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Bodies? On? Stage? Human Play of Forced Entertainment

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A letter to Tim Etchells; full of love, admiraton, provocation and cheekiness.
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    1 Jan Suk Bodies? On? Stage? Human Play of Forced Entertainment I Dear Tim, 1  I am writing from a train. I am on a train which is taking me to see the second world premiere of your latest show, The Coming Storm . To be honest, I am presenting this letter here and now as my paper for the CDE conference in Mülheim am Ruhr, Germany, called  Bodies on Stage . It is 9 th  of June 2012, 10.30.   I am talking at the conference and blindly hoping to publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, so forgive my episodic attempts at academic allusions and telling you about things you already know. Like in your shows or writings, Tim, nevertheless, trendy words and phrases of academia such as simulacra , deterritorialisation , or rhizomatic  might intertwine with low-brow expressions like  fuck  , cunt  , or  postdramatic . 1  Dear reader, the letter is purportedly addressed to Tim Etchells, the artistic director of Forced Entertainment, a cutting-edge British experimental theatre group. If you want to recreate the live performance, while reading the letter aloud with a slight Czech accent, you should ideally listen to two songs: the first one is “A Few Thoughts about Time” by John Avery; the second song is “Together We Will Live Forever” by Clint Mansell. Both songs are supposed to be looped. Thank you for the perusal of this footnote. You may return to the text now.      2 Tim, I want to write about the stage and the body, and I would also like to tell you about the vulnerability, fragility, mistakes, and failures, which I find most fascinating in your work. It is in fact a failure which brought me here. Failure or coincidence: that you cancelled your show Tomorrow ’s  Parties , which I was srcinally planning to see and write about; this failure has brought me here. By here  I mean the presence of my corporeal body on this very train,or this very room, and into this very letter. The work of Forced Entertainment is often considered to be very here and now. Let me remind you here of the context from which I approached your work initially, which is, rather than new British theatre, perhaps, “now” British theatre. 2  Instead of theatre, perhaps, let me use performance art here, or Live Art, the platform which like your pieces focuses on the physicality of the body on stage. It makes me think of your stand-up aesthetics of a lonely and weak body on a stage addressing the audience; often failing to entertain or communicate anything. Your coexistence with fringe projects that can be pigeonholed as Live Art accentuates the contemporary anti-as-if and here-and-now-for-you tendencies. The plethora of approaches towards performance of your compatriots, such as the bleeding pieces of Franko B, the distinguished dances for sale by La Ribot, or the durational public space invasive interventions of Lone Twin, to name just a few, makes me wonder if your work stands to be classified Live Art-ish, or whether you personally prefer to stick to the term theatre . Tim, as time is passing by, my train from Prague is nearing Dresden, the station where I change trains. We are passing a spectacular landscape. Like in your works, outside my train window, so many unique lives parade, so many stories appear and vanish. In contrast to theatre in a more-or-less traditionalist understanding, Live Art performance mainly does not present the illusion of events, but rather presents actual events as art. I wonder what you would make of the label  performance theatre , meaning a renewed emphasis on process, which 2  I am trying hard not to use the word new   here; these are “now” media (Wyver 76).    3 enhances the non-reproducibility of the artwork; or, to put it differently: that it cannot be reimagined   even though it is restageable (Bailes 21-22). Or do you care at all? Life passing by outside the train window makes me think of your earlier performances. What crosses my mind first is the story behind Speak Bitterness (1994), a show you produced both for theatre (as a 90-ish-minute piece) and as durational six-hour performances. Particularly the pictures of Hugo Glendinning, the company photographer-in-chief, taken during your rehearsals, without looking through the camera: the subjective rendering of the photographs as if to reveal the dynamic, overtly fragile, and human-scale force in the ghosts of your bodies on stage. The photographs also testify to the way you devise your work. Actually, with these images in mind, I embarked upon the idea to create a text as a letter to you, which, like your work as I perceive it, mixes the highly visceral personal micro-narratives fidgeting on the  border of your personal biographies, or “borrowed and second - hand identities”  (Shaughnessy 133). What is striking about your work is the interplay between the real and fictitious, the imaginary, or, as you put it, “ the summoning of presence in the context of absence ” (Etchells, “Step” 10). But I still wonder whether implementing Hugo’ s highly subjective way of responding to your work proves helpful. Tim, the idea of reality and confession in your work brings back memories of my journey this morning. Waking at 4:48  , packing my stuff, kissing my three children and wife goodbye, taking a four-kilometre hike through the woods to the nearest bus stop in a tiny village to catch my bus to a bigger town, there change to Prague to deliver me to your performance, The Coming Storm , in Braunschweig. In the morning, as I made my way through the forest, I was watching the sky and the coming storm; I took a picture which I attach; the accumulated clouds filled me with expectations, as you can guess. Yes, eventually I got soaked before reaching the shelter of the bus stop. Now, as my clothes are drying on my skin, my anticipation of tonight’ s show is rising. The only thing I learned about it comes from the press    4 release published 6 February 2012. It promises a thought-provoking mixture of deep contemplative entertainment intertwined with forced shallow bullshitting on stage. For the sake of the other listeners and readers, let me partly quote it here: In this new work international innovators Forced Entertainment follow the lead of their 2009 performance Void Story  and turn their attention to narrative  –   deconstructing and reconstructing something like a ghost story to test the limits of the form. Employing devices from amateur dramatics, puppet theatre, song and naive dance, they tell an epic story that is resolutely too big for the stage. This unwieldy narrative is absurd, contradictory and might fall apart at any moment as it is overwritten, reshaped and cannibalised. In a style as inventive as it is clumsy, wrong-headed theatrical tricks take their place alongside broken dances, live music and increasingly frantic attempts to illustrate this blackly comic and haunting tale. (Forced Entertainment 1) The ghosts in both your story and the photographs remind me of the fact that throughout your 27-year oeuvre, Forced Entertainment actors have retained their civilian names. Therefore, the often experienced notion of ghosting , coined by Marvin Carlson, which is the projection of the spectators ’  previous experience of the actor in a different role (8-12), collapses entirely in your works. On the contrary, by always learning something new about the people in your next shows, the spectator adds new layers or juxtaposes the levels of meaning and enhances the aforementioned permanent interplay between hereness and thereness, reality and artifice, presence and illusion, certainty and provisionality. Therefore, I would like to drag your projects into postdramatic territory. Your work promises a mixture of failure, mistakes, irrationality, thus evoking feelings of sympathy rather than empathy as well as boredom. I would call this controllable uncontrol, meaning that your devised performances are entirely    5 improvised in rehearsal and fully scripted at the end. The excessive control, I believe, also brings about a failing anticipation of spontaneity. Your penchant for the use of the naive, amateur, or absurd seems to be given justice in the new production. As I have learned researching your work, Tim, you are well aware of the possibilities of space. In your ongoing photography project with Hugo Glendinning, called  Empty Stages , you plainly expose the sheer potentiality of stage space as magical as well as practical and everyday-ish. These photographs, I dare say, also illustrate succinctly the way you work  –    your method of “sta ring at the space, or stage, with all your stuff in or empty, because at the beginning [you] are always stuck”   (Etchells, “Devised Theatre”).  The stage for you is a container of possibility, like life, I would argue. I value the way you experiment with making things rub against each other, especially the moments of silence, the nothings you start your shows with. I am convinced they are to do with stage possibilities. Also in your devising process, Tim, you recycle your ideas, music, lines, or videos; you stitch them together without any rules. II Dear Tim, I am writing to you from a train again. I am heading towards Mülheim/Ruhr   Hauptbahnhof, from there to get to the conference venue at a tram stop ominously called Mourning or Meaning or Moaning  –   I forget. 3  Yesterday, I finally saw The Coming Storm . Similar to the storm in my home village I was describing earlier, your performance brought no real storm 3  Dear reader, as this is an academic paper committed to The Truth, I have to inform you that the correct name is, unominously, Monning.  
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