Forced Entertainment have been making work since 1984 and are a seminal part of European and UK theatre, shaping its development significantly over the last three decades. Their work is widely studied across UK and European university syllabuses as pioneering, experimental and trailblazing theatre. In 2016 the company won the International Ibsen Award – comparable to being awarded the Nobel Prize in its stature and it was the first time ever that a UK artist won.
From 14th to 18th November they will be bringing the London premiere of their new show Real Magic to the Platform Theatre, King’s Cross. Real Magic creates a world of absurd disconnection, struggle and comical repetition. To the sound of looped applause and canned laughter, a group of performers take part in an impossible illusion – part mind-reading feat, part cabaret act, part chaotic game show – in which they endlessly revisit moments of defeat, hope and anticipation. Caught in a world of second-chances and second-guesses, variations and changes, distortions and transformations, Real Magic takes you on a hallucinatory journey, creating a compelling performance about optimism, individual agency and the desire for change.
We spoke to Forced Entertainment’s Artistic Director, Tim Etchells about the show …
Can you give a brief description as to what your newest show Real Magic is about?
It takes the form of a game-show, or the climactic moments of a game show, perhaps crossed with a pretty weird cabaret mind-reading routine. So, as in many of our pieces, the starting point is something from popular culture … only here it gets reworked and reimagined, taken to some quite strange, funny, painful places. At its heart it’s about change – about how we are or aren’t trapped in things, about winners and losers, about politics even … but the content is all buried in it, nothing explicit.
Like your previous productions, Real Magic brings multiple disciplines of the arts together, why do you think this is important to do?
It’s a pretty simple piece really – three performers, multi-layered soundtrack. But the connection for us is always to artists who are reinventing the forms they work in, especially people who are working at the edges of their disciplines. Choreographers heading towards theatre and performance, visual artists slipping towards cabaret or dance. Or with people who are really worrying at the forms … working outside of them altogether. I feel that’s where a certain vitality is … because the emphasis is on ideas, on what you’re doing and how … and not on being inside a form, not about obeying the rules of a form.
In what ways do you hope to challenge the audience and make them question what they have watched within Real Magic?
Like many of our pieces I think there is something slightly hallucinatory about this one. I think it really bends time, and distorts your sense of what you’re watching. It’s hard to describe! But people who have seen it really know they have seen something – it’s a pretty great journey from start to finish.
Being a collaborative company, can you explain the process which you all go through in creating a new piece of work?
Well … usually on day one we have very little clue about the project, though of course since it’s such a long on-going collaboration we always have plenty of baggage with us! So there are things we have learned on the previous show, things we have lost interest in or become frustrated with.
We start by talking – discussing where we might like the piece to head, ideas, things we are thinking about. And from there it goes to improvisation – we try things as soon as we can, looking for ideas that come to life in the room, things that surprise us. Sometimes it’s only a small suggestion or instruction that gives rise to a show, or to a key section of one.
Once there’s some material on the table we also start talking about structure – about how pieces we are making might fit together, about what the dynamics are. It takes us months usually to resolve all of these things.
How balanced is the company members’ creative input and responsibilities?
I’m directing, and often looking after text, sometimes by writing, other times just guiding improvisations and feeding back to people who are improvising. Other people also take specific responsibilities, set for example, or costume. Beyond this it’s very open. Anyone in the room can contribute … and people make their input in a big variety of ways – there are people who play a big part in the discussions but there are also people who stay quiet, ingest the info and then contribute by improvising. Throughout the process I’m trying to guide or frame the discussion – it’s not a matter of just telling people what to do! Much more a matter of listening to variety of voices and trying to see where we are together. I think we all share the perception that although working together is hard (it’s hard!) we are all somehow stronger for it … the work is better for it.
In three words describe the values Forced Entertainment try to bring to their productions?
… I know that’s four.
Forced Entertainment has been going strong for thirty years, what are the biggest changes you have seen happen to the theatre industry and how has that affected you as a company?
There have been a lot of changes. The ‘touring circuit’ we stepped into as we started to work has been pretty much destroyed or abandoned. At the same time theatre has opened up in some ways – it feels somewhat less constricted now – so that the kinds of experiment you might only have seen in the margins are now copied or borrowed from in the centre. It still feels like plays and texts rule in the UK though, which is a constant frustration. And of course the Arts Council has changed over and over, badgered and insecure as it is now thanks to the government’s attitude … most recently becoming very much driven by data and a desire to collect standardised information about clients, outputs and audiences.
We’ve been lucky – in getting some level of consistent support here in the UK (around 40% of our turnover), in finding great partnerships with festivals and programmers here and further afield in mainland Europe and the US. One way or another, in a kind of shifting patchwork of support, commissions, and earned income we have managed to sustain the group, the collaboration and the work. The longevity of that is really important to us … it’s not the rhythm of constant change that media feeds on, but the slow act of building something together with other people, year on year, is where the strength of the work comes from I think.
Real Magic is in London this week as part of its tour, playing at the Platform Theatre situated within the Central Saint Martin’s centre of art and design. Was there a particular reason why you chose to perform at this theatre? Did the interdisciplinary nature of the prestigious centre perhaps speak to your own theatrical ethics?
I think it’s a good context for us. The space is great and really good for the show. We’re very much looking forward to playing the piece there.
What is on the horizon for Forced Entertainment? Where or what will you be venturing into next?
We have, as usual, a number of pieces in immediate repertoire – Real Magic of course, Complete Works which is our table top versions of all the Shakespeare plays, The Notebook, based on Agota Kristof’s novel of the same name, plus Tomorrow’s Parties, which looks at the future, versions of the future.
And while those pieces are touring we are hard at work on a new performance. It will open in Germany next year … So we’re back in the studio, scratching our heads and trying lots of unlikely stuff!
Interview by Phoebe Cole
Photography by Hugo Glendinning