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Tomorrow's Parties - Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells confronts the future with Diana Damian

What does language do onstage? In its slippery, immaterial processes that are constantly trying to make themselves felt or known, language both challenges and invites, recounts and recalls. In Forced Entertainment’s latest piece, Tomorrow’s Parties, two performers talk about the future, surrounded by coloured fairy lights, stood on a small wooden plinth. Their physical space might not stretch far, but their reminiscing and thinking about the future constructs a dramatic, amusing, inquisitive space that moves beyond the speculative.

Tim Etchells has been working with Forced Entertainment since its inception in 1984, whilst supporting an individual practice centered on language and the actual and potential space of the stage. For a company whose work navigates different disciplines, genres and devices, Forced Entertainment have developed a highly particular mode of performance that is deliberately messy, stripped down, confrontational and playful at the same time. There’s something highly political about these scenarios of confrontation – with the future, imagination, people and theatre itself. We speak to Etchells about the thinking behind Tomorrow’s Parties, dystopias, beginnings and writing from improvisation.

Run Riot: Tomorrow’s Parties is a set-up both playful and devious, but also disarmingly simple. How did the project come about, and what was the intention behind this excavation into the future (or is it the future)?

Tim Etchells: We started talking about hope! We were imagining that the piece might be an exchange of stories – some of them hopeful, others pessimistic. And as we worked on that narrative material I realised that interesting thing in the stories we were telling was that they always pointed to the future… that the sense of hope or fear or possibility was off in the distance… somewhere after the last spoken word. So I started thinking we should focus on the future… on the idea what might happen. It was at that point we began to work with the phrase “In the future…” and looking at all the different scenarios for what’s to come.

In some ways I’d put Tomorrow’s Parties with the other rule-based language-based works I’ve made with Forced Entertainment. Each of those pieces drills into a particular form of language – the question in Quizoola!, the confession in Speak Bitterness, the narrative in And on the Thousandth Night.. – and here, for Tomorrow’s Parties, it’s the prediction we’re looking at; that amazing capacity that language has, to make utterances and projections about what has not yet happened. It’s completely fundamental of course – but it’s an amazing leap in language from the idea of using words to point to things that are there in the world to using them speculatively; to call and summon, to speculate, to think forwards about things and events that are not yet there to point at.

On a simpler level of course – about content rather than linguistics! - it is about the future and about the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about it. Between news media and the internet, all forms of science fiction, different kinds of political discourse, all the talk about economics, social structures, technology, global ecology and economy.. between all these things we’re pretty much surrounded by speculation – by possible futures. So the piece is looking at those – where are we going? What are the hopes? What are the fears? The performance works as a catalogue of them – a collection, a gathering of different possible futures played side by side.

Run Riot: The performance exists somewhere between speculation, storytelling, narrative play and an ever-changing theatrical device. Like a lot of Forced Entertainment work, the meaning is slippery- it resides in the text as much as it does in the event itself. How has your relationship to text onstage changed throughout the years, and what emerged in the process of working on this show?

Tim Etchells: We’ve been working with written and spoken language since the very beginning and our approach to it has shifted here and there over the years. We were very focused for quite some years, on the act of narration in relation to action – thinking about how language explained, or did not explain, what was happening on stage. We were obsessed with the power language has to ‘explain’ – at once drawn to that power and shrinking from it, finding ways to disrupt it. Many of the very early pieces mainly had spoken language as pre-recorded material on tape – voice-over narration – and we worked with disrupting that very authoritative position – making those voices unreliable, making them decay, making them partial in their grip on the stage. But it was very separated; text here, action there.

I think much later we became interested in spoken language as a thing in itself – not as a narration for images or action but as an event, as a live process – as something that is happening and which is conjuring ideas and images for itself, for its own purposes.

The other big shift is that we went from writing – I was really writing text in the beginning – to this mode in which we generate text from a base in improvisation, combined with writing. I talk quite a lot about this in the book I did this year for Live Art Development Agency - While You Are With Us Here Tonight – which describes that particular process of making text which isn’t writing in the traditional sense. Working between improvisation and writing has lent the work a more natural quality, made it more speakable. We became very interested in the forms of actual speaking – the textures of repetition, sketching with words, unfinished sentences, doubling back – the way that ideas are formed in the process of speaking. That work is still very important to us. and you can see it in Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s a very formal performance in some ways – but on the level of language it’s very relaxed, very easy – you have the feeling of two people ‘just talking’.

Run Riot: By its nature, Tomorrow’s Parties is a performance about the future, but also one about beginnings, or about ideas not yet imagined. What do you think theatre does or can do with these imagined beginnings?

Tim Etchells: I think that’s very fundamental to my work, really at the heart of it – this understanding that what you do onstage (or on the page or in the gallery) is a cue to the imagination of the spectator or the reader – that what's said or done is just the tip of the iceberg, just one part of the equation. So yes – it’s all beginnings – incomplete stories. And hopefully the spectator gets bound up in her own work – of imagining more, of extending the narratives and of thinking up different ones.

Run Riot: Is the piece both an exercise in purging, in a kind of exorcism, and a confrontation, too? Where are we, the audience, in relation to it?

Tim Etchells: In some ways yes, it is that. There aren’t many ‘new’ ideas about the future in it! Mostly we’re re-visiting the great pile of futures already floating around – from the media, from sc-fi etc – where to put all that great, overwhelming pile of possibility? Where to put all that potential utopia, all that potential tyranny and dystopia? It’s like we gathered it all on one place! And we’re sifting through it.

The audience are watching that process. But as I said, they’re also busy with their own work.

I like that idea of it – that we're all gathered together in fact, to sift through these stories. To think about them. That’s the thing that’s present – the act of summoning and then thinking about these things.

Run Riot: I am inadvertently thinking about the work as somewhat dystopic, yet what a variable cultural construct that is. Would you say the piece appropriates or plays with some genre-based speculations and/or iterations ?

Tim Etchells: Yes. It’s very much about that – about visiting genres. I think that’s always a pull for us – you can't speak unless you understand (and perhaps map) the structures of what have been spoken already. So very often we are working in relation to genre.

Run Riot: Novelist Mark Z. Danielewski wrote in one of his most famous books, House of Leaves, that “the ruminations are mine, let the world be yours”. Is Tomorrow’s Parties that kind of invitation?

Tim Etchells: I love House of Leaves. And yes, that’s right on the money, as far as the role of the reader or audience member goes. That’s what I find so maddening about the discourse concerning ‘interactivity’ these days – there’s always the lazy assumption that forms like reading, or cinema or theatre are ‘passive’ and ‘inactive’. I really don’t accept that, it absolutely doesn't chime with my experience of those things. I’m still interested in the really deep kinds of engagement and authorship we have whilst sitting motionless in the dark.

Run Riot: The piece echoes your own engagement with dystopia, and with playful iterations of the future- I’m thinking here about your books The Broken World or Endland Stories, but also with previous Forced Entertainment work, from earlier pieces such as (Let the Water Run Its Course) to the Sea that made the Promise (1986), in which two people enact fragments of lives lived and imagined, to the more recent The Coming Storm (2012), in which a narrative constantly attempts to emerge and fails to do so. How has this presented itself throughout your work, and do you feel the context for this thinking has shifted too?

Tim Etchells: Well that’s a big question! I guess one way to think about it might be through the idea of play. There’s always some sense in the performances, and in the fiction writing, of a rather careless, energetic kind of play – of things being thrown around in unruly and absurd combinations, often with consequences that are somehow or other unintended, somehow or other unsustainable. The way that language or image can make something happen – can summon an absurd possibility, an extraordinary thing. So there’s a celebratory, libidinous force to that… a joyful thing.

But this play always takes place inside a limited space – the space of language, the space of the theatre, the form of narrative or the limits of the human body, or even the political and social realities of the time – all these things are borders and boundaries which constrain the work. I’m sure this is what we will speak about at the Generative Constraints conference coming up soon [Nov 16]!

I think maybe a shift is that I’m more and more drawn to that sense of limits – politically and philosophically – what can you get to with language? How can that playfulness remake the world? What are the edges of the space we can inhabit? And I think there’s more anger in the work now than there was before.. and more generosity too. Tomorrow’s Parties is funny, it’s warm. It’s a nice place to be. It’s also determined to push through its playfulness to something else if it can.

Run Riot: "And what costume shall the poor girl wear, to all tomorrow’s parties…" Does the wonderful Lou Reed have anything to do with the show’s title? Is this a very gentle, and perhaps accidental evocation?

Tim Etchells: Of course, yes, the title is a pretty direct nod to the Velvet Underground / Nico song. I’ve always loved that album. And the whole 1969 Live album I love too and I’ve been playing it over the last few weeks for obvious reasons. It has this great mix of things – the possibility of joy and hope combined with the certainty of melancholy and pain, the roughness of the music, the sweetness and at the same time the strength of the voice. It’s interesting formally too – it’s almost monotone, very simple, very crushed in its parameters, but it generates such a power from that. And – New Age, I’m Beginning to See The Light, Set Free - lots of great songs about change and the future!

Forced Entertainment: 'Tomorrow’s Parties'
at the Battersea Arts Centre
19th-23rd November 2013
Book tickets bac.org.uk

Forced Entertainment
forcedentertainment.com