Theatre Q&A: Tim Etchells, Forced Entertainment

Published in The Observer on September 25, 2016

Tim Etchells is the leader of Forced Entertainment, a Sheffield-based theatre company he founded in 1984 with five fellow Exeter University drama graduates. Its productions include the 24-hour gameshow Quizoola!, the six-hour improvised And on the Thousandth Night and Table Top Shakespeare, which retells the playwright’s complete works using household items.

Last weekend the company received the NOK 2.5m (£230,000) International Ibsen award; previous winners include Jon Fosse and Peter Brook. Etchells also makes visual art, writes fiction and is a professor of performance and writing at Lancaster University.


How does it feel to be the first group, rather than solo theatre-maker, to win the International Ibsen award?
We’re obviously pleased that our work is recognised, but also that they’re choosing to give it to a group – it points to a whole different history of theatre-making.

You get approximately £230,000 in prize money – how will Forced Entertainment use that?
We know we want to commit a fairly large amount of it to helping other theatre-makers, those just starting out, to set up something that’s partly mentoring and partly commissioning.

Do you think it’s a more difficult time for emerging artists now than when you started out in 1984?
You can feel like you’ve gone full circle – we’re right back with austerity and a Conservative government. But obviously it’s really changed too: Brexit won’t be helping anybody. We survived because of very strong links with theatres and festivals in Europe. For younger people, they come out of university with huge amounts of debt, which we didn’t. The decision we took – to stay together as a group of six – almost seems impossible to contemplate now. Economically, that’s such a difficult model.

The six of you have been together for 32 years. How have your working relationships changed over that time?
It does feel extraordinary to be creatively and personally tied to that group for such a very long time. But it’s equal parts extraordinary and completely infuriating!

It’s not a utopian project. Sometimes students come to the rehearsal room talking about “trust” and “creative collaboration” as if it was some extremely amiable thing… Really, we argue a lot. But that friction is important to the work. There’s also a tremendous sense of building up a language, a vocabulary. We’re interested in a very intimate, personal and direct way of being on stage and communicating with audiences.

Is your work better known abroad and why do you think that might be?
Our position in the scene in Germany or Belgium is probably stronger than it is in the UK. Here, we’ve still somehow managed to maintain an outsider status. If we were based in mainland Europe, we would have a building by now, or a permanent residency. Although things have changed since we started, the literary culture here really still wins at the end of the day. It’s still about writers and directors, plays and thematics, in an English lit kind of way. And I don’t think that’s where our work belongs.

How is it doing those long performances, when you’re on stage for 24 hours?
You get stupider. You get slower, you lose your control. At the same time you become more open to different energies. It’s like staying up all night, when suddenly at three in the morning something seems really funny or it’s possible to have a very emotional conversation that you would never have at 6pm. There’s a certain vulnerability – people watch you have brilliant moments and they watch you fall flat on your face.

You are based in Sheffield – does the city shape your work?
I think it does. The idea to go north was about wanting to be away from the capital. For the first five years Sheffield was a good, isolating hothouse for us. The peripheries, other spaces that are not the capital, are important – they allow other kinds of visions to emerge. And something at the heart of the company’s work is connected to that sense of periphery.

If you had to pick a show from over the years as a favourite, which would it be?
I’m going to say two… Speak Bitterness, which is all in the form of confessions: “we never washed up properly”; “we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima” – everything from the smallest possible domestic to international and historical crimes. There’s something very strong about that piece because it can really name names.

The other one is And on the Thousandth Night, a six hour performance and all improvised: just free form, people telling stories. It’s the ultimate in terms of flying by the seat of your pants and it’s joyous.

Where next?