The Thrill of It All

Forced Entertainment’s new show struggles to reconcile the conflict between performer and performance, using movement and sound to reveal the rusted mechanics of theatre.

Dance and theatre have a dynamic relationship. Early methods of storytelling incorporated dance as a way to express meaning and it has continued to occupy an important position in the theatrical tradition. Though dance is commonly used as a means to propel narrative and demonstrate emotions, the potential of dance within a theatrical piece is extensive. There is, for instance, a vast difference between the use of movement in the theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874 – 1940) and the role of dance and movement in the variety show format and in musical theatre. In Meyerhold’s performances, the three dimensional bodies of the actors were integrated with two dimensional sets to develop a unity between actor and set. His production of The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) is arguably the best demonstration of this process, where Lyubov Popova (1889 – 1924) designed a machine-like structure, complete with moving parts and the actors’ performances moved in unison with the rhythms of the machine, created a pulsating whole. Although both demonstrate a type of dance or movement theatre, this use of movement is entirely different from the sort of movement that occurs within musical theatre, where dance and music are utilised under strict choreography to advance narrative and create atmosphere. Dance offers enormous flexibility in its various guises: it is representative of story, demonstrative of character and it is also, in the more abstract sense, a study into the nature of physicality, with reference to the body and its mechanics.

British theatre company, Forced Entertainment (founded 1984) manipulate these roles of dance and movement within theatre in their new show, The Thrill of It All. The production endeavours to use movement in a way that incorporates both the surface glamour of vaudevillian dance with the underlying reality of the process. It employs the variety show format but this quickly disintegrates to reveal the mechanics of theatre and the struggle of the performers in creating performance. The Thrill of It All was created though Forced Entertainment’s distinctive collaborative process and is framed and focused by Artistic Director, Tim Etchells, while Kate McIntosh worked as choreographic advisor for the piece. McIntosh is a New Zealand-born artist trained in dance and she is conscious that “dance and theatre trainings give very different perspectives on how to structure an experience and navigate meaning.” She believes that “a more in-depth research of physicality, which can come with a dance perspective, is certainly rich for developing the whole area of what is ‘unsaid’ in theatre.” Dance and movement in theatre can offer a more visceral experience than theatre based solely on text and have always been important to Forced Entertainment’s work, but The Thrill of It All demonstrates a shift in the way they emphasize movement in performance. McIntosh comments: “The performers’ physicality is one way that I can connect to a human presence escaping the more artificial layers.” The movement in the production is laboured and the exertions of the dancers reveal the humanity beneath the façade of performance.

McIntosh worked with the performers to develop the choreography but was reticent to create any real formal movement patterns for them. The choreog­raphy remains loose and skeletal with the intention of allowing the dancers freedom within the structure of the dance: “Any detectable ‘choreography’ should seem like the bones of an old shipwreck poking through the sand – half remembered dance routines that they once knew well, but which have decomposed to the bare essentials.” McIntosh explains the organic nature of the process: “Almost all of the movements I taught the group were moves I’d seen individuals create during previous improvisations.” The benefit of working this way means that the dances in the show are more than simple entertainments, or a means of advancing the story. They are demonstrations of the very process of telling a story and what this means for the performer. The performers in The Thrill of It All are visibly wearied by the physicality of the movement and the audience observe their struggle with the process. McIntosh remarks that “the performers’ relation to their own physicality is the richest element that the dance movement brings to the show.” The dancers are sweating and out of breath and the dances break down; they are human beings and the audience sees the effort required by them to fit into the mould of the show. This concept is revealing of the mechanics behind the theatre and plays with the idea of a struggle that arises between performer and performance.

The production is presented in a vaudevillian format, with nine performers in prescribed costumes; the men wear grubby white tuxedos and black wigs and the women are clothed in sequin dresses with straggly blonde wigs. These comical outfits provide a context within which the audience anticipate certain formulas and assume certain expectations from these performers. By clarifying the situation in such a way and by using a distinctive form of theatre such as the variety show, Forced Entertainment can deviate from the expected and disintegrate the production effectively. The audience knows what should be happening so when it doesn’t they immediately understand that there is something amiss.

Conflict plays a big role within the movement of the piece. The performers attempt to usurp one another and assert their position within the show. Whilst the dance pieces do operate as “numbers” in the sense of traditional musical theatre they also present an opportunity to shift the understanding of the physicality. They are not polished items but contain “a lot of human error, private enthusiasms and argumentative interactions woven into them as well.” The dances often descend into fighting and the performers manipulate the traditional expectations of dancing, “mis-using” it and exploiting it for independent agendas (such as attacking another performer). The audience observe the dances on a number of levels: on the one hand they are simple vaudevillian acts to music but they are also a means to advance the plot and a demonstration of the characters. Performers use the dances to battle for ownership of the stage and in doing so reveal much about their individual struggles for identity within these “choreographed” moves and within the cast.

To this end, Forced Entertainment also adopts voice distortion in the production. Through the use of treated-microphones, the men acquire the same deep, sonorous voice and, likewise, the women speak with a high-pitched, shrill voice. When all the performers sound the same, they are required to work harder to define themselves. This, along with the dressing of the performers in identical costumes, has the effect of increasing the level of tension and conflict. The performers have to fight harder to establish an individual presence on the stage and to assert their unique identity. The exaggeration of the gender divide with the voices also works to take the performers to the level of the grotesque, the more-than human and operates as a kind of mask. McIntosh asserts: “The voices, the wigs and the uniformity of the costumes all work to present an artificiality, which is a key part of the show.” Beneath the mask of performance the audience is offered glimpses of the characters that make up the performers. A struggle exists between the “show” and the process of creating the show, between the performers and their performance and also between the spoken narratives and the unspoken narratives.

As the show unravels the spectacle of theatre is revealed and examined. The title of the production is demonstrative of the tongue-in-cheek exposure that Forced Entertainment articulates in the piece. The audience is invited to experience the “thrill of it all” and instead becomes privy to the break-down of the set pieces and the disintegration of the theatre. The glamour of the variety show decays and cracks to reveal the reality beneath the bright surface, the relentless demands on the performers and the human existence beneath the show. As the choreography crumbles, so too does the text, with jokes ending in confusion and sentimental stories resolved in arguments. This is indeed “forced entertainment.”

Bryony Byrne