Tim Etchells on witnessing

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This is an extract from an interview with Tim Etchells, Artistic Director of Forced Entertainment – read the full interview here.

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.

First Night. Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Read the full interview here.

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Tim Etchells on storytelling

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This is an extract from an interview with Tim Etchells, Artistic Director of Forced Entertainment – read the full interview here.

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 it’s 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.

12am: Awake & Looking Down. Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Read the full interview here.

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