Zoe Pepper, artistic director and writer, The Confidence Man

I think innovation is incremental – it takes time to be innovative and that innovation leverages off what’s happening in the world.

Side Pony Productions is an Australian production company that pushes the boundaries of interactive theatre. Led by artistic director and writer Zoe Pepper, Side Pony has gone from strength to strength. Using irony and comedy to portray compelling characters in interesting situations, Zoe has earned a large following with appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Perth’s Fringe World Festival. Side Pony’s latest production, The Confidence Man, encourages audience participation and is set to be Zoe’s most unique work to date. Before the show begins at the Brisbane Powerhouse on October 28, we caught up with Zoe to find out more about her writing process and what audiences can expect from The Confidence Man.

We are very excited to experience The Confidence Man! How would you summarise the show in just ten words?
It’s playful, gun-slinging fun – an audio driven interactive crime thriller.

How did the idea for the show first come about?
I really wanted to create and immersive work that is as much about the story as it is about the experience. The idea for this show has morphed a lot as Adriane (Daff, Side Pony’s associate director)  and I figured out the mechanics of making a participatory piece; originally there were visions of a spooky funeral set on a suburban oval and all the characters from the Guess Who game board were there to pay their respects. The concept of creating a show where the audience members were playing the characters was always at the hearts of it and then it was about narrowing down what story elements worked best for the format. Instructions that are really action driven are what works best for this form so we set about writing our crime thriller.

The show is described as being interactive and encourages audience participation. How would you say this affects the work every time it’s staged?
The Confidence Man is quite a unique beast in that every night there’s a completely new cast who give their own take on the characters and how they want to play out the instructions – no two shows are the same. And then the flipside of that is that all of the audio that the participants act out is pre-recorded, so the delivery of the lines and the timing of the audio is always the same, both fixed and flexible all in one breath, this makes every performance unique. With a cast completely made up of audience members there is always a possibility that things good go astray – this creates an interesting tension every time it’s performed.

What do you hope audience members will think, feel or take away from this experience?
I think it’s a lot of fun for the audience, especially for the players. It’s also about understanding a story from multiple perspectives and empathising with the position that different characters are in. The players are immersed in their own worldview but the rest of the audience that watch from the sidelines can channel surf across the audio of all the characters which means they can see the chain reaction that leads characters into morally dubious situations. There is always a touch of FOMO with this show, because the audience are in control of what they watch and what they don’t watch. So there’s always an element of wanting to know about the bits that you missed, what happened in the threads that you didn’t tune into, but in that way the architecture of this story is a lot like life, where you just can’t have it all.

What was your biggest challenge in getting the show together?
Writing this show was a totally different and rather intense experience, so that was a pretty big challenge. Part of it was just the sheer volume of the thing – six individual scripts, one for each character. In each character’s version of the story they are the hero so their story needs to be as fleshed out as all the others. Imagining the movement in each scene was a really different experience. I tried to make sure that every scene has a physical dynamic, a kind of a basic choreography or blocking. That was really challenging to think of how to get people to move via the instructions and then have other characters reacting to that movement. It’s all stuff that’s pretty straightforward when it’s right in front of you but when it only exists in audio form then it starts hurt your brain. Get the timing right across all the different character’s audio, whoa, that was a brain fry I’ve not experienced before!

Tell us a little bit about yourself! What first drew you toward a career in the arts?
I’ve always been into writing stories, I remember as a kid writing these long rambling stories and then getting all the pages jumbled up and being bit devastated because the lack of page numbers meant I could never put it back together in the right order. I was a pretty classic drama nerd.

Can you remember the first time you saw one of your works performed in front of an audience?
Yep, it was a show called Motor City Blues that I devised with a group of friends that I went to university with. It was the first time I’d directed anything and I was quite terrified. It was dark and funny with the same candy coloured aesthetic that I’m still working with now. It went down well enough for me to make another show.

What is your approach to writing a new work? Where does the process start initially?
I usually write collaboratively; starting with an image or the most basic of concepts. Plotting out the story with a group of collaborators in a room is definitely my favourite way of working. Crunching out the pages without procrastinating too much – that’s some I’m still trying to get the hang of.

Your work often attempts to reflect on the human condition ­– how do you go about creating characters that are both relatable and captivating?
A lot of the work I make speaks to a recurring idea – good people do terrible things. The characters I create are always just trying to make the best of their circumstances; in that way they’re relatable, highly fallible and always a touch unlikeable. To me this just makes them heightened versions of real people, this amplification of human behaviour is a great way in to thinking about the human condition.

In terms of creating innovative productions, how challenging is it to find new ways of creating thrilling, engaging and unique theatre?
My focus is usually on telling a good story. Creating The Confidence Man was quite different in that the concept for the form of it came first and the story came second. There’s always people pushing at the edges of the form but I think innovation is incremental, it takes time to be innovative and that innovation leverages off what’s happening in the world. This is definitely the case for The Confidence Man.

What would you consider to be your career highlight so far?
When people want to talk to you about a play you made years back and they’re still excited about it, that makes me feel like I must be doing something right.

What inspires you?
Of late, mostly television. The new season of South Park is really just going from strength to strength.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom to share?
You’ll probably have some hesitations about getting in the mask and being a player in The Confidence Man, but say yes, because you really won’t regret it!

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