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Brief Encounter with ... Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells

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Tim Etchells co-founded experimental theatre group Forced Entertainment in 1984. Their latest production, The Coming Storm, is currently on a UK tour, returning to Battersea Arts Centre (where it premiered earlier this year) from 20 November to 1 December 2012.

Could you give us an overview of The Coming Storm?
The Coming Storm continues our fascination with narrative - after starting with the question of what makes a good story, the six performers create, collaborate on, ambush and disrupt multiple stories which range from the personal to the comical and the profound. It works as a collage of images and tones underpinned by music to create a live experience that is constantly shifting or getting redrawn.

The show starts in a very minimal mode… but it accelerates more and more as time goes on bringing in music and dance and costume and anything else it can think of! The piece charts a journey between different kinds of performance possibilities as the empty stage gets filled with the trappings of this ragged epic.

The work is often unashamedly funny. A common tactic for us in the comedy of this piece, and many of the pieces, is that it straddles the line between what’s funny and what’s awful, what’s terrible. The work constantly flip-flops between laughter and tragedy… or laughter and discomfort. We love that territory where things are hard to categorise, or where they can’t quite be put away.

How did it come into being?
We started work on The Coming Storm with a singular narrative in mind but as the rehearsal process unfolded we moved more and more into a territory of fragments - unfinished narratives and 'scenes' or images which appear to both relate to and to contradict what's spoken. It's a familiar journey for me! I'm fascinated with stories but in the work (and in life perhaps!) I'm frustrated with singularity - so the limit of one single story seems to be something that I always want to challenge in the work.

Another starting point was music, we knew we wanted to undercut the text somehow and there happened to be an old piano in the place we were rehearsing and slowly it worked itself into the performance. I think I’m drawn to music and to dancing because they lie outside of verbal language – they open up different ways of thinking, feeling and doing, different ways of making propositions in the performance.

Can the devised process hamper narrative?
Devising certainly seems to hamper a single grand narrative as the whole company pitch in ideas and test material in improvisation. For us the whole process in the studio is always a kind of collaborative – a writing that we are doing together – inventing things, trying things, combining them, a writing that takes place between text, action, sound, light and time.

My role in the process remains very much connected to the generation and organisation of the material – text and everything else. During improvisations you often see me running on and off the stage, whispering instructions to people, or sometimes even yelling to try to change the course of what's happening, adding a detail or adjusting things. Making The Coming Storm this took on a new perspective because several of the performers were wearing quite absurd costumes at times – things that restrict their ability to move or to see or to hear properly – so there was often a very real sense in which they didn't know what was going on!

Describe Forced Entertainment to newcomers
We’re a group of six artists who have been working together since 1984 and from the beginning we’ve had an interest in what space theatre might occupy in contemporary life. We’ve treated theatre as a sort of toy – bent it, stretched it, broken it and seen what we can build from the wreckage. This has resulted in variety of theatre projects – game-like part-improvised pieces, durational works that go on for six, 12 and once 24 hours, big boisterous chaotic shows and more intimate and minimal ones and even a mischievous bus tour. We make the work in Sheffield but we tour it all over the world.

Do you think British theatre has changed since you started? Is it too conservative compared to European theatre?
What’s strange is that in Britain theatre still comes down to plays. There’s still a tyranny here for the word and for realism. It’s hideously boring and that means that people on the edges of theatre – like us – people edging towards performance or live art, people edging towards dance, or towards visual art – never really get taken seriously. We’re an anomaly. I think if we’ve done well here it’s in spite of the climate in many ways – because of the support we’ve had from abroad, and because of our own persistence. There are strong partners for us here too of course – festivals like LIFT and SPILL, plus venues up and down the country who support our work and find a place for it – but the general context in England can feel pretty barren.

How many pianos have you broken on stage?
None so far although there has been some close calls considering the pressure it is put under by the chaos onstage. We’re very lucky because one of our technicians, Elb Hall, is also a piano tuner and so he gives the piano we use in the show an MOT at regular intervals.

Will theatre still exist in 500 years time?
It’s funny, we recently made a show called Tomorrow’s Parties where two performers hypothosise about the possible futures which lie in wait for the human race from the banal to the bizarre, but it doesn’t guess at what happens to theatre. I can only imagine that in an increasingly mediated and mediatized world, the live negotiation between an audience and a performer will be even more fascinating.

What are your future plans with Forced Entertainment?
I can’t say much at the moment as neither project has been announced but in the next year we’re hoping to make a large-cast site-specific show for a major European festival as well as presenting a super-sized version of a show in our current repertoire (with added audience participation) closer to home.

Regarding my solo work you’ll be able to see Sight is the Sense That Dying People Tend to Lose First at Battersea Arts Centre at the same time as we present The Coming Storm. It’s a monologue that attempts and fails to document and explain the world over the course of an hour performed by the brilliant Jim Fletcher who British audiences might know from GATZ which played in London this summer. I’m also doing a project with the RSC which will be available to view online later in the year and you can see my project for Artangel’s A Room for London playing on The Space now.

The Coming Storm is touring the UK this October and November visiting Sheffield, Lancaster, Ipswich, Coventry, Manchester and London. Full details at forcedentertainment.com


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