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