Working in Europe was a formative influence for Forced Entertainment. Continuing our Culture after Brexit series, Artistic Director Tim Etchells tells Lyn Gardner how travelling helped the company grow and reflects on what the future might hold for younger companies
"When we first went to Europe we found another world"
Forced Entertainment in Real Magic. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning
"We simply wouldn't have survived as a company if it hadn't been for our relationship with Europe and European producers and commissioners," says Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells. "At least not beyond a certain point in our development. It was finding international partners for co-productions, often from Europe, that allowed us to go on to make bigger shows starting with First Night in 2000."
Most UK theatre is made very quickly. Six weeks in a rehearsal room is considered a luxury. However, a Forced Entertainment show requires at least three months because it is made from scratch in a collaborative process.
"Three months is what it needs," says Etchells, "and those partnerships mean it can have three months. Without that time we couldn't do what we do."
Forced Entertainment's company history, which includes a complex web of international partnerships, makes Etchells worry for the young British companies now operating in a harsher funding climate and under the shadow of Brexit.
"Would we have been able to start Forced Entertainment now and survive for over 30 years? I'm not sure we could have done it," he muses.
"We simply wouldn't have survived as a company if it hadn't been for our relationship with Europe"
Etchells and I are drinking tea at a café in King's Cross, London. He's travelled from the company's base in Sheffield, in the north of England, for the London dates of Real Magic. This production has toured across the world and played at major international festivals, including a run at the British Council's Edinburgh Showcase. And it wouldn't exist if it were not for its European co-commissioners who include Pact Zollverein in Essen, Hau Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin, Künstlerhaus Mousonturm Frankfurt and Tanzquartier Wien, Vienna.
The performances at Platform Theatre are sold out and it's good to see Forced Entertainment tapping into a stalwart and still-growing following in the UK after years of being cold shouldered by some UK arts institutions. Or at least made to feel less than welcome by institutions in thrall to the well-bred, well-behaved play tradition that for too long has dominated UK practice and which celebrates the playwright over all other collaborators.
British theatre is definitely changing, and changing for the better, but some are still trying to make a last defence of that old theatre culture. Earlier this year David Hare unhelpfully railed against a creeping infection of what he perceived as being "an over-aestheticized European theatre." Many of UK theatre's leading internationalists, including the Young Vic's David Lan, called that out for the out-moded attitude it is.
Etchells says the shifts in British theatre and the rise of a younger generation of theatre makers such as Selina Thompson, Nic Green and Lucy McCormick are cause for "a little bit of optimism". Yet he still feels that British artists working in the UK outside of traditional forms have "to survive despite, rather than because of the context."
"I felt angry and frustrated, and I still do"
Tim Etchells encourages young British-based artists to travel to Europe and see as much work as they can.
For many in that younger generation, Forced Entertainment remains a beacon. The company is made up of long-term survivors whose collaborative methods of making have created a strong, yet constantly shifting aesthetic. Its continued experiments with form have interrogated what it is that theatre might be for over 30 years.
Real Magic is a case in point. It wrings infinite complexity from three performers, six words, a multitude of facial expressions and the same scenario repeated over and over like a particularly demented Groundhog Day. Real Magic offers a group of people trapped in a predicament from which they can see no way out, even though the solution is starring them in the face. It features terrible jokes, people wearing chicken costumes and it plays out like a farcical Japanese TV game show in a car crash with Beckettian tragedy.
In June 2016, the company was in the early stages of showing Real Magic, and still putting the final touches to it. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign for the US presidency was gaining momentum and the UK had narrowly voted to leave the EU. Sheffield, where Forced Entertainment settled over 30 years ago, was the only one of the five big northern cities to vote for Brexit.
“I felt angry and frustrated, and I still do,” says Etchells about the Brexit vote. A popular narrative is that the vote was swung by dispossessed and alienated working class people who felt that their voices were going unheard in a rapidly changing globalised world and saw the referendum as a way to make their point.
"British theatre is definitely changing"
“Yes, that is part of the story. I’m currently working with students in Rotherham, a place where you can see the isolation and sense of being left behind that comes when you have none of the economic advantages of living in the West in the 21st century.”
But Etchells thinks it a mistake to underestimate the role of “a self-interested, isolationist middle class as a reason the vote went the way it did. The Brexit vote allowed the open articulation of a racism that is well rooted in the UK, but which has often lay hidden. It amplified it in a horrible way and it is continuing to do so in the way that the rights of EU citizens are being used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.”
Real Magic, like much of Forced Entertainment's best work, is an excruciating and compelling watch. It may not directly mention Brexit or Trump, but Etchells says that he sees it as "a political piece which engages with a post-truth world. We're never going to be the kind of company that makes a show directly about Brexit, but we engage in our own way and Real Magic is doing just that. Its making was informed by what was going on at the time and what is going on now. The times of Trump, Brexit and climate change are banging on the door and that demands work that responds, and responds dynamically."
It’s exactly 30 years ago that Forced Entertainment first toured to Europe with one of its earliest shows (Let the Water Run its Course) to the Sea That Made the Promise, an experience that opened the company’s eyes not just to the fact that Europe treated artists with more respect and paid them better and put better stocked fridges in the dressing rooms than British venues, but also to different kinds of theatrical language.
"The times of Trump, Brexit and climate change are banging on the door"
Forced Entertainment in Real Magic — described by Etchells as "a political piece which engages with a post-truth world." Photograph: Maria Baranova
If co-productions have brought Forced Entertainment the money and the partnerships it has needed to grow and thrive, the company’s experiences in Europe have brought something more and just as valuable, maybe even more so: exposure to other ways of making work, other contexts and on-going relationships and conversations with other artists.
“When we first went to Europe we found another world, where there were very different kinds of work being made in different ways but also very different conversations going on about art and society. It wasn’t that we weren’t having these conversations with some artists here in the UK, we were, but there were more of them. It opened our eyes to the fact that there were many different ways of existing in the theatre.”
The work of European theatre makers such as Jan Fabre, Pina Bausch and Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker was assimilated by the company. They also learned from companies such as Belgian’s Stan for the way “they worked as an ensemble with individually owned performances”, and the Dutch company Maatschappij Discordia for their “collectively owned aesthetic.” Being invited to festivals meant that they regularly came across the same artists, some like Jérôme Bel whose career developed in parallel to that of Forced Entertainment.
“There have been a lot of artists such as Jérôme Bel, who we’ve felt that we have been in an ongoing dialogue with,” says Etchells. ‘We’ve watched them struggling to make theatre pieces and dealing with issues of time and narrative just as we have done and been intrigued by how they solved those challenges. It’s incredibly useful to watch someone else make something and ask yourself, ‘Why did they make that decision? And what would I have done differently?’”
"We don't want to lose what we've had, we want to keep those connections open"
This is why Etchells encourages young British-based artists to travel to Europe and see the greatest range of work that they can. But he is concerned on a pragmatic level about what Brexit might mean for European companies wanting to come to the UK and British companies seeking to work abroad.
“My generation has been lucky because of the ease with which we’ve been able to move from one place to another, often with a great deal of equipment and then get paid easily too.”
But his real concern is about the way Europe and the UK remain open to each other’s influences and ways of making.
“It’s about being connected. Forced Entertainment benefited from being connected. Nobody knows what Brexit means yet, but everywhere I go in both the UK and in Europe I hear people talking and saying ‘we don’t want to lose what we’ve had and we want to keep those connections open because everyone benefits.’”
Forced Entertainment is proof that they do. And Etchells is looking beyond Europe to find hope.
“When Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change, a lot of US states said that they will continue to stick to the Paris targets. They are doing it anyway. I think the arts will do it anyway too, whatever Brexit brings.”
This feature is part of Culture after Brexit – a conversation, curated by the British Council, about the future of the cultural relationship between the UK and the European Union after Britain exits the EU. To this conversation we will invite journalists, artists, arts professionals and policy makers to join a robust discussion about what Brexit means for the creative and cultural industries, and what a new post-Brexit cultural relationship could, and should, look like.
Follow the Culture after Brexit series:
> Holland Festival: What does theatre have to say about democracy?
> Ruth Mackenzie: "There's an awful lot of British theatre I couldn't programme"
> Lyn Gardner: Making a new future at the Holland Festival
> Outdoor arts: "We need to keep the traffic between the UK and Europe"
> Artsadmin: Two insider views on how Brexit will affect UK arts