A staple of the British experimental theater scene since 1984, the Sheffield-based company Forced Entertainment is now a regular guest at Hebbel am Ufer.
Their fifth piece in Berlin in the last year, The Thrill of It All, marks a departure from their recent works’ minimalism and creates a new vaudeville using electronically-manipulated voices, dancing girls and 1960s Japanese lounge music.
We caught up with artistic director Tim Etchells after the show’s debut in Brussels at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts.
The Thrill of It All finds its inspiration in pop culture. How was that reflected in the final piece?
The basic form of it is like you’ve turned on a television station in a hotel, and it’s some kind of song and dance and comedy show, probably in a foreign language, so you’re not necessarily understanding all of it. That’s the form, but we’re breaking and cracking and deteriorating it so that the dances very often turn into fights, and the monologues have a habit of being interrupted and falling apart in different ways. It’s trying to be this spectacular daily dance-a-thon thing, but it’s constantly falling into ruin and tripping over itself.
How did the world premiere in Brussels go?
It’s always this slightly shocking experience when you’re in the studio for four months, and you get very used to seeing things in a particular space and at a particular distance. As soon as you put it in a theater, then you’re much further away and it’s completely different. Even when you’ve been working for 26 years, it’s still a shocking moment when you transfer everything onto the stage, because everything changes when there’s a real audience. No matter how much we’ve done that and how prepared we are, it’s always a little, like, ‘God!’ [laughs] and then it’s a process of re-tweaking and re-editing everything.
The members of Forced Entertainment have worked together for over 25 years now. Have there been moments when you’ve questioned this?
There have. It comes and goes really, the energy of the group. There are times when particular people on particular projects feel like ‘Why am I here?’; where you feel that the frustrations of being up against the same people all the time are more frustrations than pleasure. But on the whole, I feel that we’ve been lucky in being able to find conversations and make work that we’ve wanted to make – work that’s enabled us to go forward in positive and productive ways.
What do you see as new territory for live performance, especially in the age of the internet?
I think what’s interesting about performance is that it’s a space of encounter not only between the performers and audience, but also between audience members themselves. What makes theater or performance a kind of tricky beast is that it involves going into a room with a whole bunch of other people and spending time with them. It’s easier, in a way, not to do that. You could stay at home and summon up the greatest hits of performance art via YouTube or UbuWeb, and you don’t have to go and meet anybody, you don’t have to spend time with anyone, and if you don’t like it, you can fast forward. But the interesting thing about live performance is that it demands that you’re there and that you share space socially; you negotiate what it means to be with a group of other people in a space. In that way, it is a very political and a very social kind of form.
FE has developed several relationships with theaters on the continent. How does all the touring affect your work?
It’s more enjoyable to be out of England than to be in England. When we play outside of the UK, it’s easier to find well-resourced and well-focused partners or colleagues. There are some theaters here [in the UK] that are sympathetic to us and we have good relationships with them, but they’re much less well-resourced. So there’s a financial issue there – and secondly, I think that British theaters and British culture is quite confused with itself.
Confused? Can you elaborate on that?
For me… my feelings about theater in Britain, I can only replay my frustration that it’s dominated by particular approaches to the idea of what meaning is, and what the idea of politics is, and what art can do for audiences. I think it’s still very much a literary form here, and I think what theaters are doing is often very worthy, but they’re a little bit boring. I wish that Britain was a place where more conversations went on about theater. Maybe things have improved a bit… but at the end of the day, it still feels like they could do with a shake-up in a way that isn’t quite happening.
What is the quality in FE’s work that still classifies it as experimental, and not mainstream?
On the one hand, we as a group and me as a director are very interested in pleasure, in making work that’s enjoyable. But I know at the same time we have the impulse to wreck that… to create a place in which the audience can wonder about what they’re watching, about why they’re watching, about what they want from watching; wonder about their own role in terms of the piece that they’re looking at. I think that we have an inclination to push things beyond a certain limit: I think a more mainstream impulse would be to say, “Well that’s enough of that now”, while my impulse as a director is, “No, that’s getting really interesting now.” There’s something about our call to certain kinds of discomfort and tension that means the work isn’t quite as easy to swallow as it might be… I think I’m interested in art that makes life a bit more difficult, rather than a bit more easy.
THE THRILL OF IT ALL, June 22, 24-25, 20:00, June 23, 19:00 | For more information, visit www.forcedentertainment.com