Interview: Tim Etchells on Language and Mental Chaos

Written for Spoonfed:
In an achingly trendy space in Stokey, Tim Etchells is very modestly telling me about one of the best ways to present Shakespeare, ever! It’s a film that involves non-actors relating the plots of Shakespeare plays through objects on a table. So possibly how you might discuss Shakespeare over dinner (if you’re one of those families), but with a soundtrack and stuff.

One of the founders of theatre company Forced Entertainment, this latest work called Be Stone No More, is an example of one of Tim’s major interests as a theatre maker and visual artist: how to tell a story. It also reflects an interest he shares with the uber left-field FE, with whom he’s directing The Coming Storm at Battersea Arts Centre alongside his own show, Sight Is The Sense That Dying People Tend To Lose First.

What follows in the time he’s set aside for this interview proves him to be a brilliant thinker, a humble talker and a mine of great ideas and odd perspectives (not that 28 years with Forced Entertainment and his own solo shows hadn’t proved this decades before). Here’s some of the things he said about the visual power of language, his love for “democratic” story telling and why he hates the ends of novels.

‘A cat comes into a room’

“There’s a big interest for me” he begins, “in the way that language can make things happen. I can say something and you make the picture of that thing. So I can say ‘a cat comes into a room’ and language becomes a strange way of creating almost a virtual event or an imagined event. In The Coming Storm, one of the starting points is what is a story and what makes a good story? That strange power that language has to summon a set of events or people that aren’t here, I still find completely fascinating.”

In The Coming Storm, Tim directs Forced Entertainment in an exploration of narrative that looks at a plethora of themes. The company tells us they include all manner of things “from love and death to sex and laundry, from shipwrecks to falling snow. Personal anecdotes rub shoulders with imaginary movies, and half-remembered novels bump into distorted fairytales.” When I ask him about how he selects ideas to be featured in the show he says:

“It’s a balance between those two things [themes and form]. Part of the content is the stories. It’s important for example, that one of the stories is about a family that’s starving, it’s important that another is about a first love and that one is about a death in a family…I’m always looking at things that have a particular way or a particular kind of currency. You feel it when you’re rehearsing, you can feel that there’s something strong about it” [Tim also uses the phrase “that’s hot!” in this part of the interview but I fear that when transcribed, it may make him sound a little like Paris Hilton. He’s the exact opposite of Paris Hilton]

“When I’m hunting for stuff I can use,” he continues, “content is part of that but so is the way performers can relate to each other and how they are as people. The whole thing with working with improvisation is that you’re drawing on quite a deep sense of who people are and what they’re like. You have this encounter with material and you also have an encounter with a group of people on stage in front of you, who are revealed in what they’re doing. Even if they’re being ridiculous, you see their capacity to be that ridiculous.”

Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First is a one man show, penned and directed by Tim and performed by Jim Fletcher. Jim played Gatsby in the epic eight hour-long show GATZ that saw New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service read and recreate the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in its entirety on stage. Such a feat around a character as sedate as Gatsby requires a performer to have stamina, consistency and some sort of intangible allure. Jim lucked out on all fronts and his particular set of skills (if you’ll excuse the movie reference) that make him the perfect actor for this role. It explains why Tim wrote it with Jim in mind.

“It was written as a text and very unlike the process with FE and The Coming Storm” says Tim of Sight is the Sense… “That said, I was working very heavily off Jim’s performance because he’s very calm, very slow and I always say he’s very democratic in the way he performs because he makes everything as interesting as everything else.”

“Because I had him in mind,” he continues “I knew how to write it. It’s a strange meditative state that this text is in and that he’s in. So although he’s very calm and the text is moving from one thing to another in a kind of free-associating way, mentally, to watch it, it’s kind of a big swirl in your head. That’s different to The Coming Storm where a lot of the energy and the chaos is on the stage.”

“They’re all running about making music, telling stories and jumping around. In the Jim thing, it’s very simple and very still but there is a chaos in it and there’s a set of questions but it’s all happening in your head. One of the basic aims of it is that it tries to describe things that you already know. You know wood comes from trees, trees grow from the ground the ground is made of…. etc and in the world you don’t tend to think about those things much. For example when you’re talking, you don’t tend to think ‘what is language?’ So picking these things up and describing them becomes quite unsettling because we don’t normally do that. In trying to define it, it can become more unstable than it was previously. This text unlocks you into a zone where everything has to be clutched at.”

“It’s almost like there are two stories. There’s the one that’s happening on the stage and the one that’s happening in the minds of the audience. It’s a big thing for me and for FE to unlock that secondary narrative, that sense of an audience who can run with things in their own terms and go off with things in directions that we can’t really anticipate, I see that as a good thing.”

Sight is the Sense….with Jim Fletcher

Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First is a one man show, penned and directed by Tim and performed by Jim Fletcher. Jim played Gatsby in the epic eight hour-long show GATZ that saw New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service read and recreate the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in its entirety on stage. Such a feat around a character as sedate as Gatsby requires a performer to have stamina, consistency and some sort of intangible allure. Jim lucked out on all fronts and his particular set of skills (if you’ll excuse the movie reference) that make him the perfect actor for this role. It explains why Tim wrote it with Jim in mind.

“It was written as a text and very unlike the process with FE and The Coming Storm” says Tim of Sight is the Sense… “That said, I was working very heavily off Jim’s performance because he’s very calm, very slow and I always say he’s very democratic in the way he performs because he makes everything as interesting as everything else.”

“Because I had him in mind,” he continues “I knew how to write it. It’s a strange meditative state that this text is in and that he’s in. So although he’s very calm and the text is moving from one thing to another in a kind of free-associating way, mentally, to watch it, it’s kind of a big swirl in your head. That’s different to The Coming Storm where a lot of the energy and the chaos is on the stage.”

“They’re all running about making music, telling stories and jumping around. In the Jim thing, it’s very simple and very still but there is a chaos in it and there’s a set of questions but it’s all happening in your head. One of the basic aims of it is that it tries to describe things that you already know. You know wood comes from trees, trees grow from the ground the ground is made of…. etc and in the world you don’t tend to think about those things much. For example when you’re talking, you don’t tend to think ‘what is language?’ So picking these things up and describing them becomes quite unsettling because we don’t normally do that. In trying to define it, it can become more unstable than it was previously. This text unlocks you into a zone where everything has to be clutched at.”

“It’s almost like there are two stories. There’s the one that’s happening on the stage and the one that’s happening in the minds of the audience. It’s a big thing for me and for FE to unlock that secondary narrative, that sense of an audience who can run with things in their own terms and go off with things in directions that we can’t really anticipate, I see that as a good thing.”

“…the story as a site of potential”

In all his years of exploring storytelling, I wonder if Tim has reached any conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. Inevitably, he steers clear of making sweeping statements and instead tells me what he’s learnt about himself:

“A completed story” he says, “I find that pretty problematic and difficult to deal with. I think it’s because as things wrap up and tidy themselves, basically I lose interest. I’m interested in the story as a site of potential where my mind goes racing in different directions. I’m like this with novels, often I like the first third, I don’t particularly care about the middle and the back end of it. I’m much more interested in the set up and the world and all of that much bigger stuff.”

And from that mind, no doubt a chaotic one bursting with language, events, characters and absolutely no conclusions comes The Coming Storm which runs at Battersea Arts Centre from November 20th to December 1st and Sight is The Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First which is at the same venue from 22nd -24th November.

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