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Interview with Tim Etchells - Director of ‘The Coming Storm’

18 October 2012 | Charlie Kenber

Forced Entertainment's latest show 'The Coming Storm' promises to be as rebellious as ever. London Calling's Charlie Kenber talks to the director, Tim Etchells.

London Calling: Can you tell us a bit about ‘The Coming Storm’ which is on tour and then heading to the Battersea Arts Centre in November?

Tim Etchells: The Coming Storm continues our fascination with narrative - in the piece the six performers create, collaborate on, ambush and disrupt multiple stories which range from the personal to the comical and the profound. It works as a collage of images and tones underpinned by music to create a live experience that is constantly shifting or getting redrawn.

LC: How did you approach the work?

TE: What’s strange is we started work on The Coming Storm  with a singular narrative in mind but as the rehearsal process unfolded we moved more and more into a territory of fragments - unfinished narratives and 'scenes' or images which appear to both relate to and contradict what's spoken. It's a familiar journey for me! I'm fascinated with stories but in the work (and in life perhaps!) I'm frustrated with singularity - so the limit of one single story seems to be something that I always want to challenge in the work. I’m much more interested in stories rather than story – in plurality and also in the way that things (stories, images, actions, fragments) collide.

There's a lot of interplay between the different elements of the piece - text, sound, music and action. The text for the piece has largely been created through improvisation - so that it has a loose, easily spoken form. The stories we’re working with are also very different from each other – some appear to be personal, anecdotal or reminiscences whilst others are like incredible tangled movie plots.

What interests me very much is the way that an incomplete narrative is always filled in, or imaginatively completed by an audience. The work is always incomplete in a sense – we’re creating a situation out of which many narratives are spinning and forming. Things – stories, tones, atmospheres – are constantly in a state of almost cohering and then dissolving again. The structure for The Coming Storm was very elusive – it was hard for us to find the checks and balances in it - but I think we succeeded slowly. In a strange way the frame we are working with is as much musical as it is narrative – the principles are associative, poetic, to do with energy and pattern, contradiction and connection. What this leads to (hopefully!) is a work that's very live to watch – where the sense is precarious, always emerging, always on the edge of something.

LC: Has Forced Entertainment’s process changed since you began in 1984?

TE: For us the whole process in the studio is always a kind of collaborative writing of course – a writing that we are doing together – inventing things, trying things, combining them, a writing that takes place between text, action, sound, light and time. It does change from project to project… but in this sense it stays the same.

My role in the process remains very much connected to the generation and organisation of the material – text and everything else. During improvisations you often see me running on and off the stage, whispering instructions to people, or sometimes even yelling to try to change the course of what's happening, adding a detail or adjusting things. I have an overview – where people are, what the whole picture is – and at least some sense of where it might all go. The rest of the group are of course in it the whole time, so their individual perspectives are always quite particular. Making The Coming Storm this took on a new perspective because several of the performers were wearing quite absurd costumes at times – things that restrict their ability to move or to see or to hear properly – so there was often a very real sense in which they didn't know what was going on! Often my interventions in the improvisations are about trying to nudge the performers towards particular pieces of content or tone that we are working with, whilst at other times I’m trying to cut a certain scene and move on before it becomes too solid.

The Coming Storm starts in a very minimal mode… but it accelerates more and more as time goes on bringing in music, and dance and costume and anything else it can think of! The piece charts a journey between different kinds of performance possibilities. In the rehearsals this is the journey we are trying to construct –- a kind of spinning out of control -- when it feels like it’s working it’s really exciting. I think I’m drawn to music and to dancing because they lie outside of verbal language – they open up different ways of thinking, feeling and doing, different ways of making propositions in the performance.

Like many of the works I’ve made with Forced Entertainment, The Coming Storm puts deceptively simple things together, side by side, in combination to create something complex. Theatrical elements in it are exposed– there are boxes and rails of costumes placed on the stage alongside props and musical instruments. There's something slightly chaotic or careless in the aesthetic - a rehearsal room or a dressing up box rather than a very ‘sophisticated’ or proud theatrical arsenal. There’s something half-complete about things in the piece – ideas of setting or costume are partial, even the narratives are often left unfinished.

LC: A number of your shows, such as ‘Void Story’ and ‘And on the Thousandth Night...’ have centered on verbal story-telling. How does your work as both writer and visual artist inform your approach to language?

TE: I think in traditional theatre there’s often a sense that the end of the day it’s the spoken language which makes the meaning. The meaning is in the content of what’s said, in a pretty straightforward way. Whereas for us spoken language is a process – it’s something that’s happening. What makes the meaning is the process, or the collision between spoken language and other elements of performance. I think that I tend to work with language as something incomplete – not a straightforward carrier of meaning – more a problem or question, something that needs mixing with other things in order to function.

LC: Your shows can certainly divide audiences. Does it frustrate you that some people walk out, or does it just come with the territory?

TE: I don’t like it when people walk out! I like it when they stay, when they get puzzled or intrigued or inspired. Less than that feels like a failure really.

On the other hand I know that what interests me can be challenging. I know that I like to stretch things… or to let things take their time. And this job for the audience which I imagine – that they’re busy imagining, busy working on what they’re looking at – this is hard for some people to accept.

To be honest though I know from the touring we’ve done, over years and years, that audiences enjoy the challenges and the strange invitations the work makes to them. It’s not the easiest thing maybe – but it is exciting and it takes the audience seriously. People like that - it’s what our following is built on.

LC: Could you ever imagine Forced Entertainment’s work becoming part of the “Establishment”?

TE: We’re far from being outsiders. We have an engaged audience, and a real following with passion for what we do. We’ve had regular funding from the Arts Council for more than ten years and we more than double that with other income from Festivals and other touring abroad, with co-producers in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Rotterdam, Essen and many other places. So we have support and we live from what we do, which is a position very many artists would aspire to. That’s a good strong position in some ways.

What’s strange is that in Britain theatre still comes down to plays. There’s still a tyranny here for the word and for realism. It’s hideously boring and that means that people on the edges of theatre – like us – people edging towards performance or live art, people edging towards dance, or towards visual art – never really get taken seriously. We’re an anomaly. I think if we’ve done well here it’s in spite of the climate in many ways – because of the support we’ve had from abroad, and because of our own persistence. There are strong partners for us here too of course – festivals like LIFT and SPILL, plus venues up and down the country – but the general context in England can feel pretty barren.

LC: How has it been to work within LIFT and the London 2012 Festival?

TE: We’ve had a really good dialogue with LIFT, London 2012 Festival and with BAC in London where we are presenting the piece, as well as with some of the other key co-producers involved in the piece internationally. So with this show more than any other it feels like it has the context of a conversation.

We’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with LIFT including presenting Who Can Sing a Song to Unfrighten Me, our 24 hour performance at the Festival in 2000, and the international 20th birthday season we did in 2004 was also a collaboration with LIFT. It’s also great to be part of the huge and varied body of work on offer as part of London 2012 Festival.

 

'The Coming Storm' plays at the Battersea Arts Centre 20 November - 1 December. Click here for full details.

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