Early Days of a Better Nation scratch

So tonight I achieved my 2nd career choice; leader of a political party. Unfortunately this seemed to require acting and sounding like a politician. Though probably wasn’t hindered by my secret weapon; a Teacher Voice. It doesn’t come out very often (power/responsibility etc.) but I do have one of those voices that when raised tends to carry, and is reported to make people want to sit down and stare very purposefully at their quadratic equations. Anyway, yes, ‘leader of a political party’, I hear you cry, ‘that’s the interesting bit, expand!’. You’re probably not crying that. But I will expand anyway.

Tonight I went to a first-stages scratch of Coney’s Early Days of a Better Nation at BAC, and fascinating it was. Somehow I ended up leader of this glorious nation, and incredibly uncomfortable for it. A quick ‘what is’; Early Days… was a 2 and a bit hour long interactive (emergent, since you ask) ‘thing’, set in the opening days of a new nation – you are cast as yourself-as-member-of-an-interim-government, allocated a party according to the responses to a short questionnaire (to which I did not give short answers, sorry person who got my form), and then invited along with 4 other parties of politicians to begin deciding on the constitutional points and priorities of your government. A system of beans as pay and allowing people to cast votes is a nice mechanic which makes voting a weighty decision (but these are MY beans!), and members of a tabloid and broadsheet style press hover around the edges, stoking rumours, reporting on events and generally being the eyes and the ears of behind the scenes goings on (that is, what the parties are up to, not what they are voting for). Members can defect to other parties, and certain events occur in reaction to previous decisions that sometimes have difficult or unforeseen consequences (fwiw, I did suggest we add to the ‘universal health care free at the point of use’ constitutional point the caveat ‘for all citizens’, but never mind, I love me an american health tourist). News footage provides the beginnings of a contextualisation, and the events mirror financial crises and decisions from politics, like, what are happening now. Anyway, in the end I was elected as leader following the (SPOILER) sudden assassination of our previous charismatic leader. Our party (Green, some kind of odd libertarian party I didn’t really agree with on paper, but in the end was full of Good People, I think it was the one people got put in if they took the questionnaire a little too seriously) had the most members by this point, and so we were asked to field some candidates, I put myself forward because there were no women candidate from the party (and also because I wanted to), and after a short campaign, I won. And stood on the stage and talked to the press man, and was leader.

So, yes. That’s what it was. And why was I uncomfortable? Because ringing in my ears was something Dan Bye said to me about half way through; “isn’t it interesting, people have been given the task of doing politics, and actually what they’re doing is Acting Like Politicians” – I’m paraphrasing him, but there it is. I spoke to the press in support of my candidacy, was asked questions, and gave short succinct answers about what I believed and thought my party also stood for and was earnest but aware that probably what we were calling for probably couldn’t be implemented. And BAM, I was speaking in the language of the stuff we’re so tired of. There were parties that became extreme, others that played up (monster raving loonies), people who tried to sell votes for beans, people making important impassioned stands that not many people saw and that I respected but probably wouldn’t do, and a couple of centre-ground parties made up of people-taking-things-probably-a-little-too-seriously. There were three leader candidates at the end, and when the other candidate I was on similar political terms with was looking low on votes and I didn’t quite have enough we formed a coalition, he became my deputy and OH MY FUCK I’M THE TORIES.

That’s why I was uncomfortable, but also a little pleased, and excited and wanted MOAR POWER opportunity to Change Things For The Better and it’s fascinating that for all we’re fed up with politics we generally don’t have another language to express this kind of stuff. Sure we’re told we’re playing politicians, so there’s a degree of parodying what we know – but the set up is of the early days of a better nation; how do you build a framework which asks us to think about frameworks in the first place? Because I suppose that’s what I wanted the piece to do, which it didn’t quite do yet, but if it gets even a quarter of the way there it will be astonishing. Or maybe it needs to let us repeat the same mistakes, maybe it needs to be a space to fail, so that we go away and think ‘must try harder’.

Other thoughts, and responses to the questions on the feedback sheet, because it seems like a good way to respond usefully:

Thought: People played the game in one of two ways; they played like it was a game, and they played the game. ELABORATE, HANNAH. Half played like it mattered, and half played like they were playing. Neither are wrong, I was the former. Of course I was. The most time I spend first off in any RPG with character design is making my character look exactly like me (But usually without my nose, there are never enough odd nose options), I played like it mattered, because to me, most things do. I’m pretty serious, I think. This as it stood made the experience a little chaotic; a little too chaotic, perhaps.

What was the most interesting moment tonight?
Aside from being interviewed by the *very* cute press man? It was mainly watching myself. Watching myself listen and judge and say things that weren’t really what I meant but that I knew sounded better than me. Better than the honest truth. But still managed to sound like honesty. I calculate and weigh things a lot. I wish I was funner than that, but that’s the truth. And I need to watch and weigh that thing about myself; fair isn’t always right. I typed that but I don’t agree with it. I think I mean the beginnings of something like ‘balance isn’t always for the best’…. Politics shouldn’t be all compromise? But then in a lot of ways it should be. THIS IS WHY THIS IS INTERESTING. We actually need to invent a whole new language and form to discuss this in. This kind of work opens up the fissures between ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ and asks us to find our way from the one to the other. At the moment the piece has the ‘what is’ spot on, I’d like to it to find a better way to asking ‘what if’.

What would you do different if you could do it again?
Crashed on someone’s sofa so I could stay and have a drink and chat afterwards. This kind of show really is as much about the bit afterwards.

What did you talk about most tonight?
It was definitely the ‘we’re just doing what we’ve always done, just with some tongues in cheeks’ thing.

What was Early Days about for you?
It suppose it was about me, and actually something I’m a little ashamed to admit; a calculated urge to lead that I am always checking, tempering, saying ‘stop now, let this or that person say something, you’re thinking again, stop thinking and remember to listen’. It was also about not being able to find a way to speak about something that we don’t yet have a language for; we have a current language for politics, and we add the odd word here and there, meanings shift, but actually we are never given the chance to reinvent it. Games are systems – and because of that they’re very good at examining systems, how we are swept along with them, how they mould our actions. I wonder if I’ve found a game yet (or any bit of art for that matter) which has been able to ask, in a meaningful way, ‘how we redesign a system’?. It’s the Wittgenstein/Heidegger thing of ‘bring language to language as language’ thing, really. I wonder if, actually the task that really would get to the heart of ‘how do we build a better country’ might look a little like ‘how do we build a game system that would enable people to think about how to build a better country’. Maybe that.

Did you feel connected to your house/colour?
I did! Surprisingly, in fact. At the beginning when I read the description of my party it sounded a little too much like libertarianism to me, and I was muttering to people who would listen how I didn’t agree with this or that, but really the party was about the people, not stuff on a piece of paper we none of us wholly agreed with. It was nice when they voted for me, too. WINKYFACE.

What was the most controversial rule in the constitution?
Can’t remember – was never quite sure how the voting worked, but I’ll admit that sometimes I wasn’t listening.

Is there anything you would add to Early Days?
More Leader-before-he-was-shot, I didn’t care enough about him or feel his presence enough to miss it, or feel enough of a sense of serious turmoil when he left. I wanted to feel it, I wanted there to be a turning point where things fell apart – just in case there was a space left where something new might fit. That’s well theatre-y feedback, isn’t it? But I did want a lot more context, I felt like context from the beginning would be a way of unifying the people playing a game of politics and the people playing politicians, a smaller space, a dedicated press room, a sense of the crowds outside, and a little more about the nation we had left behind. And better speeches. I could definitely write some better speeches. That’s another thing I’ve always secretly wanted to do.

Is there anything you would take out?
No… I don’t think so, I think the next task for me would be a tying together; of action with a perhaps deeper sense of consequence. Is there a way to a win and a way to lose the game? As a collective? What do you do about politics, which should really be a conversation about collectivism, which begins from a place of ‘teams’? How do you have a conversation, in fact, away from ‘teams’ and the rhetoric of the necessity of opposition – which I’m pretty sure it one thing that current politics struggles with. Maybe the game is to play a game for half the time, and then in the second half, redesign it; which then becomes the version that the next night’s participants start with.

I love that it has me thinking like this. It’s the offer of agency in the micropolitics that echo the macropolitics of reality thing that play does so well, but with the added realisation that there isn’t a macropolitics yet, just a different couple of hundred people, in a slightly more expensively furnished room. With cheaper drinks.

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