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Under Bright Light: Tim Etchells on losing control

The stage experimentalist talks Brexit, pandemic anxiety and his new production at HAU.

Out of Order by Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Tim Etchells of the pioneering experimental group Forced Entertainment talks about returning to the stage with his new production Under Bright Light, pandemic anxiety and a world seemingly out of control.

You’re back with a new production, Under Bright Light. What can we expect from this latest work?

I think the idea of exposure is big in it. The idea that there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Aside from that, there is a strong sense that people are trapped in structures or systems and that they’re failing to understand or they’re subverting them in different ways. Or their systems are changing around them and they’re adapting to deal with them. There’s a very magical sense of people resisting from inside a structure. That’s the sort of a thing that we’ve been obsessed with in the last years. It’s definitely finding new articulations and avenues in the work that we’re doing right now.

Where did the title of the piece come from?

Titles are always a long discussion for us! We have to find something that’s evocative but open – since the title is always decided long before the work itself becomes clear. In this case I think we were drawn to the way that show business – the bright lights of the stage and so on – intersects with ideas of scrutiny and surveillance, everything being observed or scrutinised.

The world has changed a lot in the last five years – particularly in the UK, with Brexit, and the social and political movements behind it –, and the pandemic and the theatre lockdowns. How does this feed into the piece?

Well, it’s been tough in so many different ways, hasn’t it? I mean, Brexit is a disaster. In thematic terms, the combination of Trump in America, Brexit in the UK, and then the pandemic – all those things together have focused my mind on the political situation that we’re in, which feels perilous in all sorts of ways. The rehearsal room for us is in a sense a divining instrument. It’s a way of trying to feel our way through what’s happening, and to respond to it. That’s always felt urgent, but it’s felt really urgent for the last four, five years.

The projects that we’ve done have all somehow been a reflection on the moment, they’ve been about people stuck in situations. If you look at two of our previous productions, Real Magic and Out of Order, there’s a sense of people in a bigger system that they’re sort of not quite able to control or get their heads around. Because the rise of the right, in the very weird kind of disinformation cataclysm that we’re in, needs to be addressed in the work.

How have you been coping in the absence of being able to produce and perform live stage work such as Under Bright Light?

Obviously touring for the most part of a year and half was impossible. Last year, we started to do gigs, probably starting in about August, once the vaccinations were happening and it felt a bit more OK to travel. We did a lot of gigs in France through the autumn last year, in Paris, which was good. And I made a new project in Vienna as well. And we made a couple of digital projects, which was really great to do. It kept us in contact with each other and in contact with audiences and so on.

We showed the Complete Works: Table-Top Shakespeare online. We were just trying to find ways to keep presenting and thinking and creating together, which we pretty much managed to do. And now we’re back in the rehearsal room and enjoying that. But it’s weird. We’ve not been in the rehearsal room really for a couple of years now.

There’s sort of a very magical sense of people resisting from inside a structure.

Is there anything about this new piece that is a departure from previous work?

It’s unusual in that – at least for the moment – it has no spoken text. It’s connected to Out of Order in that sense: we are drawn into a world that’s more physical, more choreographic. It’s also very unusual for us in that the world of it isn’t quite a stage world – the figures we see are involved in a kind of curious, endless labour – moving things around the stage, caught in loops of action that are constantly changing but from which they can’t find an escape.

There’s some slapstick in there for sure, but there’s also a strange sense that one might be watching ghosts. In some ways it’s a very different flavour from shows like Real Magic or First Night, which have their basis in a world of stage personas and theatrically.

You’ve had a long collaboration with the HAU as well as other venues in Berlin. How did that arise and is that an important component of your production of works for the stage?

The Berlin collaboration with HAU is extremely important to us, alongside our regular support from PACT in Gelsenkirchen/Essen and Mousonturm in Frankfurt. The international scene – especially Germany – has been crucial in the ongoing development of the company’s work. It’s partly about the co-production support we have had from partners like HAU, but it’s also about the fact that Berlin, and Germany more broadly, have been crucial in terms of audience and in developing the context and the conversation about what we’re doing. For us, as a UK-based company, it’s been hugely important to share different understandings from Europe of what theatre performance is and what it can be.

Forced Entertainment has been around since 1984. Has it transformed much over this long period of swift, enormous change?

I think our interests have gone through various phases – ways of thinking and approaching things come into focus, then they disappear, then they come back again. Fundamentally, there’s this very big commitment to working in a room together, in the rehearsal studio. It’s not ideas, it’s not writing, it’s not any of those things. It’s about sharing space and time with other people. It’s what guarantees the particular quality and flavour of what we do.

Have you anything planned for the 40th anniversary of Forced Entertainment coming up in 2024?

We’re talking about it at the moment. We’ll definitely use the anniversary for special projects. We’ve been working on an amazing photo book, a kind of retrospective across the work, with essays and documentation. That should be out this year. We’d like to use it as a way to connect with other artists as well. We’re also very interested in the idea that we’re part of a bigger dialogue and seeing other people who are working and thinking about performance in different ways.

Under Bright Light | HAU2 | D: Tim Etchells | Mar 31 – Apr 2


Photo: Artmax

UK-based writer and artist Tim Etchells is the artistic director of the world-renowned Forced Entertainment, a collaborative group of six artists that have been creating experimental theatre and performance since 1984. His work spans performance, video, photography, text projects, installation and fiction. He is also currently professor of performance and writing at Lancaster University.