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Tim Etchells

The Long and the Short of It: An Interview with Tim Etchells
By Jonathan Kalb


[Tim Etchells is the artistic director of Forced Entertainment, an experimental theater group with a core of six artists, based in Sheffield, England, and founded in 1984. Forced Entertainment’s pieces are very various, but they all share a discomfort with theatrical enactment rooted in fixed characterization and pre-scripted stories, and they all incorporate time and duration into their subject matter. The following interview focuses on the series of long pieces called “durationals” that the group began making in the early 1990s, which last between six and twenty-four hours and for which the audience are free to arrive, depart and return at any point. It took place in New York City on Sept. 8, 2008.]

Jonathan Kalb: Why did you choose the name Forced Entertainment?

Tim Etchells: In the beginning we didn't really know what we were doing, or what we were going to make as a group of people. We met when we were students and we had made a few performances together, in different combinations. The idea was, when we finished studying we would start a theater company that would be called Forced Entertainment. It was the early to mid 80s, and we wanted a name, something light, that spoke to the possibility of entertainment but which also raised questions about it. So right from the beginning there was this tension in the name, and I think that's what we liked. What's weird of course is that the name became a kind of miniaturized manifesto. It has been in some ways very good at describing one central strand of what we've been interested in.

JK: Can you talk about how you began making the long pieces you call "durational works"? How and when did they begin?

TE: The original context is that in Britain we never fit in very well in the theater community. That's still a bit the case, really, although now we belong to a certain little strand of it. But the body of what is called theater in England rejects us as it would any alien entity. So when we were younger, and even now, we tended to end up in slightly off-the-beaten-track festivals that were devoted to slightly odd theater, stuff from visual art, music, installation, maybe video, these hybrid frameworks. And one of those was the National Review of Live Art, which still takes place every year, now in Glasgow. It was a gathering for the community in the U.K. that made stuff on the edges of theater, on the edges of dance, on the edges of visual art--stuff that, well, we don't quite know what it is but never mind, it's performance of some kind. We went there several years running in the mid 1980s and either presented work or just saw stuff, and experiences like that, and in other similar festivals, made it clear that we had a relationship with performance works quite apart from theater. The kind of conversations we had with people working in sound, installation and visual art made us think more broadly about what we did.

Forced Entertainment, "12 a.m. Awake and Looking Down"Then at some point -- 1992 or 1993 -- there was an invitation from Nikki Milican, who ran the NRLA, to commission a new piece. And I said, "okay, well, we'd like to make a long performance. We'd like to make something that's twelve hours long." And she said, "okay sure, that's exciting, that's fine." Afterwards I talked to the others and said, "I've sold Nikki a twelve-hour show. Now we have to figure out what it is…" Something in the work had already broken, or shifted, evidently.

At the time we were rehearsing a theater piece called Emanuelle Enchanted -- and the seeds of the long piece were already in that. One section of that performance involved a rule-based set of interactions, with clothes and cardboard signs where the actors changed costumes and changed the signs they held so they "became" different characters. It was like a kind of endlessly re-combining improv game, a machine for making stories. In the rehearsals I would often find it very difficult to stop the action. They would be working with this set of rules and this set of materials, and I would watch for twenty minutes and then I'd watch for forty minutes and I'd watch for fifty minutes, and I would find it very hard to say, "stop now." Because the progress of the action -- the ongoing ebb and flow of it -- had an addictive quality. Some weird, ambient and accumulative aspect of it engaged me. I just didn't want it to stop.

For Emanuelle Enchanted we were probably looking for something like a fifteen-minute section based on these rules using the clothes and the cardboard signs. Doing fifty minutes or an hour or ninety minutes of it as improv in the rehearsals seemed crazy, yet I was definitely finding it hard to stop it. At that point there was a conversation about what would happen if we made a piece which was just this work with the signs. We wouldn't cut away from it to something else. We would simply persist and expand it -- working to see what happened if we just let the system of rules play itself through in a very long chunk of time. And that turned into the first durational piece, 12 a.m. Awake and Looking Down.

Forced Entertainment, "12 a.m. Awake and Looking Down"JK: What was the reason why you said to Nikki Milican that you wanted to do a twelve-hour piece in the first place? What was going through your head?

TE: It probably came from excitement about these long improvs, and the possibility of somehow presenting that work in public. But it also came very much from our frustrations with theater -- the growing awareness that theater has a tyrannical economy. Inside an hour and half you have to make it do something. It has to have shape of a certain kind. You're always taking people on this journey from A through Z in this ninety minutes or two hours. And in order to get stuff to work in that frame, very often we find we have to lean on things and edit them and tighten them so they make a shape that functions in that way -- one way or another you're always conforming to the economy of theater. There's a craft in that and a joy of course but on the other hand… it certainly makes a change to step away from it. The nice thing about saying, "we're going to make a twelve-hour piece and the audience can come and go whenever they want," was that we released ourselves from this particular theatrical set of obligations and expectations. When a performance is that long and with that kind of looser contract with the public, fifty percent of the things that you worry about as a theater-maker are no longer worries; they become irrelevant. The world no longer has to be condensed into this arbitrary time-limit or form.

JK: In one of your writings you describe a situation in Amsterdam when the audience didn't come and go. The piece started, went on for a few hours, and people didn't leave. So you had to think about whether you were repeating yourself, whether you were giving them something that would satisfy their dramaturgical expectations. What's your feeling about that? Are there dramaturgical questions in the longer pieces too?

TE: Yeah, I think that there are. But I suppose two things. One is that most people don't stay the whole six hours or twelve hours. Most people's experience of it is fragmentary, and that does let out some pressure from this dramatical tyranny. Secondly, if you know that it's twelve hours long and you can leave, I think your whole relation to the performance changes. Your expectations are very different. I mean, you don't walk into a twenty-four-hour-long performance going, "entertain me!" It's seven o'clock in the morning, or four o'clock in the morning, the performers there have been going for four hours already doing something that's reasonably taxing: you know that the rules are different, and your way of engaging with the work is different. So yeah, there are systems of expectation and dramaturgical issues in the longer work but they're different than the ones that you get in a regular show that starts at eight o'clock and is finished by nine thirty without an interval. The longer work has a more fluid economy. Its time is different.

JK: Can you describe the rule structure for 12 a.m. Awake and Looking Down?

Forced Entertainment, "12 a.m. Awake and Looking Down"TE: Okay. There are two sets of clothes rails at the sides with a whole lot of second-hand clothing on them, and underneath those are a lot of cardboard signs. They're just cardboard packaging with names written of about 150 characters. There's a wide range. Some are made-up figures: "The Hypnotized Girl," "A Stewardess Forgetting Her Divorce," or "Frank, Drunk." These are the kind of figures you might see if you're walking in the city and say to yourself, "oh yeah, The Staggering Man." But alongside these there are also real figures: Jack Ruby is in there, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Likewise figures from fiction. Banquo's Ghost is in there, Lolita, Mad Max. So the catalogue we are working with presents an odd mix of real, fictitious, and urban mythological names.

What the performers do over the course of the piece is choose signs from the stacks of signs, then choose clothes from the clothes rails, dress themselves, and then present themselves as if to say, "I am now this person." Meanwhile, another performer--there are five of them--will take different clothes and a different sign and present himself or herself as another person. They don't speak. They present themselves either as static figures or include a little bit of motion. So maybe "The Hypnotized Girl" might sway slightly with her eyes raised to the heavens, or someone playing "Lost Lisa," might grab a coat and sunglasses and hold the sign, then wander round the space looking like she's lost. Some of the acting is very demonstrative, very cartoon-like and simple. Sometimes it looks a little bit more filmic, so you might get "Frank, Drunk" on a chair at the back of the space, with Richard staying there with the sign for five minutes, just swaying slightly. But the other performers contrast him by changing costumes very fast and grabbing signs and stuff. You can see in the background that Richard is still there, swaying with his "Frank, Drunk" thing, but at some point he will break that and go grab another sign and some different clothes.

This is the basic mechanism of the piece. I suppose the other rule in it is that you don't much interact with the other people. So you get these situations where "Elvis Presley, The Dead Singer" is standing at the front and "A Nine Year Old Shepherd Boy" comes to stand beside him; there might be a moment of eye contact or a little look between these two figures, but that will be it. They don't get into complicated improv where they join up together to make a story. And I suppose one of the things that fascinated us when we were making the piece was the way that these independent fragments of story and character kind of floated in the space. You had this feeling that there could be narrative involving "Valentina Tereshkova" and "Jack Ruby", even though they just glided past each other. Forced Entertainment, "12 a.m. Awake and Looking Down"As they're moving past each other your brain wonders, "what is that? What happened? What is that?" Then it dissolves again. So we've talked about this work as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, an optical toy where you turn the wheel and the pattern changes. It's almost a machine for making stories, or throwing up the possibilities for stories. And we didn't like them to interact too much because at the point where they did so the machinery stopped. The sense of endless possibility stopped. You thought, "well now we're deep in some silly nonsense between Elvis and A Bloke Who's Just Been Shot," and that's just not very interesting. It's much more interesting to let the machine continue to operate, to let the combinations keep moving, and let all the story-making stuff go on in the minds of the viewer. That's where all of the work is happening.

JK: How does the piece move from sequence to sequence?

TE: Basically everybody's kind of on their own track, constantly finding clothing, finding a cardboard sign, presenting themselves for as long or as short a time as they like, and then when they're finished they go and get another one. Meanwhile, the other performers in the space are doing the same thing. It's fluid, organic, interwoven.

JK: Is it always the same in each performance?

TE: No it's totally different. Improvised in real time. They don't know each other's tracks. That's the case with all of the long pieces we've done. With one exception, Marathon Lexicon, they're never fixed. The long works are basically rule structures inside which the performers are free to operate, making real decisions about what they do next in reaction to what the others are doing, what the audience is doing, and what they feel like.

JK: So there's no way to talk about development in them, because it would be a different development in each performance?

Forced Entertainment, "Speak Bitterness"TE: Yeah, that's interesting. The durationals find a new shape each time they are presented, within the parameters that are possible. We're not really interested in them as ways to create outrageous narrative or developmental arcs though! They tend to be quite flat in that sense -- to travel is better than to arrive kind of thing. You might best think of them as landscapes of endless variation… but in which no change is permanent. It's flux.

One aspect of shape that is predictable or recurrent though are physiological or other rhythms. For instance, if a perfomance like Speak Bitterness or And On The Thousandth Night... is six hours long, the performers get tired and there is usually a certain hysteria by hour five. You are generally trying too hard in hour one. So you can say certain things about the shape and rhythm of those pieces, but it's not written or dramatically forced. What's allowed to happen in all of the durationals is that the performers step into the space, begin, and then play, and then at the end it's finished. In a way it's like football, or any sport: you know what the rules are, you know who the players are, but you don't know what will transpire inside the set of rules. Forced Entertainment, "And on the Thousandth Night"Anyway, we found these durational works tremendously liberating because they confirmed for us that you don't have to give something new every ten minutes in a theater piece -- simple structures can go a long way. In the 1980s, when we started making work, we had this rather pop-video-driven idea that everything should change all the time. New things needed to happen every minute.

JK: You once said that channel-surfing was the model for your work up to a certain point, and then you got tired of it and discarded it.

TE: Yes. But the way it seems now is that there are -- to put it crudely -- two approaches to the problem of theater for us. One is to try to put more into it than is sensible: fill it, overload it, and see if we can blow it up. The other is to starve it, take as much out of it as we possibly can. So at the too-much end you get shows like Club of No Regrets or Bloody Mess, which is ten people, with everybody on a separate mission or track. It borders on incoherence, and has this simultaneous, multi-tasking, channel-hopping thing. On the other hand, you get something like Dirty Work, which was made a few years before that, or other pieces we've made more recently, where it's an hour and twenty minutes, two people, and they sit and talk, describing a theater show which doesn't happen. That's all it is. So there's a starvation diet on one hand and an excess diet on the other. Crudely, those are the bipolar attractions of our group. We seem to swing madly between the one and the other.

Forced Entertainment, "Bloody Mess"JK: You've spoken about your personal impulses. I wonder, though, whether the durational works were also responding to anything in the historical moment of the early 1990s.

TE: Well, I do think this work of long duration challenges patterns of consumption. If people are used to the idea that what they're going go watch will last an hour and half and in that time it will serve them up something nicely packaged with a bow on top, then making something that is sprawling in time makes out-of-the-ordinary and difficult demands. I mean, if you want to see the whole of a twelve-hour piece, that makes an unreasonable demand. Engaging with the time-frame knocks you into a different kind of relationship to the work. You can't go in with the attitude, "Okay, entertain me." It's a very different contract. And for some people that has not been possible. The work is not of interest to them. But for other people it has really opened a door. They could find that this work spoke to them more than other things.

I think a lot of what we do is look for ways to make intense connections to the audience. At the time we started making the durationals it seemed possible to make a different kind of connection that way than we could with the ninety-minute theater work. For sure, we tried different strategies in the theater work. But it seemed to me that stretching the time, making a different kind of social demand on the audience, a demand that wasn't necessarily sensible or comprehensible, was a leap forward. Perhaps it's too much to talk about these things being against commodification, because they're usually ticketed and people have to pay to go in, but they are against commodification in the sense that they are hard to grasp. I mean, you can't just pick the event up and say, "that's what that was," because it is different every time and you can't really even see it as a whole. The event slips through your fingers as you try to pick it up, and that seems really important. Politically, it's no accident that these pieces began on the back of the 80s and rolling into the 90s, which was an intensely commodified time. One of our responses to the culture of channel-hopping, the culture of packaging and presentation, the short, the sharp and the quick, quick, quick, was to slow down. Let's just take twelve hours over something, and see who stays.

Forced Entertainment, "Quizoola!"JK: There were no tickets sold for Quizoola! in Portland, Oregon, the durational piece you did at the TBA Festival. People could come and go at will.

TE: Yes, that was good. It wasn't difficult there at all because we've worked with the curator, Mark Russell, before and he knows Quizoola! and its requirements. But it's interesting that the durational things do tend to pose a challenge to institutions. The logistics of explaining to people how to present these works is not simple. Sometimes people say, "we would like to present Quizoola!" And you ask, "um, do you actually understand what that means?" I mean, it's not so complicated but actually getting people to understand the demands of this unwieldy object, in terms of space or ticketing or time, or allowing the audience to come and go, is not so straightforward.

JK: How large are the audiences, usually?

TE: It varies. They can't be too big for Quizoola! or 12am because of the kinds of spaces they tend to be played in. And on the Thousandth Night, our durational storytelling piece, plays in more conventional theatre spaces and so it's not uncommon that we have an audience of 150 or 200 people, but depending on what time of night we start, we can be down to sixty or thirty for a while before it builds up again for the end. These kind of variations in the numbers are interesting because they affect the dramatic situation -- playing to a small crowd allows you to do different things as a performer. When we did the twenty-four-hour performance Who Can Sing A Song To Unfrighten Me?, there were times in the middle of the nght when we would be playing for just a handful of people in an auditorium for five or six hundred. There was something incredibly intimate and strange about that.

Forced Entertainment, "Quizoola!"And actually, even with the largest audiences for the durational work, there's always a sense of being here in the same room, being all a part of this strange event. I think what's intriguing to me about them is that heightened sense of, "well here we all are then." In the long pieces, as performers, you can very often see the audience. People are watching and you get to know them. You get to see that that guy's falling asleep, or that one's laughing all the time, or that one looks engaged. You don't talk to them but in a way you make friends with people. So there's a weird heightening of the liveness thing.

JK: This is perhaps more of a theater question than you might like, but what would you say if I asked what was at stake in the durational performances?

TE: I think what's possible in those pieces is that you, as an audience member, encounter those other people, the performers, in an extraordinarily complicated and intimate way. I think there's something very valuable about that. I think one of the things performance can do is sensitize you to time. And it can sensitize you to other people. In performance perhaps more than in other things, you feel and understand time, and feel and understand other people as decision-makers, as complicated, contradicted, frail, vulnerable, funny beings. And so much of the world is made to hide or deny these things. It often seems as if just to function in the world you have to not engage. The way the society is structured, it doesn't really want you to do that. Most of what capitalism throws out is barriers and division. And I think performance, and especially the long pieces, have a capacity to open connection and open sensitivity to other people. That's what's at stake.


All photos copyright Hugo Glendinning.


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