Tim Etchells © Hugo Glendinning

Interview Series: Tanzhybriden – Tim Etchells

Tim Etchells has ventured into almost every art form under the sun. As director of theatre collective Forced Entertainment, he has made more than 50 performance works over the past 30 years. Alongside performance, his works have included writing projects, neon sculptures, drawings, photography, video and sound works, and a novel. I was interested to find out what such a prolific, genre-defying artist would have to say about making art.

How did you start out?
My inclination as a young person was towards writing. As a kid I read a lot and I was somehow good at putting words together to make things happen. I later studied theatre at Exeter University and founded the collective Forced Entertainment, which always made up a large part of my work. Alongside the collective, I started working in a visual arts context, writing fiction and working with musicians. Underlying all of my projects is that initial interest in language.

Does making art across various mediums offer different ways to express a text?
My practice shifts shape and takes advantage of the opportunities that different mediums and contexts give. An hour and a half of a performance does something different to a neon sculpture, a short story, or a novel. When I’m writing fiction or making visual art, I think about the way the words form a relation to the reader. I am interested in words and the capacity of spoken or written language to make propositions and initiate encounters.

Performance as an encounter. That seems to defy the understanding that conventional forms of dance and theatre have of performance. Would you say you’re coming to performance from a different vantage point?
Yes. There’s an understanding of language as a semantic process, but I’m also interested in all the things that subvert that. Language can also be considered as texture, energy, musicality, drawing, or object… I was always sceptical of the way that language dominates in English-language theatre, and how everything seems to centre on what the writer has to say. One of the big missions of Forced Entertainment has been to find ways to unseat the primacy of language in terms of generating a meaning and determining the frame for the viewer. All the different ways of unhooking or unhinging this power have been of interest to me.

How important do you consider technique to be?
A superficial answer would be to be entirely dismissive of technique. If I think about acting, a lot of what passes as ‘technique’ is actually really damaging. I find the traditional techniques of how to speak and how to stand boring. I am much more interested in a quotidian, unmannered, closer-to-human-scale approach to producing material – on stage or anywhere else. A subtler answer, would be to recognise that the work I’m doing with the company is hugely skilled. We employ techniques and skills, they’re just perhaps not the same ones that everybody else uses.

Would you say you have built your own technique?
One can say that on particular projects we start from scratch in the rehearsal room, but in fact, the approach and the direction as well as the techniques and methods we use arise from the 34 years of our collaboration. The members of the collective all come from different places and none of us have formal drama school training. Granted, we mostly have some prior knowledge from studying theatre at University, but, fundamentally, our techniques were not preinstalled. They come from making.

What kind of techniques are they?
As we work with improvisation, there’s something about trying to make the work look effortless – like it’s just happening. I read an interview with the comedian Stuart Lee on this topic. He describes himself as a writer who spends all his time trying to make it look like nothing has been written. I can totally sympathise with that. It might be fake, but it’s about having the skills to perform and re-perform certain events. How can an accident be an accident one night, and a decision another? A great deal of our time goes into making things feel as though they might have been made up on the spur of the moment.

How does technique relate to presence?
I’m fussy about how the relation to the task, the audience and each other are produced. Historically there’s this endless disagreement between practitioners about what is effective, or meaningful as presence. This discussion is very present in dance. Each new generation reinvents the position somehow, searching out what for them seems like an appropriate approach to the body and activity – think about Judson, who stripped out so much from dance, or more recently Tino Sehgal or Anne Imhof, who have their own even-further reduced takes on what it might be to put people in front of you. We’ve been part of a related dialogue inside performance and theatre. We’re not without technique. Rather, there’s a political disagreement about what persons on stage might be like and what kind of relation they could or should produce in relation to spectators.

What kind of performance presence do you mostly work with?
It depends on the project. Sometimes, there is a demand for a high theatrical commitment, at others, the performance might be based on an apparently simple task like reading a text aloud. We’ve certainly had emails from people in reaction to those performances saying that we’re not acting, that the work isn’t theatre. But for me theatre is there even in the smallest gestures. The debates about performance, acting and the relation to the text (are you entering it in some sympathetic psychological way, or are you standing distance from it and showing it to us) still apply, even when working with the bottom-level of real-time presence that’s implicit in reading. Our pieces have often involved talking directly to the audience, in a kind of live ping-pong-style conversation. The most recent work “Out Of Order” (2018) was quite new for us as we didn’t even look at the audience, whilst, aside from the lyrics of a song that’s replayed repeatedly, there’s no text in the work at all. What interests me most are the dynamics of doing and watching – performers and audience. Apart from that, I don’t have any real fixed rules of what is going to happen in that situation – each project finds its own solution.

Do you think that becoming a master of one particular discipline is still relevant?
How I would see it, is that I am trying to be master of what I do. And I do a lot of different things. I want to be as good at what I’m doing as I need to be in order to understand it well, and to keep pursuing what’s interesting in the work. I find it valuable to be drawn into territories, through collaborations with dancers or musicians, where I don’t immediately have a language – such as “Shown and Told” (2016), my collaboration with Meg Stuart. It’s a piece that delves into the slipperiness of the embodied nature of language, so just as language can be thought of as music or texture, you can also think about it as a physical act. When you break it down, speaking is moving air, and moving the body in order to move that air around.

Do you have a definition of performance?
Performance for me is this situation of doers and watchers. People in a space to be watched. Exactly what’s done, and how the watching gets framed is really open. Thinking about the relation between text and action of course there’s always a physicality even if the performers are just standing or sitting still. Text in performance always exists in a dialogue with bodies in space and activity. It’s never a thing on a page. All the other elements – physicality, social process and interaction of bodies, visual, architectural elements – are always fundamental components in understanding what’s being said.

Do you have a consistent daily practice?
I have had projects which involved doing a certain thing every day, such as the texts I wrote for my piece Vacuum Days in 2011. They were initially posted online on a daily basis and then became a book. I liked that my attention was drawn to a particular nexus of ideas and thinking for just half an hour a day, and then I’d step out of it. It was a self-initiated project, with no funding, but it became a really important work for me. It’s great to think that a key work can come out of a simple focused, daily commitment.

The Tanzhybriden interview series researches multidisciplinary approaches to contemporary performance by interviewing three artists working across the hybrid disciplines of dance/music, dance/writing, and dance/set design. Next up Clément Layes, who is arguably Berlin’s most multi-faceted carpenter.