Posted by Dusty Hoesly
Tim Etchells’ approach to theatre and art can be summed up by one question, which he repeats often during his lecture: “What are you going to do?” A thoughtful provocateur, Etchells seeks to make audiences question the nature of theatre, art, and language. Early on, he shows a slide of a neon sign he made hanging in a storefront window which reads: “Wait here I have gone to get help.” The viewer can’t help but think: who’s gone, what happened, how long will they be gone? This work is emblematic of Etchells’ interest in how language, presented in diverse media, confronts audiences and forces reactions. By seeing his work, the spectator necessarily responds, imagines, judges, and thereby participates.

The center of Etchells’ creative work is Forced Entertainment, a theatre company he co-founded with five collaborators in 1984. His roles for this group include writing text fragments based on improvisations, shaping the material, and directing the shows. Forced Entertainment is not interested in reading or performing classic theatrical texts. Instead, they draw on improvisation of popular forms, such as vaudeville, television, stand-up, burlesque, press conferences, interview shows, and children’s theatre. Alongside Forced Entertainment, he works in choreographic and text-based performance art, visual art (video, collage, text), and writing (he published a novel this year). Through all of these media, Etchells explores the same issues and questions: how he can pull in audiences through language.
Another series of Etchells’ individual work is called “Starfucker,” a video textual collage of short sentences such as “Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis sharing a shower” or “Tom Cruise on an operating table.” Etchells says, “As you read the image you make it happen; your mind does this whether you want it to or not… it’s an invitation to imagine something. The images are just there with no context for interpretation. The viewer’s awareness of it requires the viewer to negotiate it.” The idea here is the classic “Don’t think of an elephant” test: when you hear you immediately think of it.
Etchells also photographs empty stages, a project that he will publish in the future. Moving from elementary school stages showing vacant Christmas pageant to outdoor theatres, from pub stages to opera halls, Etchells invites viewers to imagine what could take place there, what has been there, or is there now. We are the directors as we rush to fill the blankness.
For Etchells, theatre is a “weird social contract,” one where individuals pay money to sit in the dark in silence while people on stage do something. His goal is to subvert and interrogate this agreement. For example, in Dirty Work, two actors describe a play that never takes place. The first line: “Act I begins with five great nuclear explosions.” Audiences ask themselves, what would it be like to be here seeing that? When the play describes an autopsy, audiences may shudder, proof of the visceral power of language. This also adds a competitive element to these plays as the two actors try to top each other, creating the most striking delivery of their lines in an effort to provoke audiences.
Etchells’ relationship with theatre, as he says, is like Baudelaire’s quip that a child’s relation to a toy is “How can I break this?” Putting too much theater into a show is one way, such as in Bloody Mess, a production that features ten performers doing their own thing, interrupting each other, and trying to ruin what every other performer wants to do. Another way of breaking theatre is taking it away, reducing a show to bare words and minimized stage presence, such as in Quizoola!, where two actors ask and answer questions for six hours. These are theatrical productions that never certify themselves as theatre. Instead of bringing audiences together for a shared experience, these Forced Entertainment shows want to isolate audience members. In one show, called First Night, actors point to people in the audience and say “car crash” or “heart attack.” Audiences laugh initially but then become uneasy as they feel singled out and assailed, the line between artificial performance and personal attack blurred.
More recently, Forced Entertainment has presented what Etchells terms “catalogue-style,” encyclopedic plays. In Speak Bitterness, for example, performers confess individual and public sins, such as stealing cookies and bombing cities. Since the various confessions are the play’s text, and can be read by any actor who grabs the lines, the confessions take on an artificial tone that transgresses the sanctity of the confessional genre. There is also a competitive spirit as actors vie to claim the worst offenses. Viewers are comfortable with benign confessions (“We forgot to invite Stephen”) but much less complacent with the cutting ones (“We dropped bombs on cities we could not spell”), especially as the confessors use the inclusive “we” instead of the singular “I” in admitting wrongdoing. Saying “I threw stones at immigrants’ windows” is far less damning that “We threw stones at immigrants’ windows,” which is how the text reads. People start to mind when the vile acts are imputed to them, showing how audiences form and reform groups as the show progresses.
Forced Entertainment is famously known as the home of duration theatre, producing plays that last from six to twenty-four hours. While bound up with a rule system, these plays are nearly entirely improvised. Audiences can come and go as they please. Instead of a controlled journey such as in normal theatre, here each spectator has a different experience. In one piece, eight people tell stories that begin “Once upon a time,” and then fill in the rest of the story extemporaneously, often interrupting each other to continue one narrative or another; in the end, however, none of the stories are concluded. Players negotiate the energy in the room with their stories, offering a trust of the audience beyond the micromanagement of most staged or televised productions. With these plays, Etchells asks, “What will you tolerate? What’s interesting? What can we make interesting as viewers?”
Posted by Dusty Hoesly