Interview with Malcolm Hamilton from Mufti Games

Paschale Straiton met Malcolm Hamilton from Mufti Games, who is thinking playfully about social action on the street…

Paschale: I’d like to know how you got into street theatre, or outdoor arts and about the projects that you’re working on at the moment.

Malcolm Hamilton blowing bubbles

 Malcolm: I’m Malcolm Hamilton and I’m the Creative Director of Mufti Games. Mufti Games uses play and games to engage people. That might involve playing for play’s sake, playing within a show or within a university project, an exhibition or with a piece of technology. 

There are 2 arms to the company: producing interactive or playable street theatre; and using play for engagement, so we run workshops using play. Our work started from a commission for £50 to produce something in a shop window for 2 hours. We made a life sized game of hangman and it went very well. And then it turned out that this sat very well in street theatre. When we thought of another show, it was to make a massive game of battleships, which became a street theatre experience. I realised that I loved street theatre. I thought, ‘I much prefer this to indoor arts. I’m going to quit acting – I’m going to do this!

Paschale: You worked indoors before then?

Malcolm: Yes, I was an indoor theatre person really. I’ve been based in Bristol since 2006 and when I moved to Bristol I was doing devised and physical theatre. But to be honest when I was 19, I was at Drama School in Edinburgh and we ran club nights at the Bongo Club that were immersive, playful, silly. So what I’m doing with Mufti relates back to that. The links are very clear really. 

More recently I had a Leverhulme Scholarship attached the Bristol Old Vic and that was about exploring play as a thing. I went to a conference in Denmark called Counterplay and there was another one in Leeds. So I’ve been studying play and the play community, which is an amazing multidisciplinary environment involving architecture, education, psychology, place making – all linked to play and the importance of making a playful world. That’s now at the forefront of what we’re doing – it’s about play.

Paschale: So what are you working on at the moment?

Malcolm: Well, there are a few projects. 

We’ve had Without Walls R&D Blueprint funding to develop a set of games or interruptions I’m calling them, to galvanise conversation about the housing sector. This project was inspired by a group of women called Ferguson’s Gang from the 1930s, who wore capes and masks and ambushed the National Trust with silver pineapples full of money and campaigned for conservation – to keep green spaces and to keep important historical buildings. They followed the writings of Clough Williams-Ellis who built Portmeirion wrote a book called, ‘England and the Octopus’ – the octopus being the encroaching arms of market development. 

So we have been taking these ideas into the modern day. At one point I thought it would be an immersive show where you became part of Ferguson’s Gang and took part in a set of activities. But it’s ended up as a set of street theatre interventions. Some of them are audio installations and some are gameshows on the street. We’re making a satirical property development stall, with a Brass Eye kind of feel. Newtopia is a big chalk mural using building bricks and bits of creative technology, which is a place making exercise. 

Paschale: And would all these things happen at the same time?

Malcolm: Yes. The idea is that we’ll do this as a participatory project in each place and we’ll work with residents or grass roots campaign groups attached to a housing association or maybe a homeless group. It’s important that we also work with council town planners so that we’ve got people who know about housing legislation and policy in there as well so that there’s a creative place for transformative participation. 

It could serve as a place making exercise for towns but it’s definitely about galvanising a conversation between different elements about housing. We’ll have ready-made games and templates that can adapt to different places. I’m working out a model of how we can do this – financially and logistically.  

Paschale: So you’ve had a year of R&D on that?

Malcolm: No a few months – a week at 101 [Outdoor Arts Creation Space near Newbury] and then weeks and weeks of research. I’m stretching the project out a bit because Greenwich and Docklands Festival have asked me to do a talk and a work-in-progress showing as part of the Hub.  So we’re going to take what we did in Newbury and show some of those things at Greenwich. 

PS: I’m fascinated that you’re dealing with play, activism and change…

MH: Yes, it’s about using play and comedy and theatre to enable conversations, to enable change. 

Paschale: I’m wondering if researchers would be interested in the results. Are you sharing these with any academic partners? 

Malcolm: I did put in for a Brigstow grant actually [The University of Bristol’s Brigstow Institute supports research projects] but I haven’t gone any further with that. 

Paschale: A university researcher may be interested in helping with evaluation perhaps? I’d also like to mention that I’m reminded of Jeremy Shine’s provocation at For the Love Of It in 2017. About 40 artists were outside listening to him. He had a bunch of newspapers and he sifted through them, stating the topics of that day’s major news stories – whether that was war, the state of the NHS, Brexit, obesity, teenage violence. He asked if anyone was addressing this stuff and there weren’t many hands up. Some artists were coming at those ideas sideways but in general people shied away from political ideas. So on the back of that conversation, it’s really refreshing to see you coming at a serious social issue, albeit from a play perspective. 

Malcolm: The reason we moved away from the audience being Ferguson’s Gang is that it started to become dictative – with us telling people what the problems are. It needs to be about working with people and looking at the problems where they live and looking at different ways to spark conversations on the street. When we did it in Newbury there were 6 different elements all within close proximity of each other. So it would be the same in a festival with a website, which can link to workshops and other activities. 

Paschale: Because I think it’s so brilliant, there’s a bit of my producer head which is asking, ‘how could you capture people’s responses tangibly so that you could help to effect policies?’

Malcolm: Finding a way to do that would be brilliant. And maybe we should talk about that more some time. 

Paschale: Yeah. 

Malcolm: Particularly if we can get those conversations happening. There’s a town planner who I’ve been working with on other projects – she’s a neighbour. She’s came in and we made a game in an hour. It’s brilliant and we’re going to do it in Greenwich. It’s called Lego Legislation. You all take the role of prospective developers on a new housing development. You’re given a task – ‘You have to have this much affordable housing, this much green space, this much parking etc. and you’ve got 5 years to complete it.’ And the music starts and after 1 minute we say, ‘Ok the legislation’s changed. Now you have to do this, this, this and this.’ And your tools to make all this happen are bits of Lego and dominoes. We’re going to play it on a bigger scale with building bricks on the street. It’s like a funhouse version of teaching complicated legislation around housing development! I think it’s going to be really brilliant. 

That idea was made so quickly because we had somebody who was an expert saying, ‘this is how complicated it is, this is what it’s like.’ 

Paschale: It’s exciting that you’re intersecting with people like town planners. I think that our community can be a bit inward looking. We don’t always connect with artists from other disciplines, let alone people from other professions. You have a producer’s brain which looks for connections with other people and that makes you quite unusual in the outdoor arts sector I think. 

Malcolm: There’s a lot of young architect, place-making agencies out there and we thought that this was fun because we could start to do some of their work but in a different way. I’ve started to get involved in some of that work. 

Paschale: Have you come across Muf Architecture – a female led art and architecture organisation? Given your names, you should look them up!

Malcolm: I will! 

What was really fun about the project was using satire. We created a set of unsuitable housing developments. We made these lovely, big photoshop posters with tree houses placed above gravestones and a housing development set in the middle of a roundabout that no-one could get to. We discussed these in the middle of Newbury. We presented it as invisible theatre, like a Trigger Happy TV type thing and everybody thought it was real. People from Newbury council was standing there and saying, ‘Yeah, this is interesting. Yeah we think that building on graveyards would be a really good idea.’

Paschale: Do you know Roger from the Bureau of Silly Ideas? You’ve got a lot in common. 

Malcolm: I don’t know him but I heard him speaking at an ISAN event and there’s a whole load of stuff I’d like to discuss with him. I wanted to set up Octopus Property Investment after listening to him. And then I Googled it and Octopus Group are huge property developers, healthcare, banking – the lot. 

Did they not Google what octopus is? The sinister, encroaching arms – maybe they love that association? ‘England and the Octopus’ was written in 1928 but colonialism has been called ‘The octopus’ and the associations are horrible. We’ll have to see if we can continue calling ourselves Octopus as the baddies but it could be fun.

Paschale: Have you heard of the Keep Streets Live campaign? It was set up by a busker called Johnny Walker, who sadly died earlier this year. He was a musician, who was very active in promoting busking rights and finding out about new legislation, around the crackdown against busking in lots of cities. He was interested in issues around public and private space and he was very successful in pressurising local authorities and getting the word about. 

Malcolm: NASA has shared some of that stuff is that right?

Paschale: Yes, Jules Howarth has been great at sharing that stuff. Johnny was a figurehead. He put a lot of time and energy into campaigning. A couple of times a year we are approached by a journalist to comment on these issues and we used to pass them onto Johnny. We don’t get directly involved in activism around busking as not many of our members are buskers. However, it’s important that we acknowledge that our work is heavily impacted by who owns what space and permissions around what you can do where. What you’re doing is coming sideways at that stuff.

One Kid and his Dog – photo Paul Blakemore

Malcolm: Yes. But actually the show that we’re making is about exactly that. It’s called ‘One Kid and Their Dog’. It’s a take on ‘One Man and his Dog’ with an actor dressed as a dog. The Sheppard starts off as an actor and then becomes a child. You have a sheep who is released into the crowd and members of the public join her and are herded about. It’s absolutely about public and pseudo-public space and playing around with where you’re allowed to play and how you’re allowed to play and permission to play in public spaces. 

Paschale: It would be good to share with NASA folk how your work continues to nudge these ideas to prompt further conversations around this stuff. 

Malcolm: Yes. Some developments are starting to happen naturally. This show came from looking at play but with hard times, you grow up a bit and become a bit more political. So all these things are coming together and it’s good to have a conversation about it. 

Paschale: Yes. It’s about having those conversations and staying light. As soon as you start talking about policy or law people think, ‘Oh I don’t want to go there. It’s a bit scary. It’s boring. I don’t understand.’

Malcolm: Ferguson’s Gang is about active citizenship. It started to be about playful activism. I was studying playful activism in a lot of the research, looking at Focus East 15 and groups like that who have used play in their activism. And I realised that as I talked about it in this way, festivals said, ‘No – we’re funded by local authorities and you’re demonising local authorities and just can’t afford to do that. It’s not going to work.’ 

So it had to change into being more about citizenship. It’s about us getting people into conversation, encouraging them to get more involved in their areas, to challenge apathy and to hear people’s views, to record those views and to share those views. So much housing consultation is rubbish – they say that they’re talking to people and they’re not. 

The Chocolate Factory development in Easton in Bristol for example – that was terrible! The developers did all of this consultation:

‘Oh yes we’re listening…Here you go.’

‘But that’s not what we talked about.’

‘Well, yes it is.’

‘No, it’s not what we talked about.’

‘You wanted to keep some of the historic buildings therefore you’re not going to be able to have affordable housing.’

‘But we didn’t ask to keep those historic buildings. We asked to keep those buildings. And we do want affordable housing. And that building’s rubbish.’

‘Well this is a compromise. If this is what you want, then you can’t have that.’

And the council went, ‘Oh well, we’ll defer this as we don’t think this is quite right.’

And then they waited and waited and the developers came back and said, ‘You’ve had your 6 months. Are you opening it up again? We’ll appeal now. Right, thank you very much. Ok we’ll go in and build that…although we won’t. We’re going to hang on a few years because the land’s going up in value. So we’re going to leave it and then we’ll build our 250 houses and sell them at £350,000 a pop and not have any affordable housing because it’s not viable. It’s disgusting. And they said, ‘We’re absolutely listening to you. Come and look at our models.’ It was rubbish and it happens all the time. 

Paschale: I’d love to see you and Roger Hartley in conversation together and to continue talking about political issues. Good luck with it all – brilliant!

Malcolm: Thanks!

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