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The story behind Forced Entertainment's The Last Adventures

The award-winning experimental theatre company present their latest show as part of Fierce Festival, which kicks off today. Artistic director Tim Etchells give us an insight into its creation

'It invited a strongly visual approach' - a scene from The Last Adventurers
© Hugo Glendinning

Predicated on a certain kind of stepping into the unknown, the process of making The Last Adventures was typical in some ways, of many projects and processes I've gone through with Forced Entertainment. We were working at the outset from just a few fragments, images, texts, ideas and conversations about sound, space and costumes; trying things and combining them, and then trying them again in new combinations - scientists in a dumb movie, at the lab after-hours, adding one thing after another to a petri dish or glass beaker 'to see if something will happen'. This kind of process, hard to call a 'method' perhaps but actually a practise developed over 30 years of working together, is the preferred mode we have in these situations, a kind of unstructured structure for solving a problem that has, at the start of things, not yet even been defined.

We were working around stories, and around sound, and around landscape. We knew the stage for the initial version of the piece would be a massive old industrial space in the Ruhr and that somehow it invited a strongly visual approach. We talked about fantastic stories; folk tales, fairy stories, science fiction. We talked about opera choruses, pantomime crowd scenes, movie extras. We talked about scenery; home made scenery, 19th century illusionistic scenery. We talked about costumes; everything from soldiers to sea serpents and robots. We circled, two steps forward, one back, two steps forward, three back... the usual process.

What was different was the scale. There were 20 of us, maybe more, 16 performers and all vital kinds of tech, organisation and other support. We were working onsite at the Ruhr Trienniale, the festival which was the major commissioner for the piece and the context in which we did the first three shows. For two months we were working onsite in the Maschinenhalle (machinehall) of a former coal mine in the old industrial heartland of Germany's Ruhr valley, in Gladbeck, working late in the nights because there was no blackout possible, all 20 of us mini-bussing backwards and forwards from a hotel 10 miles away, all eating catered meals on-site in a freshly set up kitchen in the basement, all of us rattling around in this beautiful space, again, trying to make something happen.

"Not so much telling stories as conjuring them out of narrative"

The other big difference was the sound. At the very start of the project I invited the artist Tarek Atoui to join us. His work is very much about improvisation and very much about the permutation, combination, collision of different sonic elements - I thought it would make a good match for our patchwork approach to narrative and image and from the first shared rehearsals onwards this synergy was clear. The contrast was very dynamic too - even when reaching for a kind of spectacle visually Forced Entertainment's aesthetic remained solidly in the zone of the dressing-up box, home-made robot costume and cobbled together theatrical effects reminiscent of old theatre. Tarek's work meanwhile is resolutely contemporary, future-facing - violent electronics, home-made motion-sensors, algorithmic compositions. It's also a strange combination of stark inhuman-ness and quite awe inspiring beauty - slithers and shards of sound, storms of sound, physical gut-hitting bass, ethereal high-frequency splintering. Over time we learned to play these things against each other, learning to make this space between old tech and new tech sing in a new way and in an old way, not so much telling stories as conjuring them out of narrative, image and sound detritus.

Since the Ruhr The Last Adventures has been on a new journey all of its own - with presentations in Vienna, Zurich, Frankfurt and now for its UK premiere and only UK dates at Warwick Arts Centre as part of Fierce Festival. Re-shaping the work for theatres (even large stages) has meant compacting the piece, drawing new lines and shapes in the dramaturgy, re-thinking the relation to audience. It has also meant inviting a series of new musical guests who have been improvising over the base score and indications put in place by Atoui. We've worked with percussionist Uriel Barthélémi, trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, and with Tarek again and for the Warwick dates we're joined by KK Null who brings his own array of samples, electronic treatments and interventions into dialogue with the materials Tarek established. Watching the general rehearsal here in Warwick last night as KK played I realised how amazing it is to feel the ways in which these new sound collaborators re-mix and re-make the performance - bringing out new directions and nuances, shedding new light on the whole.

Fierce Festival kicks off today (2 October), running until 12 October 2014 at venues across the West Midlands. The Last Adventures is at Warwick Arts Centre until 3 October

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