AN INTERVIEW WITH TIM ETCHELLS BY FRANCISCO FRAZÃO AND MARK DEPUTTER
Derry and Lisbon, 27 November 2013
Mark Deputter – To start with Forced Entertainment: it’s been 30 years of work and what I find interesting and also a bit strange is that you are internationally very well-known as a company, you’ve already secured your place in theatre history and still you’re looked upon with suspicion by the more established part of theatre. Forced Entertainment has always been described as experimental, avant-garde, you-can-expect-everything-type of theatre company. Why do you think that is?
Tim Etchells – I think partly it’s because we’re attracted to things that are in some ways uncomfortable and unresolved. Lots of people like the work very much of course, but I know that we’re drawn to unresolved, or difficult shapes and textures, in terms of what the evening produces. That might be one reason.
Another might be that there’s an interest in this very homemade, trash, casual kind of aesthetic. The work often looks like nothing much has been done; it can look scrappy or lazy, like it’s not really trying very hard to be there. The truth is that it is very worked and precise, and there are very many decisions… but we’re careful to hide that!
It was very interesting playing The Coming Storm in Avignon. It went really well, but in the first fifteen minutes you could feel the audience, who probably didn’t know our work terribly well, just thinking, ‘What is this? What are they doing? It doesn’t even look like a proposition for a show!’ It begins so casually, as they shamble-on at the beginning, to pick-up the microphone on the floor. In a way, it’s very anti-aesthetic and I think it takes people a little time to tune to the work and see that there’s a complex, skilful set of decisions and transactions. It’s not immediately obvious. In many successful companies beyond a certain point you really get to see the money on the stage, you see their production budget! It’s all there. And with our work I think you can rarely see the money, it still looks home-made. The money for us is about people and about having time for the process. It’s not about suddenly getting costumes from Prada!
Francisco Frazão – A British playwright recently told me that someone who thinks they don’t like theatre will probably love a Forced Entertainment show (and someone who thinks they know a lot about theatre will probably not like it). I was more interested in the first part: that it can be an exhilarating experience for someone who’s always thought that theatre is not for them.
TE – I think that’s really true. In a lot of places, and in England certainly, the audience that comes to Forced Entertainment is not necessarily a theatregoing crowd; or they don’t see so much or like so much of what they find in the theatre. That’s perhaps because there’s a directness about what we do, and a robust very everyday playfulness. I think as well we’re suspicious of theatre – much of it seems quite absurd to me – and you feel that in the work, you feel that we’re inside the medium but we’re also questioning it. We don’t treat the form respectfully, we make a mess with theatre, we break and smash it little and I think people can relate that attitude, especially ‘outsiders’.
But of course, it’s a paradox, because as well as that playful destructive energy towards theatre, we’re trying, in a very sophisticated way, to build things inside of it. So it’s breaking theatre apart and at the same time working with it, reinventing it. We’ve spent thirty years on these questions; what to do with theatre…
MD – Why did you never do repertoire, like Shakespeare or Beckett, existing plays?
TE – One thing that we have a tremendous problem with as a company is dialogue – the heart of drama where the performers are speaking to each other, in a fictional situation. This explicit form of dialogue, which is what dramatic repertoire is based on, I always find very puzzling.
If you look at our pieces over thirty years, you see there is almost no dialogue, ever. You might get a sense that people are talking to each other, but we work on ways of making that happen without closing the circle so that it becomes dialogue. So we do Q&A, but much more in the format of a public question and answer, which knows there’s an audience. Or we create something like dialogue in which the figures in the performances are making public statements, but secretly they’re talking to each other – so something akin to dialogue but which bounces off the audience. We have occasionally read plays in rehearsals – Pinter or Shakespeare or Chekhov – and whenever we do it I’m fascinated but super mystified, I don’t know what to do with it. And it’s interesting, because I’ve loved tgSTAN’s work with the repertoire, Wooster Group projects with the repertoire, Richard Maxwell’s own performances with his plays… They make a really good set of solutions to that problem of dialogue and fiction. But it seems that it’s not really in our language.
In a way I wish it was. It remains a mystery to me. I would love to be able to tackle that. But honestly don’t know how to, it’s something really alien… It’s too closed; I think that’s what it is.
The things that influence us – in terms of text – are much more avowedly public forms: interview, press conference, stand-up comedy, cabaret, show trial… More direct and popular forms, not drama, not fiction. Increasingly that’s been the way that we’ve worked. With publicness. And drama doesn’t quite allow that.
MD: What about your work outside of theatre, or your collaborations with people away from Forced Entertainment? What’s important to you about those things?
I value that work in other areas very much. The fact that it allows a different side of me to speak – away from the endless negotiation that is the group process! Working in the gallery or in the street with neon pieces, or even writing fiction or making projects on the internet – all these things also allow a very different relation to the idea of ‘audience’ – you can make a space that’s more intimate, or more public than you can in theatre. There’s a different relation to time in those works too – as a spectator, a neon sign or a text on a wall doesn’t need an hour and half of your time – you can just look at it as you walk by, or see it from the window of a train. Those other forms allow me a different route to entering people’s lives. In the collaborations – with Ant Hampton for example, or with the visual artists Elmgreen & Dragset or with Vlatka Horvat – I can think about performance in different ways than I am used to doing in the work with Forced Ents –I’m taken into new territory.
FF – There are two things that we can associate with your work in terms of structure. One is the story or situation that doesn’t come to its conclusion, that is cut short; the other is the list or catalogue that goes on for ever. What interests you in these two extremes, the interruption and the endlessness?
TE – What ties those things together in fact is that in different ways they’re both incomplete projects. The scene, or the story that gets cut, and the list or catalogue in-progress, which by definition can’t ever be completed. And because of that incompleteness, these forms launch the spectator into a situation where she or he has to, or is invited to, complete something for themselves; to do the work of realising or imagining. That’s a very important part of my work in any medium, whether it’s in the art context, or in theatre and performance, or in writing; the idea that the spectator or the viewer, or the reader, is an active player in the process of making meaning, and constituting the event. These forms are strategies for making people get involved as imaginative collaborators. In the theatre I don’t want people to run onto the stage and do crazy things, they don’t have to be ‘in it’ in that way, but they do have to be involved through a very active imagining, questioning and scenario building of their own. Those two devices – the list and the fragment – are very much about that.
And they also show a process: when you listen to somebody constructing a list in improvisation, you’re listening to somebody thinking aloud. So there’s that drama of where is this brain going, and where would my brain go on the same topic. And the interruption meanwhile, also shows you always that the thing in front of you is contingent, contextual. Something can happen and that thing can be cut. The statement has a question mark over it. Nothing is inevitable. It’s all a process that’s unfolding.
MD – Another pair of contrasting words: sadness and humour, also both very much present in all of your work. It looks very melancholic, sad, often even dark; but at the same time humour is a very important element in your work, a way to reach the audience, I guess.
TE – One other important thing that relates to both the listing and the cutting is that we’re very shy of (or I’m very shy of) singular or definitive statements. I don’t like neat dramatic shapes or meanings that need to be tied down or tied up neatly like shoelaces. It’s much more interesting for me to make something that’s ragged and incomplete; where the articulation is in some ways broken.
And this interest in the relation between the sad or the sentimental and the comic, or the violent and the comic… They’re often linked together because as human beings we literally don’t know how to respond to the world, we don’t know if it’s funny or not. It is funny, and of course it isn’t funny at all. And the work tries to speak about that state of unknowing, and for that reason I’m interested in these situations where on the one hand you’re laughing, hopefully a lot, it’s funny, it’s great; and then suddenly you’re not laughing anymore at all, it’s awful. Terrifying, abject, horrible. And then it’s funny again. This flip-flopping is very deliberate, and sometimes quite cruel. It’s a kind of radical undecidedness that is very close to the heart of the work. A lot of the work with language in my neon-sign works has a similar dynamic – fragments that you can’t quite get a fix on, comical and melancholic, angry and hopeless, defeated.
It’s about how to understand what’s happening to us; the situations that we’re creating and trying to live in as human beings, caught inside all of these systems; the body, mortality, and society, and politics, and culture. That’s the machinery and the question is of how to understand that, what kind of stories to tell ourselves – that’s at the heart of the work.
MD – This also has to do with creating a relationship with the spectator?
TE – It relates to this desire to make an object that can’t be contained by a single reading. I’m trying to make an experience for the spectator or the viewer in the gallery that doesn’t confirm itself, in many different ways. Something that keeps you on your toes, as a spectator, which forces you to negotiate all of these twists and turns.
And of course what it also does is makes you think about what it is that you’re watching, and about what it is to watch in the first place, about what your role is, as a spectator. And what your desire is, as a spectator. In theatre there’s an implicit relation, a voyeuristic sadism, a bloodlust even. We want to see damage, you want to see trauma [laughing]. The people on the stage have to suffer somehow! I’m using big words, but I think there is a desire for blood, of one kind or another. You want to see trouble, people in trouble. It’s not interesting to see people who have no problems. It’s only problems that we’re interested in, as spectators. So what is that about? In dramatic works that’s easy to identify, but even in the kind of work that we make, the pull to difficulty and to trauma is very strong. So there’s a questioning of that. And a ridiculing of that, and of the grandeur of the tragic.
I think across all of the work there is a big set of reflections on what it is to be a spectator, what it is to be an audience, what it is to be a reader, what it is to be someone in space encountering artwork – you’re always pushed to think about your own role, your own position.
FF – Also about the audience: the idea of presence is really important for you, it’s something you’re deeply invested in. Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator makes a great point of criticizing the idea that theatre is by itself about presence and community even before the show begins. But it’s not something that you take for granted, it’s something that you work on, that you build, that each performance has to build.
TE – One big question in the performance work (and I can see this also in other kinds of work of mine) is what does it mean to be in front of other people. What happens when 200 people look at one person? What does it mean to be watched and to be that object of attention and projection? What’s the economy of that? But also, how can we be in front of other people? What are the processes of that, and what do those processes produce? Sometimes my performance work is very theatrical, playing absurdly with the big tools the theatre gives you (costume and music and song and dance and lights and drama). But the performances always cut down from that theatrical code to something much more minimal – a very basic human presence, i.e. there’s a sense that what performance is for us is a room with two groups of people, one of whom is very much watching the other. It’s not more than that, really; some people in a room, and some of them watching the others. Very simple, very everyday. We talk about this idea of a workmanlike attitude to what we’re doing, almost a Brechtian thing of people on stage who are doing a job. You often reach these points in the shows where you just see the performers, looking tired or exhausted by what they’ve been doing, and also like suddenly they’re just here, with you. And what a strange space that is to share.
I think you’re right, that that space of presence gets built, that’s what the work does every time: it constructs a temporary community. In fact from minute zero of the performance through to the final moment, what you’re doing, always, in fact is constituting the audience. You’re testing and making a space at the same time. It’s true that that’s a live process, a fragile one, that starts anew every time.
MD – When I look at the different areas of your own work, I get the impression that the thing that joins everything together is writing, language, and giving form to language. In your visual work, in the video installations, in the theatre. Is that the creative starting point?
TE – It is one of the things that connect across everything that I do. It must be the single most important and recurring thing. It’s central but it’s not leading. It’s the thing that pervades everything. It’s interesting because in the performance work especially, it can be the starting point, but often isn’t. Often the starting point is to do with doing, it’s visual; it’s probably costume, in a strange way, or some combination of space and costume and position for the performers. And linked to that, pretty quickly the ideas about what gets said.
If I think about First Night, for example, the piece that we made in 2000, which takes the form of this comical vaudeville or cabaret that is going very badly wrong from the beginning, the first thing for that was the smiling. I had the performers dressed like they were here for some kind of cabaret entertainment, and in this slightly ridiculous make-up, and I had them smiling these insane smiles. And they stood in a line on and off in the rehearsals, like that, for a week. I couldn’t think of anything for them to say, or do. But I kept looking at it, and we kept looking at it, and finding it extremely strange, and weird, and powerful. And it took a long time to figure out what language belonged with that. That’s quite often the case. There’s a visual thing first and then language follows.
Other performances like Speak Bitterness, or Quizoola!, or Tomorrow’s Parties, or Dirty Work do come from language of course. But it’s interesting that what really comes first, even in those, is a dynamic relation to the audience that’s summoned by the language. The idea of confessing, which is about being close to the audience and taking them in your eyes, and making contact with them, and trying to test the statement by saying it to them like you really mean it, for me I’m thinking about that state of relation to the audience for Speak Bitterness almost before I have a single line of the text. What’s gripping me is the idea of that relation. And likewise in Tomorrow’s Parties, the idea of making predictions about the future comes first – independent of any particular idea for what they might actually say. Of course those things are formed through language, but in a strange way the interest in the states of relation comes slightly before.
Another starting point is my notebook of course. And that’s very much language – not so much in the way of drawings or images. I’m a collector of language – overheard things, things from newspaper or internet, phrases that come to mind – I’m constantly collecting things that might come in handy sometime! And I get very fascinated with particular forms of language, or particular voices.
FF – Maybe something that also comes before language, that predates it, is the idea of a game, and rules that you need to establish. Language games is of course another way of looking at shows like Quizoola! and And on the Thousandth Night…
TE – We’re always looking for games. Once you’ve decided that your performance is not a story this idea of the game or the ritual is important; that what you’re watching is a set of performers at work on a topic inside a set of constraints becomes a very useful way of structuring, of making dramaturgy, making time flow in different ways. And the idea of the game can be a very useful part of that. It’s dynamic. You can push against each other, and you can play with each other and the changes of approach give you something of the dynamic forces you might expect to find in a narrative. But they’re differently constituted – because in narrative there’s that illusionistic idea of a coherent story world with causality and consequence, whereas in rule-games everything is contingent, everything is potentially switchable. Sometimes those are visual games, sometimes they’re physical games, and very often they’re language games. But that spirit of games and playing, and playfulness, rules, is very important in the work. And I use those things because they’re alternative ways of thinking about the world other than narrative. Because narrative has its set of tyrannous properties that we’re shy of, for one reason or another.
FF – You started working in 1984 and moved to Sheffield when Thatcher was in power. Working in that context, what have you learned that you can teach younger artists today that are facing similar difficulties? What can you teach them and what do you think younger artists have taught you over the years, what can they teach you now?
TE – I wouldn’t like to think of being in that hierarchical position but I think that artists are good at finding ways of making space for their practice. And they’re good at finding ways of flowing through and past the restrictions that political and economic climates put in their way. And actually every era has its own very particular set of issues and problems, and also opportunities.
Although it was hard for us, I honestly think that it’s much harder now than it was. Nowadays, the neoliberal economies in crisis that we’re living in, in the West, are much more adept at policing space and opportunity. There was an economic crisis in the early to mid 80s, but in a strange way it was also a space of relative freedom. You could be unemployed, as we were for several years, just taking a small amount of money from the state, by way of income support, living on a very low level, but we were able to get on with making our work. We did so for I would say three years before we had any funding. At all. And then we got a little bit of funding. And because of the crash we were able to find an industrial space to work in, so within a year we had our own space where we could be 24 hours a day. We don’t even have that now! Our working situation was very low-fi and self-organising at the beginning, but it was possible. Whereas now if you’re unemployed the state wants a lot more control. And if you’ve just come out of college or university now, you will have come out with big debts. I’m always struck that as you travel around and meet younger artists working on projects, people are very good at finding ways to continue.
An interesting thing to me is that we’re a collective, it’s six people, and it’s six people who’ve worked together for almost 30 years. That’s very hard to do, not surprisingly. That’s something also about the personalities of the people and the relation between them of course but these days that stability is hard to imagine – the economy for the arts is an extreme example of global itinerant labour. Everyone is moving all the time, basically flowing where the money is, and where the opportunity is, and dealing with switchable networks. There are less permanent ensembles or partnerships and much more loose networks of association and collaboration that go from Brussels to Berlin, Lisbon, Paris, Munich… In one way that’s an amazing sign of the sort of resilience and resourcefulness of artists, but it’s also a very pure manifestation of what capital and the market for labour would like: endless short-term contracts and endless recombinations. Obviously you don’t have any free time, you’re always working, you’re always productive. It makes me think about what the place of permanent or long-term commitments is. And about the importance of slowness. Much as I like to be running around like a maniac, doing ten things at the same time, I know that the experience of the company, the work with the company, stems from this slow, long-term commitment, and that is super important to me. Because it develops a language and a way of working – and that takes an extraordinary length of time. And for that, all you need is persistence, and that’s what we always used to say in fact, back in the 80s, that our secret weapon was that we would just carry on; continuing to work, to find ways, letting things accumulate over years in a really strong and positive way.
FF – Your guerrilla tactic.
TE – A slow guerrilla tactic. Not very dynamic, just keep walking. Don’t disappear. Especially in England, you’re sort of seen by a certain part of the theatre culture and then five years later they go back and they say, ‘Are they still doing that?’ And then you continue for another five years, and ‘Oh my God, they’re still happening, well maybe we should take this seriously.’ That’s ten years of your life. So I’m intrigued by that notion that it’s only by sticking at things that they become visible. Some practices explode very fast and maybe burn out very fast, but what we’ve been doing is an ongoing project together.
FF – “Together” would be a nice word to finish this…
MD – But before that, the unavoidable question: what do you expect from a year of Lisbon?
TE – A couple of things. One is that part of that “together” I’ve just mentioned is not just the company, it is other kinds of collaborations and partnerships, so in Lisbon there are already strong partners. We go back a long way, you longest, Mark, probably, back to 89 or so… And that seems very important, it’s not a closed conversation, it’s been a long conversation, luckily for us with a group of programmers who’ve supported the work and engaged with it in different ways over that length of time.
Beyond that, the opportunity to show the work not just with the company, but also my work in the visual arts context and the other sorts of collaborative projects… that’s pretty unique. Occasionally, we’ve had the opportunity to do a small mini-festival somewhere here or there, maybe to show two or three works, but the opportunity that the Artist of the City project gives is to showcase an enormous range and variety of things over a long period. Which I really look forward to and is an amazing possibility to open a conversation with audiences.
And also I’m excited to open creative conversations with many different people, to write texts for Companhia Maior and for the PANOS project, which will bring my work with text into contact with new people. To be in conversations and collaborations with other artists based in the city is very great to be thinking about. I’m very excited to be thinking about a relation to the city too, to put neon works into different locations, to write about Lisbon… It’s been the first time that there’s been that sort of focus in one place over a 12-month period. So I’ll sort of move to Lisbon, which will be very nice, next year [laughing]… though I may be needed in several other places too!
MD – You’re very welcome. I think we’ve made an hour…
TE – That’s great, thank you. I did send you that picture of where I am right now.
FF – Yes, here it is. A roof…
MD – … With a sign that says ‘A STITCH IN TIME.’
TE – It’s a new work! It’s something I made for Derry where I am now, in Northern Ireland. The text comes from an English saying, ‘A stitch in time saves nine,’ which means that you should fix a problem quickly because otherwise it just gets bigger and bigger.
This year Derry is UK’s City of Culture and over the next four days there’s a festival of light works, and my piece is a commission for that. It’s going to be a permanent piece though, it’ll stay after the festival has finished and will remain on the roof of the building.
The location is an old shirt factory, a place where women made clothing. In the 70s and the 80s it was a very big industry here in Derry and then just collapsed. It’s pretty much finished now, all the manufacture of garments went to Bangladesh, or to Sri Lanka, or other places. But the buildings are still present in the landscape. So I was referring to the industry, to the past use of the building. But also thinking about the political situation here… about the importance of repair – of mending things. It was only in the last few days, since the sign went up on the roof in fact, that I realised that in shortening the phrase – to just “A STITCH IN TIME’ – I’ve made it sound as though time itself is the thing that needs to get fixed. I like that idea. It’s also pretty magical – to see the city under this phrase. It transforms the space. That seems exciting to me.