Forced celebration

INTERVIEW. Forced Entertainment travels from their isolated Sheffield home to Berlin's HAU, Oct 16-19, to celebrate 30 years together. Artistic Director Tim Etchells reflects on the development of the internationally acclaimed performance collective.

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Photo by Hugo Glendinning

The internationally acclaimed UK performance collective Forced Entertainment stops in Berlin to celebrate 30 years. Artistic director Tim Etchells speaks about the group’s evolution over the past three decades and walks us through their diverse anniversary programme.

Based in Sheffield, the six members of the collective have been working together since 1984. Since then they have been exploring forms and meanings of performance with great success, their work spanning theatre, durational performance, live art, video and digital media – all of which can be experienced over a four-day extravaganza at HAU starting October 16.

How have your shows developed over the years?

There is an interest in ‘liveness’ which wasn’t there in the beginning because I think we were afraid of that: we used to say that we wanted to make cinema but didn’t have the money for the cameras. With time we got more and more interested in the live situation of theatre and in this kind of tension that exists between the stage and the auditorium. So we began to make much more fragile works, where you could feel the performers breathing in front of you. And maybe make eye contact with them, or feel like you were making eye contact with them.

And your relationship with the audience?

Even in the most theatrical piece that we have done, there is this fundamental thing about being a group of people in a room and at the other end of the room there is another group of people that might be watching you. It is a very straightforward understanding of what theatre or performance is, a sort of ordinariness. In some pieces we want to make a very direct kind of contact, in other pieces we try to go back and are much more distant toward the audience. The dynamic of that relationship is really one of the key things for us. I suppose we are fascinated by that and we try to understand what that is.

What about audience participation?

Another through line in our work is that the audience has to think, to imagine, to do his own work of making connections between one thing or another, or answering his own questions. So the work is often about making the space for the audience to work, to grapple with the things that we are putting on the table. What we don’t do is ask the people to participate physically – we don’t ask them to go on stage or run around the building with us. I’m not really interested in that because I always feel like those things involve an interaction but I am never sure that they do, really. And I assume that sitting in a chair and watching is an amazing kind of participation. I don’t really need anything else!

What is your role as artistic director?

We are a very collective kind of group, and the work remains very much a collective work, all decisions are made together. But on a pragmatic level, the fact that I stay outside – I mostly don’t perform – and have some skills and interests in structuring, making a shape, is important in our work. It doesn’t mean that I’m the boss in any meaningful way. Some days I’m more like the chairperson for the meeting: I have to make sure that we are all talking and listening to each other, or I am responsible for the material that everybody brings or generates. I’m a filter, things pass through me and I’m the person who is watching. I’m not like a director who is making a big plan and presenting it to everybody. I’m sitting in the room, saying: “What should we do?”

Based in Sheffield, you made a conscious choice to be far from the centre. How do you see a scene like Berlin?

There is an undeniable energy to that kind of scene, with an amazing amount of connections to be made: it must be a great place to work. But I suppose for us, as we moved to a basically run-down industrial city in the north of England, it allowed us to be alone with our work, and I think the isolation was good for us. We just did our things, we didn’t necessarily know what other people were doing. The strength of the group probably comes from that. I guess the danger of a scene like Berlin is that everything sort of falls into everything else.

30 Years Forced Entertainment: Oct 16-19, HAU1, Stresemannstr. 29; HAU2, Hallesches Ufer 32; HAU3, Tempelhofer Ufer 10, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Hallesches Tor.

Originally published in issue #131, October 2014.