This week, Forced Entertainment returns to the Walker as part of Out There 2018 to perform two works: their newest, the Walker-commissioned Real Magic, along with a six-hour performance of Quizoola!, presented in partnership with the Soap Factory.
Forced Entertainment, a collective of six performers, is recognized as “Britain’s most brilliant experimental theatre company” (Guardian). A central theme of the collective’s work is a concern with the periphery—that which is (and those who are) off the path: less seen in late capitalist society, away from the spotlight of the global economy. Forming the collective in 1984, the company chose to work in Sheffield, UK, an industrial city hit hard by the decline of steel and coal mining in the region. It was grey Sheffield—not posh London, the more obvious choice for an experimental theater company—that became its nurturing home. As Tim Etchells, founder and artistic director, put it, in Sheffield they could, “hide amongst 3–4 million unemployed and quietly get on with [our] work and being poor.”1 This choice was one embraced by other progressive artists at the time, who saw, in the conditions of the poor and unemployed in Margaret Thatcher’s UK, a reflection of their own struggle as artists.
Prime Minister Thatcher’s Conservative government ruled the UK throughout the 1980s. If the theater of the previous decade was dominated by socialist discourse, where societal conflicts and class inequality were explored, this interest was pushed to the fringe in the 1980s. While there was “no concerted attempt to suppress oppositional theater,” Thatcher’s rule, nevertheless, suppressed dissenting views by embedding liberal free-market ideology into all spheres of British society. 2 Governmental support was reduced in all areas of the public sector, like education, healthcare, local government, and the arts. Along with these conservative mandates, rampant unemployment had become a permanent feature of British society. In Thatcher’s England, liberal individualism and competition came to define all facets of life, and everyday language was steeped in notions of business and profit.
Theaters that had been publicly subsidized in the post-war UK were no longer guaranteed governmental support and had to learn to vie for corporate sponsorship and to operate as business enterprises. Companies had to prove to the government that they would yield returns high enough to justify the federal government’s financial support. Theater was forced to see itself as part of the entertainment industry. Many artists, including pillars such as Peter Hall (founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, famed for being the first to direct Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in English, and subsequently the director of the National Theatre), saw this as an attack on the arts, tethering it to private expenditure at a time of economic downturn. To maximize audiences and corporate support they had to jeopardize theater’s integrity, independence, and dedication to innovation and quality. In this climate, Etchells and five other founding members chose to start their performance company. It is not a coincidence that they called themselves Forced Entertainment: with its name, the group was highlighting how in the sociopolitical context they were forced to play in the entertainment industry.
Forced Entertainment, like many companies, had its share of funding troubles related to both the aggressive liberalism that became the new reality and the reestablishment of conservative values, which informed the public’s opinion on art. From its inception, Forced Entertainment placed itself “firmly at the margins of what most people might think of as ‘British Theatre.’”3 The company does not follow the conventions of the theatrical medium. Rather, it breaks and reassembles them to reanimate theater: “Every time we set out to break theatre up, we are trying to find a way to put it together again that really allows it to fly.”4 This experimentation and an “aggressive attitude to narrative coherence” cost them dearly; at one point they were refused funding due to the critical reviews of their work. 5 As Etchells wrote: “Like much journalistic comment on the work, the critique was largely a category error; being shamed for losing a race that one never entered … the problem of the work was a decision, not a mistake.”6 Being judged according to a conservative yardstick, accustomed to the Absurd experimentation of Beckett and Pinter into the language and narrative of theater, Forced Entertainment’s postmodern engagement with media and dismantling of plot was seen as a bug, not a feature. “Theatre most usually has at its heart the interpretation of a text and the fixing of a set of meanings in it … we had in mind something utterly different … a space in which different visions, different sensibilities, different intentions could collide.”7 Given the direction the European avant-garde was heading, the establishment judgment could not be further from the truth.
In its work, Forced Entertainment is fiercely in touch with the present moment. It often starts its creative process by bringing in snippets of news or fragments its members find on the streets of Sheffield: an arresting image of a blind drunk struggling to find his way, a torn-up letter, a neon sign. Forced Entertainment is committed to having no dogma, unlike the socialist theater-makers that came before it.8 Yet, the details from everyday life it uses to build its shows make the work both immediate and inherently political. These shows, in other words, are “driven not by narrative, but by details of [the present moment.]”9 Attention to the deep-lying politics of detail exposes how power relations affect the composition and roles of quotidian minutiae, how production and consumption cultures determine everything from our eating to media habits.
In a statement about Real Magic, included in the program notes for the performance, Tim Etchells states:
Real Magic … whilst its raw material comes from pop culture, it seeks to question things more broadly, picking at the complex political place we find ourselves in these days—down the bumpy road to Brexit, in the dark realm of Trump … Real Magic makes [a connection with the wider world], the honey trap and hall of mirrors of its impossible game show (“a game show where there are only losers” as one critic wrote) a distorted echo of the place we seem to have come to at this point in the 21st century; the triple-bind of destructive capitalism, escalating globalisation and economic austerity, the kind of freedom that is not really freedom at all, the rigged game.
The situation in the UK now harkens back to the material conditions many experienced in Thatcher’s England, when Forced Entertainment started. Looping and repetition have always been a part of the company’s work, and in Real Magic, such temporal strategies are present “in a more extreme and focused form,” as Etchells describes it.
In Quizoola!, existential questioning tackles an ambitious form: this Saturday’s performance at the Soap Factory will last six hours (the group has previously performed a 24-hour version of the show as well). Forced Entertainment came to durational work—performance that challenges the contemporary conventions of the two-hour theater piece—as a natural extension of a fascination with time. As Etchells described it:
Time has proved to be important, not only because of the duration of our collaboration as a group, which has now hit the 30-year mark, but also since we’ve come to understand performance itself as a means of bending, weaving, making, breaking and remaking time. Sculpting in Time is what Andrei Tarkovsky called his book about cinema—a definition we were drawn to because, to us, performance also means working with the speeding, slowing and shaping of time as a material.10
What makes durational form especially suited for Forced Entertainment’s experimental work is that, as Etchells put it, “the durational works are liberated from the theatrical demand to make a single legible journey. Instead, the time of these pieces is more suited to ebb and flow, peaks and troughs, calls and responses as the performers improvise and explore the territory … finding new ways forward—or, at least, new ways to negotiate the structures of rules that make up these works.”11 Lois Keidan of the Live Arts Development Agency, one of the co-commissioners of Quizoola!, describes the show as “something that changed the rule-book of theatre. It’s work that speaks for a dysfunctional, fragmented society.”12
The fragments Forced Entertainment works with open gaps to be filled—asking the audience itself to engage imaginatively in the meaning of the work. In this lies the optimism of the company’s work. As it pronounced during its 10-year anniversary festival at the Walker in 1994, A Decade of Forced Entertainment, “The optimism … is more of an absence than anything else—a space that people are left to fill.” In its looped, fragmented, explosive way, Forced Entertainment continues to explore how to represent the contemporary world in the most true and immediate way.
1 Tim Etchells, Certain Fragments, Routledge: New York, NY, 1999, 16.
2 Keith D. Peacock, Thatcher’s Theatre: British Theatre and Drama in the Eighties, (Westport, CT/London: Greenwood Press, 1999), 60.
3 Etchells, 16.
5 Etchells, 22.
6 Etchells, 22.
7 Etchells, 55.
8 The rise of the New Left within the UK Labour movement in the 1960s and 1970s gave new blood to the left flank of the party, broadening the interests of the traditionally narrowly Marxist wing to questions of gender, sexuality, identity, and civil rights. This led to a renewed interest in it in the arts world, reflected in playwrights working on the intersection of class and other interests in the 1970 and gaining new visibility to socially inclined playwrights. Trevor Griffiths, David Hare, and John McGrath are the most notable examples of socialist playwrights of the time. Their works were being celebrated and staged at some of the most reputable theaters in the country, such as the National Theatre. The mainstream interest in such New Left was, however, short lived.
11Tim Etchells, “Speak Bitterness: A Catalogue of Confessions.”