether we could bring our skills of co-creating theatre with participants into an immersive and interactive theatre piece. We wanted the audience to be co-creators within the scenario. The piece is structured to give people an increasing degree of agency as the story develops. The third act of the show in particular saw audiences take a significant amount of control over the direction of the show. The piece blurs the line between audiences and participants, creators and spectators.
Audiences not only co-created the show but were also co-researchers. Our tour in SPring 2015 was at the beginning of a new piece of research for Paul. He had identified there was a need to explore how communities plan for their future, especially within the new context of the changes that the coalition government brought in around localism and neighbourhood planning.
Paul initially was initially interested in exploring how groups represented themselves within planning process. However through the process of creating and showing The Town Meeting Paul identified that a major, and under-researched issue within planning is how groups are facilitated and treated within the process and the impact this has on their engagement. The audiences that attended The Town Meeting not only informed Paul’s research but actually changed the focus. This was very exciting as it shows the positive impact that open, two-way engagement can have at all stages of a research project. Paul plans for this new understanding to feed into how planners are trained and improve the process by which communities are engaged in planning.
The Town Meeting was an extremely interesting project for Cap-a-Pie. It developed our practice as theatre makers and informed how we could work with both audiences and academics. We were particularly pleased that we created a space where, through creative arts, communities could have a very real impact on research that will in turn impact planning policy.