Monthly Archives: September 2016

Perfected the art of survival

There’s a contradiction about near-legendary Sheffield-based experimentalists Forced Entertainment. On the one hand, it has been at the far front end of performance and innovation, on the other it has become part of the establishment and had Arts Council England (ACE) funding for half its life. This year it is 30 years old.

It is an extraordinary accomplishment, especially so when you know that the six English and drama students who met at Exeter University in the early 80s, formed the performance company and, as soon as they had all graduated, shifted north to Sheffield, are still together, the core of the operation.

They, three women and three men, still drink together, still sit at a table thrashing out ideas and solutions late into the night, and still create sometimes stunningly new work. The difference now is that they have their own family lives apart from the group, and have their separate work projects. But they always come back to Forced Entertainment.

Although Forced Entertainment is theatre, the six prefer to consider it as performance; there are scripts, but what is most important is what happens on stage and the dialectic with the audience. The spontaneous is often what they are preparing for in the long smoke-filled hours at the Workstation, the creative industries’ business centre that has been company’s home for 20 years.

So it comes as no surprise that one of the 21 visual arts pieces to be commissioned by this year’s Folkestone Triennial, which opened on Saturday (Aug 30), is from Forced Entertainment’s artistic director (who no longer performs but directs almost all their work). Tim Etchells’ installation is in the disused and eerie Folkestone Harbour Railway Station – neon writing along the walls that reads: “Going and coming is why the place is there at all”.

And the company will be in Folkestone during the 10-week visual arts festival performing Tomorrow’s Parties, a show about the future. Forced Entertainment sees no boundary without trying to find a way of crossing it.

[pullquote]They worked out long ago what larger arts bodies are only learning now[/pullquote]

But their success is due to having realised early what much larger arts organisations are only discovering now: they work abroad as much as they do here.

Piano In praise of LIFT

couple of years back I got asked to write something for the opening of the LIFT Living Archive – a physical and electronic resource collecting materials relating to the London international festival of theatre, starting at its inception in 1981 and moving right up to the present day. Navigating hundreds of database entries for projects both remembered and forgotten, familiar and strange, was an enjoyable if daunting task, especially so thanks to the open brief I’d been given. Indeed, while I’m sure some researchers approach an archive with a clear idea of what they’re looking for, my own experience in recent years – having spent time not just at LIFT’s but also at the Tate and National Portrait Gallery archive collections – has been much more a process of intuitive stumbling or blind seeking. Opening boxes, clicking links, waiting to see.

Unexpectedly, one of the most touching things in all of those collections was seeing boxes of communications and correspondence relating to shows and exhibitions – carbon copies of letters, handwritten notes, typed drafts with pencil additions – arranging the transport of this that or the other, agreeing the terms or the technical requirements, arguing about fees, practicalities or box-office deals for events long gone. Perhaps a favourite of these was the correspondence between LIFT and a manager at London Zoo, agreeing the box-office split for the weekend presentation of Spanish artist Albert Vidal, arranged in an enclosure in a piece called El Hombre Urbano.

There was something amazingly vivid about these pre-email traces, encountering the voices of previous curators and festival directors, watching the care and attention to detail behind the programming, getting some sense of people, of conversation, of the love that goes into making things happen. There was even something faintly nostalgic in those tastes of a time (not so long ago) when a fax machine was considered a marvellous device for communicating with others over distance instead of as a strange antique and silent artefact.

Perhaps what was most amazing in the LIFT archive, though, was how vividly it summoned flashes of shows I’d seen years ago. Digging deep in the archive I became aware of how powerfully a single image, text or even piece of old print could serve to bring things back. Somewhere inside a brochure were a few images from Station House Opera’s construction-site as performance The Bastille Dances in 1989, a work that built and rebuilt castles, arches, columns, cityscapes in a kind of long-durational realtime architectural animation using many performers to shift 8,000 breeze blocks. Looking at those scenes I remembered not just that project, but the conversations I’d begun while watching it, conversations around time, the city and performance which are still ongoing for me. There is a great line in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, referring to “old stone to new building” – you saw that process literally in The Bastille Dances, but I became aware too that theatre itself is part of this process of building forever in its own ruins. A festival like LIFT (or its dynamic younger counterpart in London, the SPILL festival of performance) is part of that unruly conversational international building process in which ideas travel, mutate, reverse and constantly change.