Tim Etchells is an artist and a writer based in the UK. He has worked in a wide variety of contexts, notably as artistic director of the world-renowned performance group Forced Entertainment. He has also worked in collaboration with a range of visual artists, choreographers, and photographers. His work spans performance, video, photography, text projects, installation and fiction. He is currently Professor of Performance & Writing at Lancaster University.
Etchells’ directorial work with Forced Entertainment ranges from chaotic deconstructed theatre spectacles such as Out of Order (2018), Real Magic (2016) Bloody Mess (2004) and First Night (2001), through more intimate and sometimes minimalist performances such as Dirty Work (The Late Shift) (2017). Tomorrow’s Parties (2011), Exquisite Pain (2005), the latter based on a text by the visual artist Sophie Calle. Under Etchells’ direction the group has develop a strand of extraordinary improvised durational performances lasting from 6 to 24 hours including Speak Bitterness (1994 – ongoing), Quizoola! (1996 – ongoing) and And on the Thousandth Night… (2000 – ongoing).
Etchells has developed a unique voice in writing for and about performance – his book Certain Fragments (Forced Entertainment and Contemporary Performance) is widely acclaimed and his work has been featured in numerous anthologies exploring ideas and practice at the cutting edge of contemporary theatre.
The division from real time, real space
PC: What is theatre?
TE: I don’t know really, I mean there’s a theatre culture which is a set of ways of thinking about audience and performance that changes and shifts around in different contexts historically – so maybe that’s what theatre is in any given moment. But if one thinks more at core or philosophically it’s probably something more about the relationship of watcher and watched. It’s about a piece of time or space that’s somehow separated from other time and space so we can look at it. That sense of an event divided from daily life – an event that constantly has to deal with, account for and somehow try to transcend it’s distance – that’s probably where I would park it.
PC: How does the role of artistic director fit with the collaborative model?
TE: Forced Entertainment is a thirty-four year collaboration and the core group of us (Robin Arthur, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, Cathy Naden, Terry O’Connor and me) have been working together for that whole time. Occasionally we invite other people to join us or we’ve been able to do projects with larger casts for one reason or another but at the heart of the company there’s always that collaboration between six people. My role within the group emerged over the first six or seven years. I performed in some of the early shows and we more or less rotated, different functions between us – so sometimes somebody would be performing, the next time they might be directing and so on. After a little bit of rotation like that though, it got to a place where certain people wanted to stick at certain roles. At that point I said I’d focus on organising and shaping the material directorially. The artistic director thing grew up alongside that.
I also filter and feed the process as it goes along. Starting points come from me very often and I’m the one setting the agenda in rehearsals on a day-to-day basis. It’s all very much a group effort though, it’s important to flag that.
Some days it can feel like I’m doing what artistic directors do elsewhere but a lot of the time I feel like I’m there in the room just like everybody else – listening, looking, talking, trying to figure out together what we’re doing. I don’t come with finished ideas or concepts; I come with half an idea and everybody else maybe comes with a bit of an idea and we stir it all together. It is much more about the group of us together negotiating our way towards something – a shared uncovering – than it is about me trying to articulate something that I’ve got in my head.
I deviated from traditional Q and A here and instead I said a word and Tim responded to it.
TE: We have a questioning attitude to story and storytelling – especially since we don’t make work that’s particularly character or narrative based. It’s not that there is an objection to story as such, it’s just that we have an understanding of story as one of the ways that theatre tends to organise itself, not the only one. Literary theatre often ties its meaning to narrative structures – neat and argumentative, where we’ve always been interested in structures that are more like music or architecture, structures in the work that are more like pattern or emotional journey or textural journey. In many ways our work has as much in common with dance or music or visual art performance as it does with theatre, if you think of theatre as literary theatre.
That said, I think very often we’ve dealt with story as a material but we’ve tended to think about story pluralistically: why do you only have to have one?! I think a lot of our work is based on the idea that what you’ve got on stage is a machine for generating many stories or different possibilities for stories. One of the things that the audience is doing I think is linking things together and making connections. Some of the pieces we have made have a raw material that is very narratively charged and we work by combining and recombining that material. I’m thinking about relatively early but quite important works like Club of No Regrets or 12am: Awake & Looking Down. The latter has hundreds of named characters who’s names are written on cardboard placards and the performers change costumes constantly and appear as all these characters. It’s theatre as dressing up box. There’s no story but in a sense, as all of these figures move past each other, a kind of kaleidoscopic narrative happens: Elvis Presley goes this way and A Nine Year Old Shepherd Boy goes that way and just for one moment you’re thinking, “On what mountain side did they meet?” And then it’s gone. I think we like that idea of the stage as a space that generates story but we don’t like to get locked into telling one.
E.M. Forster gives a great bit of advice to novelists which is “only connect”. Of course we have time for that impulse but I think we’re also interested in the idea of ‘also disconnect’. What happens when you put things down on the stage that don’t belong together and leave them like that? As an audience or watcher you’re then forced to somehow reconcile those things.
Creating a problem
TE: Again, it’s about the relation to the spectator. Perhaps theatre has in it this idea of the spectator who passively consumes or watches something in a distant way – consuming the events as they unfold in front of them on the stage as if your responsibilities to the theatrical event are not much more than being entertained or keeping track of what’s going on down there in the dark. The witnessing idea arises from a desire to go beyond that – to make that relation between the spectator and the stage more complex ethically and politically.
Brecht talked, in that poem about the street accident, about the idea of the witness and the guy who’s explaining how the car went this way and the other car went that way. The explainer in that poem has the responsibility to get it right because it matters. Who crashed into who? Who’s fault was it? How did the guy got knocked down? So there’s something about witness that’s about being truthful.
You also have somebody like Chris Burden who in his 1971 piece Shoot is shot in the arm by his friend in the gallery. He talked about the people who were there that night for the performance as witnesses rather than spectators. That’s to stress the reality of the thing that happened – a bullet going into an arm. Burden says that watching that is different from watching a fake bullet fired from a fake gun – there’s a quality of “realness”.
We’ve done nothing with that kind of bold claim on ‘reality’ but I think we’ve always tried to look at the stage and the auditorium and how to implicate the spectator in a more complex way.
We make work that refuses to be simply an entertainment taking place at a distance, down the other end of the telescope, down there on the stage. Instead we try to find ways to triangulate the work directly to the auditorium. As if to ask the audience who they are and who is sitting with them, to wonder not about the narrative of a drama but about the truly present situation and dynamic of the theatre. So many of our shows ask that question in different ways. Often we have worked by creating a kind of dramaturgical tension in the auditorium or between the stage and the auditorium. For example, in First Night the performers appear as rather failing vaudevillians or nightclub entertainers who effectively turn on the audience in different ways – vague insinuations and then direct attacks, the surface of the entertainment crumbling. “It’s all good people here; there’s no racists here; there’s no homophobes here; there’s no wife beaters here.” Taken together it creates a kind of probing of the audience, forcing them to take a position, to think about who they are and who the strangers in the seats nearby might be. Theatre perhaps sees itself for the most part as a gathering of the good, honest and true to watch something that will enlighten them. A benign, convivial space. I think, a lot of the time, our work wants to niggle at that, transforming it into this unfolding set of ethical and political negotiations with the audience which connects to this idea of witnessing. Something is at stake.
A meeting point of other signals
TE: My first thought is that I don’t have any! We make things by doing them. Our capacity to imagine in advance any of the things that we have made is extremely limited. Mostly what happens in the rehearsal process is that I will make a proposition or a set of propositions and something will happen in the space in response – improvisation, investigation through action. The responses also include the performer’s creative mishearing of what I’ve asked them to do. So it always, in any case, exceeds our ‘ideas’. In any process I’d say ninety per cent of what we do is trash but maybe ten per cent, if we’re lucky, is worth hanging on to. That’s how the work emerges. I’m very interested in this idea that the work comes from being in a room with people who are doing things – it doesn’t come from me sitting down at home and writing it – it doesn’t come from anybody drawing it – it comes from being in a room with bodies and action, argument, conversation and doing. It’s social. It’s material. It’s tangible. Text in our pieces tends to grow this same way too. There are a few of the performances here and there, where there’s been a basis in writing, but mostly text comes out of the room, it doesn’t get made separately.
We have a big habit of using found things, i.e. when you see Forced Entertainment’s work it’s not a question of “Oh my Lord, I would never have thought that such a thing was possible!” It much more like, “Oh my god, they’re doing that, I’ve seen that already so many times!” So Real Magic enacts a fragment of some very bad game show or cabaret routine and even if you haven’t seen it, you feel like you have. It’s generic. Off the peg. Very often, in the work, there’s a sort of redundancy, almost a lack of imagination at one level. I’m aware that in one sense we always want to do the most unimaginative and boring thing, not the radical, flight of fancy image. That sense of limit is really important in the work, it’s not orgiastic, free self-expression. The work is made in relation to our culture that’s already full of images and actions and we’re often picking them up and trying to animate them. There’s a limit, a language, a set of givens that we are negotiating.
If I’m teaching writing, I meet a lot of people who are obsessed with the idea that it’s about expressing themselves in a language that comes from themselves, i.e. writing is a kind of internal, deep sea diving process. By contrast I think of writing, at least in good part, as a process of repeating, echoing, speaking and passing through voices that come from other places. I think about the way that, when you speak, it’s hard to speak without your parents speaking through you, without your teachers speaking through you, without the movies that you’ve watched or the computer games that you’ve played speaking through you, without your friends speaking through you, without all the crap you’ve watched on television or the internet speaking through you. I have a sense of the person as a meeting point of other signals rather than just ‘themselves’ – my voice is mine, but it’s also a kind of switching station.
TE: Two things. I’m interested in creating a structure or system that allows (within the space of an hour and half or two hours or whatever) you to learn the way that it’s working. In that structure or system you can then begin to locate yourself so that it becomes a world in and of itself that’s maybe looping or repeating or returning to certain things. Again, it’s to do with a piece not just being a parade of newness – it’s both new and repeating. In terms of memory, you’re remembering back to half an hour ago or you’re remembering back to fifteen minutes ago or you’re remembering back to an hour ago and it becomes a sort of system that refers you back to yourself in it.
The other thing that I think about is that often we work with improvisation in the making of things and/or in the doing of them depending on the piece. We have a real interest in performers not being able to remember. For example, in Bloody Mess John tries to tell the story of the big bang – the beginning of the universe – but he doesn’t know anything about physics so what he remembers of the big bang is just a home made, ‘down the pub’ version. I think we do that a lot. In Quizoola! (the piece with all the questions and answers) people constantly ask how a car engine works or what’s the plot of the bible, things that you can’t reasonably be expected to explain, but they do try. We’re very interested in the process of them trying to explain those things or remember them and articulate them in language. The failing memory is more interesting than a fully functioning one because you only get a partial version and a partial version is always more interesting than the full version – it’s got more holes in it.
Memory also links back to imagination and witnessing. We try to engage people in a different way and one of the ways we do that is to work with fragments. We like to work with pieces that aren’t connected so that the audience will have to do that imaginative work of joining them together. We pass on (almost) the job of imagining to somebody else. We’re about materialising a set of facts, events, things in the space and other people are the ones busy imagining. We’re more about putting some things there that they have to deal with.
Slowly accumulate the knowledge
TE: Part one of a process for us is trying to throw a lot of material on to the table and part two is editing. That’s often about trying to carve up chunks of improvisation that have been done on different days or different weeks, maybe even in different cities, and to arrange them on the timeline of the piece in a way that feels like a show to us. In that process, usually, if we’ve got ten sections, by the end of editing they would typically all have been in every possible position in relation to the piece, and they would have all been thrown out (and then brought back in)! It’s a really big part of the work for us, basically making lists of the structure and rejigging it before running it and seeing what doesn’t work, then reordering it all and doing it again and seeing what doesn’t work once again. In this way we slowly accumulate the knowledge that we need in order to compose something using the materials that we’ve got. It’s a process in which we are trying to understand what the material will do energetically and dynamically but we’re also testing what material will join to other material, and in what sequences. We’ll keep doing that – rearranging endlessly – until the show opens. The normal thing is that in the days before the premiere (even on the day of the premiere) we’re still moving things around.
Through editing we try to understand the material: where you can put this scene, this dance, this text and what changes when you move it? We talk a lot about the timeline – from minute one to minute one hundred and twenty: Where are you? What’s changed? What’s building up? What kind of knowledge is accumulating? What shifts in energy or information or understanding are happening? In that sense it is totally like film editing or editing a novel – you just look at the big time line and say, “What can I move?” “What can I tighten?” “What can I cut?”
TE: Chaos is the order that you weren’t expecting! That’s what my 19 year old son tells me. I’m not sure that there is such a thing as chaos really. Any set of actions in time and space has a structure. It might not be easy to see at first glance. But it’s always there. Pattern and structure are always present.
Of course there are plenty of moments in our performances that look chaotic. Many times there will be material created in improvisation where a number of performers are working, making their own decisions in a kind of friction with each other: some striking off in this direction, others going in that direction. It’s a very complex interaction and when you look at it, it can appear chaotic – hard to map or contain. But in the theatre works we tend to control that kind of chaos very carefully. So chaos tends to be a recreation rather than anything really out of hand – we study the video recordings of the rehearsals and recreate the best of them, move for move, line for line. Someone once observed that the things that look most chaotic in our pieces are often the most completely and precisely choreographed. We’re very interested in that texture – that feeling that the eye doesn’t know where to rest, that the centre is missing, you see it, in shows like Real Magic, The Last Adventures or Bloody Mess or even the new one Out of Order, but we know we couldn’t improvise those every night in the theatre (it’s too unpredictable). So the only way that we can get anything to look out of control and multi-directional is via choreographing the most dynamic of the improvisations – scoring them in relation to the video and then working on notation and mechanical repetition. It’s acting – making it look real when it isn’t, making time flow, but controlling it somehow. Chaos on stage is, by its nature, perhaps slightly oxymoronic!
PC: Play / Games / Rules
TE: We shy away from narrative because, mostly, we find it boring and instead we think about structuring time in front of the audience in different ways. One of the structures we refer to a lot is the idea of game play and working within rules. I think that’s partly because if you establish a set of rules and operate within them, making them visible, then an audience can very quickly latch on to them – they see what you’re playing with, they see the rules and therefore understand the decisions you’re making, and what your choices mean. The performance Quizoola!, comprises two thousand questions written down and in it the performers take turns to ask them of each other. The answers are always improvised and answers can be short or long, truthful or not truthful. You only have to watch two minutes of that performance and you understand already how the whole thing works. So as an audience member you’re immediately in on the game and you can see how different performers are contracting, expanding, pushing and running within the rules of the system that we’re establishing. I think a lot of the Forced Entertainment pieces work that way – we let people in on the workings of the pieces so that spectators can judge and think along with us. Making the rules clear allows the audience into the space of the piece in a different way.
I find it very hard to get involved with narrative tension. It’s hard to persuade me that there is any tension, in theatre especially: this person’s going to leave this person or is going to kill this person… it’s a play! I’m more interested in that business of watching two people make moves in a game. For me performance has more in common with watching sport or watching games, even chess. You see people making moves, you understand the framework they’re making them in and you get involved because you want to see how the game plays out. It’s a different tension than narrative.
TE: Mostly we cultivate a certain kind of mundanity on the stage: the idea that the performance is being built in front of you, here and now, using very basic materials, in quite easy to understand ways. Things build up over a piece; a language is established in the beginning and it becomes more complex. The raw material initially is quite basic and the moves that the performers make on it are quite basic as well. We often chose to start from a deliberately difficult or unpromising position. A good example is an early Forced Entertainment piece Club of No Regrets in which a set of scenes are enacted by two performers. In the first enactments of the scenes they’re parcel taped to chairs so they can’t move and their mouths are parcel taped shut. You can’t really hear what they’re saying but they’ve got their little papers with the scenes on, so you sort of understand that they’re enacting these fragmentary dramas. It’s as far from virtuoso as it could get! We make a deliberately unpromising proposal at the beginning – something dramatically minimal, even stunted – but over time the performers are cut out of the chairs, they ‘memorise’ the lines from the papers, they start to perform them more, music comes in to support them and the theatrical energy and power of the piece builds. It’s about journey and about using simple building blocks. We start from a much more ‘here and now’ sort of situation and in that sense we try to look not very virtuosic, much more amateur – as if the work is simply thrown together. It’s ironic though, as I was saying before – if you look at the work we’ve done over thirty-four years: often minutely scoring endless hours of performance and getting to the point where we can reconstruct very complex improvisations involving ten people with sound and light and make it look like it’s just happening, here and now – there is of course a huge virtuosity in that. It’s just a kind of virtuosity that hides itself.
There’s a really good interview with Stewart Lee where he talks about how he thinks of himself as writer but he does all of his work as a writer trying to make what he does not look or sound like writing at all. It should look like he’s just standing there saying whatever comes into his head and, if it doesn’t seem like that, then he thinks he’s not doing a good job. There’s often a similar sense in our own work: most of the effort goes into trying to make things like they’re just happening – all of the hard work, the real virtuoso work, is done achieving that.
Discomforting unfinished businesses
TE: In much of the Forced Entertainment work and in my solo practice there are moments, events, scenes, actions and texts that effectively refuse to confirm themselves as one thing or another: it’s funny but it’s not at all funny, or it’s extremely aggressive and extremely apologetic at the same time. We often, I think very deliberately, put these things in a close proximity – creating work that pushes and pulls an audience member at the same time, in two directions.
We don’t mind moments in shows where everybody laughs but we’re also quite known for those moments where a few people are laughing and other people are annoyed with them because they’re laughing. We like the tension that comes from this kind of duality.
At one level, for me, the work sets out to create situations or feelings or exchanges that aren’t reconcilable. Something is profoundly not finished or unbalanced or unanswered in what we’re doing. There’s a problematic lack of resolution in what you’re left with. A key understanding about art making for me is that it’s not so much about making statements as it is about opening space. It’s about wanting to leave the audience with a problem rather than solving it. I mean that’s Brecht of course – no catharsis, leave people questioning.
TE: Again, I have a certain cynicism about the term, just as I might be cynical about virtuosity or imagination – a terrible admission perhaps! There’s something rather soft about it, a bit gooey!
What does interest me though is the transformation of materials and actions and experience over time: how understanding and perception change in and through the course of performance. Even when things stay the same they are changing. That’s why we work so much, over the years, with repetition.
It’s been a fantasy of ours for a long time, to make a work where all the materials are basically trash: nothing of any cultural importance, no statements of importance, no important anything, just lightweight stuff basically. But the desire is to arrange the rubbish in such a way that it becomes extremely strong – to make it sing, and really powerfully. The material for Real Magic is basically trash: a little scene from some half-arsed game show, about twenty seconds long in it’s shortest iteration. But we work that material fearlessly and we make something that has punch and a poetry, reach and ambition. I like the idea that the strength of what you’re doing in performance comes from the performance, from what’s done, rather than being a predetermined thing arising from the material. Everyone knows King Lear is important, or Three Sisters – I don’t want to borrow or lean on their significance. I’m more interested to make my own.
Back to here and us
TE: Two things. I think we are always very strong on this idea that you have to end in the language that you begin in, or the language that you’re working in. If you’ve got a question in the work, you answer the question in the language that you’ve been dealing with. So often you see endings that arrive from somewhere else in the form of a text or a song or a dance or a thing that hasn’t been earned. We’re obsessed with this idea that you have to answer your question in the terms you’ve already established. A big speech from the author at the end of a dance piece isn’t a satisfying solution. You’d need to dance the answer to your question.
The other big thing is that endings mustn’t close anything at all. I’m returning to this idea of ending with a problem rather than a neatly tied package.
Finally, I think about the ending as a way of negotiating your way back to the present time with the audience. We tend to start quite close to the audience, in the sense of making a certain kind of contact and a certain kind of present relationship with them – the simple starting place that I spoke about already. Then there’s often a sense of the performance journeying away from that closeness – getting thicker and moving deeper into something. Then in the last chunk of time, towards the end of the piece we row back to the place where we can see each other and feel each other across the divide between the stage and the auditorium. Tomorrow’s Parties is a show with two performers on stage making speculations about what the future will be like. There’s a feeling in that piece that you depart into quite a cerebral, imaginative world of the future but a couple of times, and especially at the end, we come back down to the idea: What will people in the future say about now? How will people speak about this time? So at the end there’s an attempt to return to the present time and space of the theatre, to audience and performers, to here and to us.