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April 30, 2007 | by  | in Theatre |
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Know this…or die unfulfilled (in theatrical terms)

This week: Forced Entertainment

A welcome addition to the Salient theatre pages, this section will discuss topical theatre issues, profile theatre companies and practitioners. Expect to see this section when I feel like it, or when we’re running low on reviews (which is the case this week). This week: one of the UK’s finest collaborative theatre companies… Forced Entertainment.

In third year theatre I was confronted with a type of theatre unlike any I’d ever encountered before. A man carefully arranges chairs on the stage, another man carefully removes them. As the sequence continues, the pace speeds up. It is hilarious and strangely sad, but I can’t figure out why…the futility of it? Even on video, I was struck by the feeling of ‘live-ness’, it was raw and adventurous. Even the name of the company was so utterly different; seemingly taking the piss out of conventional, narrative based psychological driven, realistic theatre. The show was Bloody Mess and the company is Forced Entertainment.

Labelled “Britain’s most brilliant experimental theatre company” (The Guardian), Forced Entertainment formed in 1984 in Sheffield in the UK. If you know anything about England, you’ll know it’s quite a strange place to start a theatre company, but hey, nothing these guys do is ordinary.

Since their humble beginnings, the company have toured all over the UK and Europe. When I was in London last year, I caught their most recent show The World in Pictures. Similar in style to Bloody Mess (2004), the show attempted to tell the history of mankind in 90 minutes. The show opens with the actors walking humbly on stage ‘as themselves’ and giving advice to Jerry who is to speak the opening monologue to the show. Straight away the audience is uncomfortable, unsure of what is happening. The show was epic, shambolic and utterly hilarious. Actors try to steal attention, the multimedia makes no sense, a woman constantly throws snow powder over the narrator. It is an assault on the eyes and the mind as all the elements compete for your attention.

However, there is incredible heart to the piece. As the pace slows down and we move into the 20th century, the group’s enthusiasm for the task dissipates, the bad wigs and cavemen costumes disappear, and a sad, fragile tone takes over the performers. Narrator/historian Kathy slowly lists war after war after war. Comedy gives way to intimacy and the roles of performer and actor are shown up as constructions, as the real people are overpowered by their own material. Forced Entertainment are interested in the attempt and failure to sustain theatre – hence the ‘show’ breaking down.

The very nature of the piece speaks to a very important concept for Forced Entertainment – the breaking down of the constructions of theatre such as the traditional distancing of the audience. Telling the story of mankind in a neat, structured narrative form is an impossible task. In showing us this, Forced Entertainment teaches us something about life: that it doesn’t fit into neat structures – so why should theatre pretend otherwise? Maybe we can learn something by examining the shambles?

The company also seek to explore “theatre as a unique space of encounter between performers and audience”. Their traditions lie in performance art, which is concerned with action in real time and real space. In The World in Pictures, the actors take a break between certain sections of history. A drinks cart is wheeled on, the multimedia stops, and the actors crack open cans of beer. It is a literal ‘rest’, that the show needs after the assault of the chaos of the previous section.

But Forced Entertainment doesn’t just do chaotic, antagonistic performances. One of my favourite works is Speak Bitterness (1995). A long table piled with sheets of paper stretches across the stage. The actors come forward and read confessions, a statement at a time, by different actors. They are a mixture of horror and silliness. Any attempt at a throughline narrative is thwarted by the contradictory statements.

We thought we had the opposite of paranoia where we thought everyone was trying to help us
We weren’t even born when Kennedy got shot
We knew what we were doing
We thought ethics and free market capitalism were the same thing.
We thought modern art was a piece of shit
We made weak tea
We did PR for Pol Pot
We were a lousy lay
We cut open our bodies to find the evil in them

The statements all begin ‘we’, which references the audience, and implicates them in the confessions. The challenge for the audience is to find a way of understanding, of linking the confessions, and to find their own meaning. Slowly, relationships develop between the performers in the reading of the confessions.

Overall, it is a fragmented, self-referential, funny and sad performance piece.

“Collaboration” is an ethic which has framed Forced Entertainment’s theatre practice. Tim Etchells (director of Forced Entertainment): “We are committed to a collective practice, to building and maintaining a group that shares a history, skills and an equal involvement in the creative process.” Shows are often formed by recording their improvisations, and watching them back as a company with a critical eye.

In my time in the UK, I attended a seminar entitled Rewiring/rewriting theatre in which Etchells and other theatre practitioners discussed the style and nature of their work. A large part of the discussion focused on the way the ‘avant garde’ is perceived. People argue that the ‘avant-garde’ is inaccessible. Would I describe Forced Entertainment as ‘avant-garde’? Definitely not.

Experimental yes, but elitist? No way. According to Etchells it is ‘theatre literate’ people who have a problem with experimental theatre. It is young kids brought up on a diet of Shakespeare who not only don’t ‘get it’, but are closed off to new theatrical possibilities.

By contrast, Forced Entertainment dislike “communal herding” (as Etchells terms it), they want to let the work breathe and let people take what they like from the theatre. So when a person ups and leaves the Riverside Studios in the middle of a particularly chaotic sequence where the narrator is being upstaged by the performers – that audience member leaving is PART of the performance; their reaction is part of that live interaction between the audience and the performers.

They want to accept the artifice of theatre and work with that. What has become normal theatrical practice – walking in to a theatre, lights dimming, actors walking on stage and pretending to be other people for three hours without one acknowledgement of the audience is strange to them. Fancy ignoring the fact that you’ve got audience? How strange that you just believe that that person is another person. For Forced Entertainment, it’s much more interesting to work with the live medium of the audience, and to interact.

In my opinion, Forced Entertainment is the future of theatre. It uses the languages people are aware of – pop videos, film acting, theatre acting – to make a new kind of theatre, one that is ultimately modern. It understands what theatre is – it is live, it is an interaction between a performer and an audience, an exchange that simply can’t occur in the cinema. Given this magnificent gift of ‘the live’, they use it to their full advantage to entertain, to provoke and to question.

From Sheffield to high praise from The Guardian to international touring, Forced Entertainment has gone from strength to strength. They should be (and probably are) mentioned in any theatre book on the late 20th century and 21st century theatre. They are written about, talked about and studied. Find out why for yourself.

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About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

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