How made a void Story

began writing and directing for Forced Entertainment since co-founding it in 1984, and have been responsible for an eclectic list of projects – ranging from all-yelling, all-dancing, all-fighting theatre shows, to subtle and intimate readings, performances lasting 12 or 24 hours and site-specific works disguised as guided bus tours. Outside the company, meanwhile, I’ve directed a cast of 16 children in an epic recounting of the ways in which adults make and shape their world, written dialogue for a play performed by remote-control replica modernist sculptures, made interactive sound projects in libraries all over the world, worked with choreographers in the edgy space where dance meets performance. In fact, of all the challenges and possibilities of the stage, one thing that seems to have evaded me is telling a story from beginning to middle to end. That is, until we started work on Void Story.

The show – which began a UK tour last week that continues until late November – is a bleak but comic fable that follows its protagonists from post-apocalyptic housing estates to subterranean tunnels, psychotic funfairs and haunted hotels. It’s a story that, if you were to film it, would stretch the budget of a Hollywood studio, and one that from the get-go mounts a challenge to our sense of what’s possible on stage.

We haven’t filmed it – not quite. For a while we enacted the Void Story narrative using objects on a table top, later discussing the idea of the performers dragging dummies around the stage to represent the action. In the end, though, we arrived at a more “sophisticated” technological solution, bringing us to a performance that lies somewhere between live radio play and film dubbing, in which hundreds of roughly assembled and heavily pixelated still images are projected on to a large screen, while the actors provide live voices and sound effects to move the action forward.

The results, in early rehearsals, were fascinating – cooler than many things we had done, but oddly visceral in the combination of projected images and sound. We started with a two-pronged process, writing scenes to sketch out the endlessly ill-fated lives of the protagonists (a random gun intruder in their apartment followed by an eviction, followed by a pursuit by dogs and a plunge into a darkened sewer), at the same time making images on the computer that might form the storyboard. The text itself came in naive shorthand – blunt, clipped, unemotional dialogue; momentous events and agonies – and a plot that nods in numerous sci-fi directions.

For the projected visuals, I began with two performers (Chris Williams of Drunken Chorus and performance-maker Rajni Shah), photographing them in costume against white backdrops in as many poses as I could think might be useful for a story that wasn’t yet written. As the script developed, I scoured these photos, selecting suitable shots of the two of them and combining them into landscapes and locations I either shot myself or cut, pasted and combined from images found on the web. The finished product, all black and white, has a rough-and-ready feel, an atmosphere of making do. The scale is wrong sometimes: sections of images are left blank or scattered with bursts of visual noise; perspective is abandoned for cartoon-like flatness of figure and ground.