I used to go in with a plan

Tim Etchells’ work is quite influential.He is an artistic director, author and performer and has taught, written and published on contemporary performance art with a huge impact on the development of a uniquely British avant-garde performance style.

Tim Etchells was born in 1962. He reached a broader audience mainly through his work with the performance group Forced Entertainment, which he co-founded back in 1984, and which has become one of the most influential theatre projects over the past 27 years. Together with and for Forced Entertainment he has developed and realized dozens of performance projects, sometimes as a performer, sometimes as the mastermind backstage. They were enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike and have been presented at festivals and in theatres worldwide. Many of these performances deal with the mechanisms of theatrical work themselves and play with audience conventions and expectations. Forced Entertainment have had a tremendous impact on a genuinely British style of avant-garde performance art. But Tim Etchells is more than just a performer, he has written several books, done photo and video art and has worked together with some of the most interesting and promising performing artists in the world. He now lives in Sheffield and in New York.

What does your work with Forced Entertainment look like? How much direction do you give, how do you collaborate?

It depends a lot on the project. The small version would be to say I am more like the caretaker or chairperson for the process. My role is organising the rehearsal day, trying to set an agenda, really listening to people and what they are talking about. I am trying to make a structure and to find a direction out of what everybody in the group is saying. In this sense it is very much like a kind of mediating and listening. A filing-clock, I say sometimes. I am framing and filtering and coming in with proposals I want to pursue. Very often as a director it is about finding a taste and texture, something that I am interested in. And then the group is good in allowing me to pursue that. Even if they feel a bit uncertain for a moment I get some space to push and see what is there. They kind of generally let me go. We all sit around and discuss everything that happens and everybody can make a contribution on what we should do this afternoon or what we should do tomorrow. But in the end, probably after having heard everything, I will say, let’s do this first and then maybe we come later to this other thing we were talking about. That is a weird mix of feelings, like I bring an agenda and feeling like my job is listening.

How much of the final text will you have written, how much will have come up in the process?

It depends very much on the show. “Void Story”, the last thing we did in Vienna, I basically wrote. It is very much this work around narrative and doing the voices that go with the story of projected images. It really lent itself to writing as a process. I brought the script and scenes and then everybody worked on what sequence they should be in. Fundamentally, “Void Story” was a writing job, whereas “The Thrill of It All” is probably 90 percent coming from improvisations. Very often, I will come with an idea of what I think they should talk about. For example, for “The Thrill of It All” I asked them to talk about “small things” or about what the show is going to be like. And inside that people will find their own text and discoveries. I’ll watch, but I’ll also look for opportunities to run in and intervene. I’ll come onto the stage whispering “say this now” or “keep going in this direction” or “interrupt him now and take it off in this direction”. It is not writing in a sense of sitting at a computer. What we arrive at is jointly made. I’m pretty instrumental in making the shape of the performance because I’m on the outside. To remember what we did during the improvisations, we videotape all the rehearsals. Often times we’ll go back and watch rehearsals from yesterday or from a month ago to remember what the text was, what the sequence was, or how the interruptions were working… So the video recorder became a very important tool in the process. Most of these shows we are making, we can only make since we are taping the rehearsals. There is really a logic to the unfolding of the situation as it happened… Even after 25 years of watching I can never remember. I always have an idea of what happened – but I’m very often proved wrong by the tape. It’s the ultimate solver of argument…

Maybe that’s already part of the answer to my next question: How much has working with the group changed? Which methods have worked out fine, which ones didn’t stand the test of time?

I think we worked more and more by improvisation. In the beginning there was more writing because what we were interested in was writing as a texture and written language and this interface between the live performance and the text. We became very interested in speech and in language that gets made up on the spot. Obviously video taping everything changed a lot since the late 80’s, early 90’s when we started to tape things all the time. Now there is more reliance on improv. I used to go in more with a plan. I would meet up with Richard, one of the actors of the company, and we would plan what we would do tomorrow, and I would really try to go in with an idea. I rarely go in with an idea now. We tend to spend the first 45 minutes of every day basically trying to summarize where we got to the day before and what we think our problem is. And then sometimes I will be reaching out for something that I would like to do next. It’s a very slow process. Nobody has to come in with a clever plan and make things work. You can just sit in the room and talk, and slowly, with some effort and some coffee, you’ll find what the next step should be. However, in a way things also have gotten more difficult because now there is a big history of stuff we have done. We feel a bit burdened by that. Finding an energy to just be here and do this thing and not to be endlessly debating our back catalogue can be rather difficult.

Concerning your work, where’s the difference between acting, performing and live-acting?

The difference that we make is between things that are open and improvised and things that are fixed. We have a number of pieces which are improvisational games that we play live with no real rehearsal, like “Quizoola!”, “12am: Awake and Looking Down” and the long version of “Speak Bitterness” or this “And on the Tousandth Night…” story-telling project. These are rule systems which we can play inside. The rules are very simple and we don’t rehearse, you just show up. By 6 o’clock we start and at midnight we finish. Inside that time you try to do a good job. It means you are free as a player to make something happen, to listen to your collegues, to think about what you are doing and to go for something. Whereas with these kinds of theater shows we do, there is always this act of repetition. We have done “The Thrill of It All” about forty times now. So in order to do that, there has to be a kind of mechanical process of learning to recreate and redo stuff that you want to happen. There is a greater degree of acting. You are trying to position energy in a very precise way. There is also this distinction that people make between acting where you are pretending to be another person and where you are in a way being yourself or a version of yourself. We are pretty much in this performing zone, we don’t try to create characters, rather people making versions of themselves, like a stand-up comedian or a musician even. When you look at what Richard does in five different shows, you’ll see it is the same set of qualities, reactions and impulses, even though they are framed differently and function differently. But we don’t have an ideological position about acting or performing, we use what we want to use and what feels comfortable. Real “acting-acting” feels a bit uncomfortable, so we don’t like to go too far that way.

Can you briefly explain the concept of the current show “The Thrill of It All”?

It has to be filed under “disastrous vaudeville”. A nightclub show with dancers and routines that is going horribly wrong. What we are watching is this show but we are also watching how it falls apart and in a way mutates to become something else. The form is dance routines and little bits of sentimental talking and jokes and songs. The look of it is familiar, but there is something poisonous and weird happening inside.

Where do you see continuities and discontinuities with something like “First Night”?

“The Thrill of It All” is really a brother or a sister to “First Night”. We made “First Night” in 2001. The difference to me is that “First Night” is much more making a problem with the audience, challenging it. When we did “First Night”, the audience was our problem. We were very puzzled and annoyed about this relationship with the audience. We wanted to pick on it and question it in a playful way. In “The Thrill of It All” the violence is not so much against the audience, but on each other. That’s a key shift. The other shift that is important is the focus and emphasis on sweaty, exhausting, stupid, yet weirdly energized dances. In general the pressure for “new and different” is what marketing and this “you have never seen something like this before” culture wants, but I think it is a bit hysterical. I always liked the continuities between one show and another with a little loop of some years.

There is a tendency in politics today to reduce fundings for contemporary art projects and also for scientific research. How do you feel about that?

There really is this conservatism around. Politically, there is a lot more talk about traditional values, and a lot more talk about the value of money and what does the public get out of it. That is worrying. I think the government is frightened of things that are different, which people might criticize. There will be big cuts announced in the UK by the Arts Council. The government has one main agenda: they are trying to cut management and strategy. They are interested in end products, not in people who are strategizing. In a strange way, it could be an interesting time in England because the cuts might give the artists concerned the permission to do radical things, because they wouldn’t be as dependent anymore. Some things will have to go, this is clear. And maybe they can cut some things that really need to be cut. But they could also make very conservative decisions. Nobody feels safe now, which is also a horrible situation. The general tone in a conversation about cultural stuff is “how much does it cost”, or “what do we get out of it”.

Talking about “what people want”: How do you deal with the so-called “fun loving society”?

Some shows do that very explicitly. Many of them do it in a metaphorical way. “The Thrill of It All” with that hysterical demand for fun at all cost, with this kind of violence and with its energy that comes from humiliating or punishing the people on stage, obviously deals with what happens outside of the theatre. Very often, we are also talking about these social and political contexts, how the reality outside of the theatre is constructed and what is being done with it.

How do you feel about the audience wanting to watch people suffering and dying on stage, but at the same keeping a safe distance?

Many shows deal with this bloodthirstiness of the audience that wants to see something painful or emotional. We engage with this idea of what an audience might want, whether that is fun, energy, pleasure, death or suffering and sorrow. We are asking people to reflect about it. We may deliver what people want, yet at the same time we try to make it a little uncomfortable or give a little too much of it. We try to create these quite unstable experiences. It will be funny for a while, and then suddenly it’s unpleasant and you don’t know why you’re laughing. All of these experiences, which are very deep in the fabric of the shows, they are very much about causing you to think about the process you’re in, about what is happening there and how you are reading it and dealing with it. That is a strong impulse in everything we’ve done.

Theater is a space of illusion. I would like to offer some notions of space and hear your associations. Let’s start with “Ludic Space”…

A space for play – this is theatre in a way. That’s one of the things we think about in relation to the space of the stage, in which you establish permission to behave as if things where otherwise, to construct new ways of behaving. There is a liberation in that and there is an “as if” in that, which comes from this gaming, reality-twisting or reality-bending impulse. It is a deep human desire to twist or play with the reality we are in.

“Loose Space”

I can think of that in terms of theatre again, in terms of this sort of malleability of place and time in theatre and performance. How people use space is what defines it. Spaces with a purpose or with a particular frame. It is the daily use of them, which is often playful, inventive and drifting. Streets and locations in a city can often have multiple meanings or uses, frames of use that operate in different communities: It is one thing by day and another by night, or at the same there will be oversecting and intersecting, overlapping uses. This sense of non-definite and slightly shifting spaces in cities is really important.

“Appropriated Space”

It is much more about saying “we can take the space and turn it and do something with it that wasn’t its original intention and grab a hold of it and transform it. It is a more premeditated,

assertive grabbing of a space.

“Collage Space”

It is related to “Loose Space” and “Appropriated Space”. Appropriated to me seems much more related to power, in the sense that appropriation has built into it the idea that there is an original and intended usage of something – and then appropriation is to take that and turn it. Loose and collage to me implies something less hierarchical, more like multiple non-orthodox possibilities. Appropriation would always be in relation to orthodoxy: There’s an orthodoxy and then you turn it. Whereas collage may be the items that you are putting together, that are co-existing… there’s not necessarily an original hierarchy, it’s more about mixing between one thing and another.

Is theater a kind of “subversive space”?

Theatre is very codified, very delineated, very structured as a space. There are many ways to configurate the space in theatre, but the fundamental one is the proscenium theatre. It’s very hierarchical, very clear, fucking old and conventionalised and incredibly restricted. But this set of restrictions allows a certain set of subversions, questions and re-drawings of reality to happen. You can’t have this subversive space there without the frameworks that allow it. We really like to work inside this quite old and reglemented framework, because it allows us to reach to some subversive, playful things. I would always think of play or freedom or subversion in relation to a system and restriction. There is no space of absolute play or absolute freedom. Play only exists in terms of expectation, codification and structure. Language is a limit, physical space is a limit, biology is a limit. All of those things are structures that allow you to find freedom because they are limited.

What do you think about the term “performative society”?

It’s clear, that the reality is not what it used to be and that increasingly politics and performance are – maybe they always were, but now they are hugely – intertwined in a certain way. The digital sphere, the strange performativity of online presence in life, has changed the way people present themselves. We are more and more in a sort of lapping zone between a material reality that we inhabit and then a set of stories, fictions and images that we all summon, create and speak through. These things are very deep and very complex and it is hard to get to the bottom of that pile. It is funny because in the 80’s one would really only be talking about film and TV as the kind of spaces where this media myth and the hold on cultural imagination was. Now, since the internet really happened, that has shifted a lot. There is this sort of two-way, group-authored thing happening nowadays, which has a different dynamic. There is some space of action and agency in that, but also a trap that we don’t understand yet. And at the same time I don’t like the rhetoric of democratization in association with the internet, I don’t think this has any relationship to democracy at all. What passes for collaborative authorship and participation in this space is usually quite miserable and limiting. We have yet to see how that works, and I am fairly sceptical.