July 29 2011: Some Confusions… : An Interview With Tim Etchells about Forced Entertainment’s ‘Pleasure’ (Polar Magazine, Sheffield, 1997)
There were discarded photographs, there were incomprehensible shopping lists, there was a note I found near the hi-rise flats which said DAVE – I HAVE TO GET OUT – THE GAS IS CUT OFF AND THE TV HAS GONE BAD – BACK THURSDAY … (1)
Forced Entertainment were formed in Sheffield in 1984 to co-operate in the development of a “brash theatre vision that mixes high and low tech, bitterness and poverty” (2), a fusion that has so far spawned sixteen touring productions and acclaim for the group as one of Europe’s leading experimental performance companies. The group’s core membership has remained stable over the years and, apart from writer-director Tim Etchells, includes Cathy Naden, Claire Marshall, Robin Arthur, Richard Lowdon, Deborah Chadbourn and Terry O’Connor.
‘Writer’, in Etchells’ case, seems a misleading term in some respects, implying that his scripts are merely performed by the company. In fact, as discussed below, it is clear that the scripts are collaborative, produced by the group as a whole through an exploratory process of rehearsal and improvisation.
Beginning with Jessica In The Room Of Lights in 1984, the key theatre works of Forced Entertainment include (Let The Water Run Its Course) To The Sea That Made The Promise (1986), 200% & Bloody Thirsty (1987/8), Some Confusions In The Law About Love (1989/90), Marina & Lee (1991), Emanuelle Enchanted (1992), Club Of No Regrets (1993/4), Hidden J (1994/5), Speak Bitterness (1995), Showtime (1996) and Pleasure (1997).
Other departures include the site-specific performance Nights In This City (1995), which combined a coach trip around night time Sheffield with performance and installation, Red Room (1994) and Ground Plans For Paradise (1995), two gallery installations made in collaboration with photographer Hugo Glendinning, and various ‘durational’ performances, short films and miscellaneous other projects.
The company are best known for their theatre and performance work and their approach to performance is perhaps best summarised in a monologue from their tenth anniversary retrospective piece, A Decade Of Forced Entertainment (1995), a show made up of exerpts from earlier work, reminiscences and oblique manifestos:
At the start of the shows they’d lay bare the means they had at their disposal like a bunch of crap magicians keen to prove they had nothing up their sleeves.
They told you so many times they weren’t acting that when they did act they hoped you’d think it real. And on a good night that’s what happened. They believed that suspension of disbelief was something you worked for, not took for granted. (3)
A Decade… ended with a tenuous assertion that the work was optimistic, though this optimism was “more an absence than anything else – the optimism lies in the viewer’s experience”. Yet as Etchells himself says below, the latest work, Pleasure, is as dark a piece as the company have yet produced. Like their characters Mike and Dolores in Some Confusions In The Law About Love, Forced Entertainment seem to have shifted away from irony and mass-cultural eclecticism towards a new vision that tries to incorporate both of those things within a darker, more absurdist take on the world:
Mike: …we did a thing quite a while ago now, it was a love show and everyone on the stage drank a love potion that, er, sent them all off to sleep and when they all woke up again they were all in love and no one felt sad.
Hans: I see.
Mike: Well, that’s not the kind of work we want to do anymore. (4)
The following conversation took place in Sheffield on the morning of November 20th, 1997, with the Pleasure tour in its early stages, shortly after Alex Kelly’s Beyond Pleasure, a film about the rehearsals for that piece, had been screened on The South Bank Show. A heavily abridged version appeared in Polar Magazine (December 1997).
Wayne Burrows: I suppose the first question has to be about Pleasure. How did you put the piece together, and what was the idea behind it?
Tim Etchells: Well, we’ve been working together as a group for 13 years now, the same people more-or-less since we started in 1984, and we don’t go into the rehearsal process with much knowledge of what we want to do. We like to go in a bit blind, work with things we find which might be anything from a piece of text or music, maybe a costume or a prop – and work by playing with those things until we start to find the show. It’s a question of not prescribing the work in advance, letting it be what it seems to want to become, via that kind of exploratory process. So we don’t tend to have a firm notion in advance of what it is we’re going to do. With Pleasure, one of the things we started from was that Terry (O’Connor) bought a record because she liked the cover – it promised this raucous, drunken sing along thing inside. It was a Billy Cotton LP, a party-medley from the 1940s. Anyway, when we played it, it turned out to be really cheesy and sentimental and it was so horrible that after the first 10 minutes it was really just heading straight into the bin. But at some point I turned it down to 16 rpm, really slowed it down, and we got to really like the sound of it at that speed because at that point, all the melancholy and overblownness of it became even more preposterous than it already was, and it had this slightly weird, nightmarish, underwater quality to it on the one hand, but also this slightly overblown and comic feel where all the long notes and the voices got stretched and extended to such ridiculous degrees. So we decided we were going to have a show where all the music was slowed down to 16 rpm, which basically set the mood of the piece from that point on. We had this nightime feel, a very drunken and stumbling sort of world, the idea of a nightclub or a weird basement club with this act going on in it, so that’s the basic line we’ve pursued.
WB: What other things fed into this one? On the recent South Bank Show film, there was a very marked almost fairytale kind of feel…
TE: Yeah, well other things from charity shops kind of feed that. .. A while back, we found the three wedding dresses and for no good reason just bought them, and there’s the pantomime horse costume, which we got after doing a small project for kids at the Crucible Theatre (Break In!, 1995). We devised this mysterious guided tour of the theatre building where the guide didn’t seem to know anything, and they were regularly abandoned while strange things happened to them, or they’d meet someone who’d tell them something about the building. It was really just this half fun, half surreal guided tour of the Crucible, but the pantomime horse costume was something we got from their costume department and used.
WB: Was that related to Nights In This City, the coach trip around Sheffield you did?
TE: Yeah, they’d seen the coach trip and asked if we could do something similar for a group of 8 year old kids, and it seemed like such a ridiculous idea, inviting us to work with 8 year olds, that we instantly just said ‘yes’. It turned out quite well, and we really enjoyed doing that. It was something we’d never tried before. But the upshot for Pleasure was that we got the pantomime horse, which became a pretty central image for the piece. The other main thing was this list of 3,433 filthy words and phrases we had, which is, well, not a dictionary, more a long list of… well, if it’s not a complete list of all the swear words in the world, it’s getting on that way. So you’ve got all the euphemisms for body parts, sex acts, biological functions and stuff classified into types – so there’s 300 or 400 words for ‘cock’, 50 words for ‘anal intercourse’ and so on. It’s slang mainly, a lot of it very archaic, like you’ve not heard before, some of it fairly current, some of it quite sickening and apalling, and some of it just funny or stupid. We’d got this list, and during rehearsals Cathy (Naden) began to write these words out on a blackboard, erase them, then write in more. That’s one of the things Cathy does all through the show, chooses words from this list and writes them up in the background. It’s like having a very naughty adolescent in the back corner, and whatever else is happening on the stage, Cathy is writing ‘pee pee’ or ‘push shit uphill’ at the back, slightly upsetting the rest of the performance.
WB: All I’ve seen of the show so far are the clips on The South Bank Show. How did that come about? After all, The South Bank Show is a bastion of respectability …
TE: They got the idea that they’d like to commission four new or young film makers to each do a short film on the subject of their choice, and one of the people they approached was Alex Kelly of Third Angel. Alex works in this building, and had seen a lot of the work we were doing, so when they asked him to do this 10 minute film he decided to do it about us finishing off Pleasure.
WB: Quite close to that, you were involved with a film about the performance artist, Michael Atavar, a kind of Homage To Joe Orton, weren’t you?
TE: Yeah, the Channel 4 thing, DIY. That was me and Hugo Glendinning, a photographer we collaborate with quite a lot. It was the first production of Forced Entertainment Films, which we’re hoping to do more with. Another one is a 9 hour video-piece of Cathy Naden writing out the entire list of 3,433 filthy words and phrases …
WB: So that’ll be, what? An installation?
TE: It’ll be an installation, yeah. If it comes off, our plan of choice is to premiere it at a porn cinema in Rotterdam. We were there in the summer, and we went to check out this place because a friend of ours had seen a documentary about it. It’s really amazingly kitsch and seedy, there’s a cinema with a bar that closes at midnight, so the plan is to screen the film from midnight through to 9 am and do a kind of event alongside it. It’s a fantastic place to show this film, it’s just perfect.
WB: Do you think you’re moving more towards films now? I remember talking to David Metcalfe when he was doing the Now festivals in Nottingham, it would have been around ’92 or ’93 when Club Of No Regrets was on, and he was saying one of the big plans for the future was to get some films commissioned. So is that now starting to happen?
TE: It is starting to happen. It’s something we’ve been badgering after since around that time, I suppose. When we were talking to David in ’92 or ’93 that was the first real move we’d made towards trying to do something. We had this idea for a 10 minute soap that would go out for maybe 30 episodes or something, and it’s still in the cupboard somewhere, but it has taken a really long time to get anywhere at all with the film stuff. Even now, we haven’t really got very far. The Beyond Pleasure thing for The South Bank Show was nice, the film with Michael Atavar that Channel 4 comissioned was very useful, the 9 hour video piece is… well, it’s not exactly telly. Nice to do, but a very different context. Still, we have got interest from some quite useful people and in the end we would like to do more film projects.
WB: Would you envisage maybe switching from live to filmed performances at some stage?
TE: Not really, no. Over the last 3 to 4 years we’ve not only produced a new theatre piece for touring each year, but increasingly we’ve done a lot of touring of previous pieces. In the last 6 months alone we’ve done maybe 7 different pieces in different places, mostly theatre, but some of it towards the Live Art end of things. We’ve been in Britain, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Scandinavia touring, and alongside that we’ve done more work in galleries, more work in digital media, just a real range of things. So I think we’d like to stay flexible. We’ve always seen ourselves as a group of artists who mainly make performances, but when we get the chance to work in film, or to dabble in digital media, we’re always interested in seeing what we can do with it, we’re up for doing that. We’ve never been purists, I suppose, maybe never really liked theatre very much…
WB: I ‘m interested to hear you say that because I found a curious snippet of information a few weeks ago that intrigued me. Apparently you’re funded by the Arts Council’s Drama department, yet others doing similar work, like Third Angel, are funded by Combined Arts. I suppose I’m curious, because I’d have put you under the same banner myself…
TE: I think what’s happened historically is that, until about 4 years ago, if you were a young company starting out making performances you’d probably try to form a relationship with Drama, and that’s certainly what we did. Since then, Combined Arts has got bigger and slightly wider in its portfolio, and it’s become a bit of a magnet for new companies doing performance. It’s provided a place where you can do that, on relatively low budgets, usually, without having to deal with some of the prejudices that can exist in Drama about what is and isn’t theatre.
WB: In London a few weeks ago, I saw a company called Primitive Science at the South Bank and again, they’re sort of ‘visual theatre’, but are funded by Drama. I am curious about where the definitions are, since even the word used to describe this stuff seems to change from one week to the next – performance art, live art, combined arts, hybrid arts… What are we calling it today?
TE: It’s quite odd, really. We’ve always been clear that there’s a certain strand in our work that is to be called theatre, but we also know that we make work like an 11 hour durational performance for the National Review Of Live Art, or the performances that went alongside Ground Plans For Paradise, the model city… So I suppose we’re clear that some of the work we make is drama and some of it isn’t. So if we collaborate with a photographer and make a load of stuff that goes on the walls of a gallery, make a digital piece or something, it’s not drama, and we’ll go elsewhere for the money. And there is a definitions thing I don’t think we’re very interested in, and we like to be left alone to get on with it. But there is a tradition of theatre I think we’re definitely part of, though when it comes to something like Nights In This City, which is basically a bus trip around Sheffield, I don’t know what that is, really… Drama funded it, but whether it’s drama or not I’ve got no clear idea, to be honest.
WB: One of the intriguing things about Live Art is the way in which a lot of it seems to go back to an older, pre-nineteenth century idea of what theatre was for. It seems more like the eighteenth century with all its artifice and lack of naturalism, or even the Elizabethans and Jacobeans with their Masques and non-realist conventions…
TE: Yeah, I think there is that, and at its best we’d see drama as an open space that can recognise lots of different kinds of areas and ways of working. At their best, that’s what the Arts Council’s Drama department does. In practice, it tends to work like this – that you can go so far outside a literary theatre tradition, but that at a certain point – if you’ve strayed too far from that – then Drama will try to push you towards Combined Arts, who might then try to push you back again… It’s easy to get into positions where you fall between those two stools. For us, we’re now in a position where we get funded by Drama for the main theatre pieces, but also get bits of money from Combined Arts when we’re doing other pieces that fall within that framework, while the 9 hour film is actually being funded by Visual Arts… which I’m incredibly pleased about, that we were able, in combination with Hugo Glendinning, to get into a conversation with them that’s led to us being able to do a project. And I like that idea now, that we aren’t the sole client, that there’s no one group of people at the Arts Council or anywhere else who own what we do. We’re in a position where we can move around a bit, and you’re harder to hit if you keep moving!
WB: In terms of audience, is there a skew towards younger people in Live Art?
TE: Definitely. I think our work tends to speak to people in the 18 to 30 age range – sometimes as low as 16 or as high as 35 to 40 – but, yeah, on the whole that’s where our audience is located. There are some venues where we’ll get more older folks in, but I think its appeal is primarily to younger people. I don’t think that’s because it won’t speak to older people, but about all sorts of weird things to do with people’s habits when they’re going out. I think going out to see strange performances just tends to drop off most peoples’ agenda as they get older. They calm down or something…
WB: If I could put something from a negative review to you, because it is a pretty standard objection to a lot of Live Art and experimental work, the guy says the problem is that there’s no development or narrative, nothing to hook a viewer into the piece or involve you with the characters. He was actually writing about Pleasure…
TE: Mmm, I mean we work towards getting a – not a narrative development, because narrative isn’t really very satisfying to me, or at least in performance I’m not very interested in it – but more like a kind of poetic or musical or emotional development into the work, and I suppose at our best, that’s what you should have… At best, you should feel like you’ve been on a journey to quite a strange place, and you’ve been taken through some changes. You’ve come in here and got out at another place. But of course, that doesn’t always work, and sometimes only half the audience will go on that journey with you and half won’t. So I understand it when people say that sort of thing about the work, but our intention is always to make something that does take you with it… As for Pleasure, there’s no doubt that relatively speaking among our works it’s a hard one. Some of our things have been quite friendly, but this one’s not – it throws you in at the deep end of a very strange place and it does feel like you’re sinking into this David Lynch nightclub at four in the morning, and that can be hard work. If you’re prepared to relax and go with it, or work and go with it, I think it can be a really valuable experience to have, but I guess for some people that’s just not why they went out on a Saturday night or whatever. Our line on that is that sometimes we are going to make work like that, for our own needs as much as anything… sometimes we make very friendly things, which is quite nice – it makes them easier to tour – and sometimes we’re going to make things which are really cuss awkward, that’ll take you into quite difficult places. But we don’t see why we shouldn’t do that. If it pisses some people off, it’s a shame, but too bad…
WB: Some things, like Nights In This City, the coach-trip, do seem to have been very popular even with people who don’t normally like experimental things, people who’ve maybe never seen that kind of work before…
TE: Yeah, definitely, pieces like the coach trip, or Showtime, or even Speak Bitterness, spoke to people in a very direct, relatively clear way, and they were quite good at using comedy, quite familiar things, to draw people in. Pleasure kind of does that, but it’s a little bit nasty, slightly less inviting, I think. I don’t see that as necessarily a negative, I see it as, for those who go with it, a real plus. People have said to us all along, ‘make it darker’, ‘make it worse’, but I think it’s quite a nice piece. It’s just that it doesn’t work like Showtime…
WB: Why do you think Live Art seems so strong in the regions – it can sometimes seem like the London contribution to it as artform is outweighed by places like Nottingham and Sheffield …
TE: I think there are really strong traditions of people making different kinds of performance outside the capital, and that’s been important for us, with Sheffield as a base, and the North of England as a kind of spiritual base… You see it all over, in Manchester, Liverpool or Hull, these little groups of people making stuff that’s outside the metropolitan traditions. I think it’s very exciting to be part of that.
WB: What is it about Sheffield particularly? I mean, it obviously feeds quite directly into a lot of the work, with references to Meadowhall and so on…
TE: Well, we never set out to talk directly about everyday life in Sheffield or Britain, but I think we were quite surprised when on our tenth anniversary as a company we made a piece called A Decade of Forced Entertainment, looking back over our lives and work to that point. We ended up thinking, ‘no wonder our work’s full of scrawled polythene and cardboard signs written with thick black marker pens, everything looking a bit shitty – just look where you’ve been living for God’s sake, look at what the last ten years have been like in terms of the Tory government, unemployment, the way the city’s changed, how it was when we first arrived here…’ And it struck us that although we’d been doing our own weird, semi-abstract, bizarre stuff, we had actually been talking about precisely those things in the landscape, and about this city, in a very direct way. So I think Sheffield has been important, because even though we’ve never really tried to deal with it, it does just filter through and ends up in the work. Literally, since most of the shows use stuff from the charity shops and markets here.
WB: Sheffield is definitely a good second-hand city… One thing that struck me when I first saw Pulp’s Disco 2000 video, or Gillian Wearing’s Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say (1992) was that at first glance you might have mistaken them for footage or stills taken from Forced Entertainment shows. Have you been conscious of becoming influential on others? Thirteen years is long enough, I’d have thought, for things to filter outwards …
TE: I think with Pulp and Gillian Wearing it’s mostly sharing a sensibility. Pulp were here in the mid-1980s when we started making our work, and we were never close to them, but there was a kind of seeing of each-other’s work, and an awareness that we were often dealing with similar things. With Gillian Wearing, those photographs came out the same year we first used handwritten cardboard signs, maybe the year after, but that was probably more of a zeitgeist thing, just something in the air or the culture at the time we both arrived at at the same time. But, yeah, sometimes you do notice how bits of the aesthetic crop up, and you might see something and think, ‘oh, that’s interesting, I wonder where you got that from’. But other times you know it’s just happening by chance, in several different parts of the world at once, even. But it is nice when things you’ve done do crop up elsewhere.
WB: Do you have any interest in maybe moving towards more popular mediums – maybe do a few pop videos, that sort of thing?
TE: Well, in terms of the film stuff, yeah, we’d like to do more, and video would definitely fall into that. Hugo, who worked with me on the DIY film, just did the camerawork on a pop shoot, and it’s kind of boring stuff, but if we could get control of something like that we could have some fun with it… Certainly I’d be keen to do things just to learn, so if somebody said “can you do us a pop video” we’d do it, not because it was going to be great art or anything, but just to learn something. And if you can learn something while spending twenty grand of someone else’s money, that must be quite nice. We could do that!
WB: Drawing things to a close here, I’d like to ask you what you’d say to tempt someone to buy a ticket for Pleasure. What would your ideal copyline be?
TE: Uhm… well, I suppose it’s a show where you’re going to see a pantomime horse with no trousers on, and there aren’t many shows where you get to see that, for a start. It invites you into this strange, David Lynch-ish sort of world and I think it also challenges you as a watcher, takes you into a very weird space. Fassbinder once said he saw his films as being like the rooms in a house, this one a bedroom, that one the kitchen and so on. Well, Pleasure is definitely our basement. It’s probably the most difficult of our pieces to talk about, especially because we’re still very close to it, but there’s a magic, a mysteriousness about it that I think is very appealing. But the pantomime horse, that’s our selling point!
WB: Odd you should focus on that, because the clips on The South Bank Show made me think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream gone wrong…
TE: Yeah, it has that feel. You’re not sure sometimes whether you’re watching some bizarre sex act or a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s gone really, really, really astray… Richard (Lowdon) is the horse, the central figure again – as in Showtime – and he has this long monologue, a very disconnected thing, but the subject is really how modern life is such rubbish. He’s like a nightclub compere or something, and the whole piece depends on you getting drawn deeper and deeper into this underwater basement club at four in the morning, with people getting drunk and everything slipping away under your feet… You really do just have to go with it.
(1) A Decade Of Forced Entertainment in The Temper Of The Times: Performance Research Vol 1 No 1 (Routledge, Spring 1996) (p.74)
(2) Note in Conduit/Wainwright (eds): Quarterlight: Text (Workstation, 1997). (p.44). Also includes Tim Etchells’ essay Eight Fragments On Theatre And The City (1995).
(3) A Decade Of Forced Entertainment (p.80)
(4) Some Confusions In The Law About Love, quoted in ibid (p.73)