Interview with Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment

The Coming Storm, currently on at Battersea Arts Centre, has already caused a stir, The Guardian noted “I could happily watch these performers for hours” and What’s On Stage labeled it, “a powerful and important piece of theatre”. Produced by performance group, Forced Entertainment, artistic director, Tim Etchells, speaks to Aesthetica about his approach to theatre and his soon to be released book, Vacuum Days.

A: At Forced Entertainment, you refer to yourselves as “six artists” do you think there is a difference between what you do and what a group of, say, “six directors” would do for instance?
TE: That’s a funny question! I guess the main thing is that as a group of six artists we share responsibility for what happens. So there’s a strong aspect of group ownership – it’s not the same as having six directors though, I’m glad to say. Mostly people function in the role of artists who are also performing. The great thing about that combined role is that people address what they do practically – I mean they have an understanding of space and time on stage from the inside; they know what it is to do things, to move, to be in relation to each other, space, time and task. Mostly directors don’t know those things so well – they spend their time watching, looking, thinking about structures, imagining rather than doing, working with the embodied presence of others.
So I think what we’re doing is really different than what “six directors” might make – because it’s plugged in to space and time in a very different way. Often when we’re talking, in breaks from improvs or rehearsals, you find me wandering about on the stage, picking things up, trying things out, fooling around… I think that’s my small way of trying to contact that other kind of understanding that comes from being inside.
The idea of a show with 6 directors is making me laugh though. I would love to see that, though I might take an aisle seat near the back somewhere!

A: Forced Entertainment is an interesting name, is it a reflection on the sort of entertainment you aim to produce?
TE: We liked the name and its combination of something positive and friendly – entertainment – and this word “forced” which points to something problematic and uneasy. I don’t think we knew it at the time, but in many ways this duality has been at the heart of our work since the beginning… so the name became a kind of manifesto.
I suppose this question of the relation to the audience. How to think about or work with that is very central to us. In some ways each show we make re-invents that relationship – not by installing a new staging situation, but through the way that specific pieces address the spectator, how the works make different demands or different invitations to the audience.

A: Can you please explain the idea behind Vacuum Days.
TE: Vacuum Days was an online project I made last year. It was an internet based thing in which every day I wrote a new text, the text often responding to events in the media. There are two strands that led into it I think. The first thing is the interest I have in virtual events and in the way that language creates both events and images. I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the way that words, even just a few of them, can make pictures and stories. Vacuum Days announced events – preposterous, theatrical spectacles, talks, cabaret turns, movie screenings, debates, fights, contests and so on – things that didn’t really happen as advertised but which become little thought experiments. What if? What would that be like?
The other big strand in there was me trying to find a way to process what was going on around me – in terms of the news and current event, and in terms of the media. So I was writing a new text every day for a year – responding to current events whether that was the killing of Bin Laden or the summer riots in the UK, or the Arab Spring or the economic downturn or the death of Peter Falk or the endless violence and bullshit of Clegg and Cameron. I was re-writing headlines, distorting and spinning events. It was often a case of making grotesque and awful situations into even more grotesque and awful situations, and very much a matter of me using the project to think about (and spit out!) a lot of the really ridiculous rhetoric and hyperbole in the media and internet space. It was satire, at least by some definitions but often very dark and incommensurable.
What’s great looking at the book now is that it stands as this distorted record of 2011, a map of so many of the things that happened and glimpse of the language that surrounded those things. There’s a hideous comedy, after all, in this compacted contemporary language like “hard interrogation” or “fiscal injection” or in a phrase like the ubiquitous “we’re all in it together”… what to do with those things that end up in your heard going round and round? Vacuum Days was my answer. I’m calling it a Dadaist year book of sorts and that link to Dada is important to me. It’s funny and harsh and brutal.. but ultimately a moral project. It’s concerned with truth and the fact that we don’t see enough of it.

A: You work with so many different visual mediums: performance, video, photography, installations- do you find they compliment one another, or do you feel that different mediums can access different ideas?
TE: Things shift from one form to another, so all the work is connected in some ways. On the other hand it’s true that some media or forms lend themselves to particular things… The Coming Storm belongs in theatre. It can’t be anything else. It’s exactly formed out of that possibility to mix live music, performance, text, light… there’s no other way to even think about that work.

A: On a day to day basis, what inspires you?
TE: I collect things constantly – texts, fragments, images. From all around. So in that sense, everything. I’m fascinated with people’s capacity to transform and detourn things too.. I love that ability people have to reverse the meaning of a sign, an object or a cultural form. I think there’s a resilience and an inventiveness in that process which i really respect.

A: What upcoming projects are you working on?
TE: For the next week (until 1 December) you can see Forced Entertainment’s The Coming Storm at Battersea Arts Centre. It’s been here there and everywhere since we opened the piece in the Summer at BAC and it’s great to see it so strong and funny and sad on tour again in the UK.
I’m also looking forward to seeing the amazing NY based performer Jim Fletcher do my monologue Sight is the Sense That Dying People Tend to Lose First…. Jim played Gatsby in GATZ, ERS’s eight hour adapation of The Great Gatsby which wowed audiences in the West End during LIFT this year – he’s equally unmissable in Sight.. which runs 22-24 November.
I’m just putting the finishing touches to four videos co-produced by the RSC and Forced Entertainment for the RSC online project called My Shakespeare.

Vacuum Days, the book, will be launched in London at Battersea Arts Centre on 24 November and in Sheffield at Site Gallery on 4 December. More information at Storythings.

The Coming Storm, running until 1 December, Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, Battersea, London, SW11 5TN.

My Shakespeare, can be viewed from next week.

1. Neon Friday copyright Tim Etchells.
2. The Coming Storm, courtesy of Hugo Glendinning.
3. The Coming Storm, courtesy of Hugo Glendinning.
4. Sight is the Sense That Dying People Tend to Lose First…. courtesy of Tim Etchells.