Thrown out of the BBC studio
BBC interview 27 April 2004
Firstly - why did you focus on this point in history, and in particular this riot, for the project?
Ralph: we wanted to do an historically-authentic play so it was immediately clear when Hewlett-Packard said they were 'wiring' Queen Square that we would do its most defining moment: the 1831 Reform Riots
Liz: The riots lent themselves to this project because they were a very 'defined' event in a very defined place - taking place over three days and centred on the Square - but with implications that stretched far beyond and right up until today. They were a key event both in Bristol's history and the development of democracy for the country as a whole. As a story, the riots were perfect to work with because they had something of everything - personal stories, fascinating personalities, political intrigue, huge drama.
There's some fascinating moments and quirky anecdotes that appear in the play, how did you discover all these?
Ralph: there's an awful lot on the riots and their historical context in the Bristol Reference Library, the University of Bristol Library, the Bristol Record Office etc. It helped that Charles Pinney, the Mayor, was put on trial afterwards, so there is a literal transcription of the proceedings in the Reference Library (>Did you say, 'throw Wetherell in the river?' 'No, your Honour, I would never have said any such thing!' etc<). The broadsheets of the time also had a field day, as you can imagine, and there are many 'eyewitness accounts' still extent.
How difficult was it to write it as a 'non-linear' play? How does it vary writing a standard play with a narrative structure?
Liz: Typically, a play would be written in scenes with a beginning, middle and end. We've written Riot! as many (over 100) script files which cover a huge range of events and conversations that took place during the riots. Because people's movement determines the order in which they receive the script files, they have to be able to work in any order and still make sense. This meant we had to ditch a linear approach which would have put across the precise chronology (Wetherell arrives, is pelted with stones, the Assizes are cancelled...right through to the final dragoon charge). Once we'd realised this, it gave us a kind of freedom to become much more immersed in what it must have FELT like to be in the midst of it. I'm very taken with the idea that, in a crowd of 20,000 people, everyone there would have a different experience of the riots - and that they'd all be 'right' in their contradictory accounts. I think the technology has allowed us to recreate this, so that one visitor might have a sense of the riots as incredibly violent, whilst another might have been struck by the revelry - the feasting, piano playing, country dancing, etc.
Ralph: I started off wanting to write something which would have reactive storylines ... you know, you influence the ending by what you listen to and in what order, a bit like any old, what do my kids call them? - RPGs (role playing games). This, as an 'experience the riots' play will do for a first bash, but I'd like to do a lot more exploration around 'what creative/writing structure fits?'. You should remember that this was an experiment both for the technology and the writing: how does one write for this technological platform? It'll be interesting to push the boundaries further ...
What do you hope people will gain from the experience?
Ralph: I want participants to experience what it felt like to be in the 1831 riots, to be involved and, yes, be moved. I want them to walk through a city and 'see' and 'hear' the layers of history, to 'individualise' history and make it live through small individual, true tales about the people caught up in events like the 1831 riots. And also, an appreciation that a 'riot' then and now is not a full-on 'thud and blunder' event, but has a structure, a pattern, an ebb and flow, hilarious moments, even peaceful moments ...
Liz: My hope is that people will let the sounds 'flow' through them, so that they can be sucked into the heart of the riots - without the pain. I'd like them to be as amazed as we were at the variety of happenings, characters and emotions during the riots, so that they can laugh, be moved and find that the hairs on the back of their necks stand on end.
Would you like to cover another event in such a way? If so, what?
Liz: The combination of interactive theatre and this technology has huge potential for putting people into the heart of an experience - bringing us much closer to understanding, feeling, what it must have been like to have been a particular person or to have lived through a particular event. I'd love to do this with other people, places and events - the old Muller Homes, city streets, historical fairgrounds, the building of the Great Western Railway - events which brought out a rawness of experience that we can still relate to. It would also be fascinating to do something more fantasy-based, perhaps stretching the technology to make it even more interactive...
Ralph: Hewlett-Packard and the University of Bristol talk about 'intelligent environments', that is, environments which react to and interact with people. Have you ever been in a castle, or a megalithic stone circle and wondered what the stones would say if they could talk? What would the trees in a wood say? This may be a way of making that happen. (Innocent at large, obviously,but it was 2004...)
The scene in Queen Square couldn't be more different than how it must have been during the riot. Any ideas on how people might enjoy the square in another 173 years?!
Ralph: rising sea levels will mean Queen Square will be under water in 173 years, so students at Bristol Virtual Galaxial University will be punting over it crooning 18th century Venetian love ballads to their swains or doxies languishing on the soft cushions quaffing Stokes Croft Sylvaner 2100 ...
( I think we were then thrown out of the studio....)