Features PerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 12 November 2012

Tim Etchells on The Coming Storm

Narrative, history and disruption.

Diana Damian Martin

There is a rather wonderful story by Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges titled The Library of Babel; within this fictional landscape, Borges speaks of an infinite library that is physically contained by shelves, closets and corridors, but soars upwards to ungraspable distances. In the process of wandering, of searching for the catalogue of catalogues, the agent in this story speaks of the methodical task of writing in a landscape both infinite and null; writing with the certitude that everything which has been written already turns into phantoms, yet the interstices are those that make meaning emerge. I think of Forced Entertainment’s The Coming Storm as navigating such a library; in confronting narrative and its exhaustive necessity to mean, in recalling  the personal and weaving the fallacy and the fiction into one, and in excavating what a story might be, it maps the possible and constructs a shape-shifting metaphor of anticipation as a contemporary process.

The Coming Storm begins with an empty stage; it begins with the cast all lined-up, looking at us, greeting us, waiting for something to emerge as Terry begins to outline the elements that make up a good story. As her words begin to inhabit the stage like those phantoms of meaning that contain all the histories of stories in their fragments, we begin to consider the people onstage as possible agents of these stories; as characters, narrators and witnesses. Narratives emerge, collide, are refused entry only to come back into the space at a later time. When we hear the first story, the story about the shipwreck, the story that begins to wander like a nomad, the story that opens avenues and doesn’t travel them, we co-exist in this belligerence.  And through the following two hours, we get used to the anticipation, we settle with the unstableness, we look at the debris and think about this waiting game.

“We were trying to think about ways of working with told stories; we were getting stuck and I think I said, let’s just pull away from the thicker end of the material and let’s look at it. Let’s think more about what makes a good story”, Tim Etchells tells me when I ask him how it all began. “I wanted to know if we can make a text that was about what a good story should contain; Terry’s beginning stuck. What interested me watching that was that I spent time watching the other performers and thinking about them as possible characters in this imagined story without a subject. People were being projection screens for others to imagine onto; so we had to think about how to make the journey from that stark and minimal beginning. We wanted to know how to bridge the gap.”

Perhaps this is the reason why stories themselves emerge as having their own voice, their own agency in The Coming Storm. As labels are crafted with words, they float in mid-air, waiting for any action to kick them in a particular position. This means at every one time, each story introduces new signifiers looking for a home, jumping from site to site in search of the right place, never quite fitting with any context but visible in the quest for specificity which the performers undertake with every costume and prop change; and in the way this never quite settles. These labels take the form of villains and lovers, tropes and climaxes, endings and beginnings, the familiar inhabitants of a story seeking to drift apart and fall into place in someone else’s mind. If these fragments seem to search for homes, shattered and bruised, they also intervene in the seemingly familiar, seemingly truthful elements of the production; the band who we can see are playing; Cathy’s account of a story entirely in Russian; Richard’s monologue about age and its visible traces on his body.

“There is an invitation there to imagine the meaning of a story, and when you’re busy inhabiting it, the interruption seems all the more affective. Stories never finish, they are left hanging.” So how come, I ask Etchells, there’s also this real palpable sense of history- the company’s own- but also our own times, and a translation of that emotion of waiting? “ In some ways, all our shows are like that. They are always taking the temperature of the moment and arise out of where you are as a group and what’s going on for us- that’s always the way with what we do in terms of history.” The history is both contextual and intimate; for a company that have built a reputation for aestheticizing failure and making theatrical manipulation so visible it becomes a dramaturgical device, these historical traces are innate in process. The company’s own personal history is testament to this exercise in dislocating meaning, in examining the history of stories as it becomes impregnated onto a space with such fierce dynamism. The bare stage is filled with the graphic, colored marks of the words.

The Coming Storm is referential to the chronology of work which it reigns over and embedded in convoluted public narratives of theatrical histories; part of a shape-shifting canon. Within the show there are reference to Void Story (2009), the company’s contemporary fable journeying through the remains of contemporary culture, using dialogue and sound as a mode of visualising narrative,  or perhaps the epic vaudevillian parade of characters The Thrill of It All (2010), or even further back, the trash, chaos and pop in Bloody Mess (2004). Etchells tells me of the ways in which the company has always sought to build a language in a process that constantly sees them going back over strategies or ideas or discoveries they have made, reinventing them or thinking about them occupying a new, different place. “In that sense, our own history and lineage is a material for us. We are also working with the performers’ own identities, their own whims and desires. You see them perform as themselves, as people who make particular kinds of decisions.” So, Etchells explains, the pieces are always built on real sets of inclinations and curiosities, “so there’s a really direct map to the people who are in the group.”

This collective dreamscape, resting on the shoulders of performers who, by a dissonance between word, movement and sound, construct the unexpected only to tear it down before it materialises, is processual, always reflecting on its own search for meaning. In its crafted failure to grasp it, a sense of the tragic emerges, yet in the emotional landscapes paved on this site, this affect overwhelms and oversaturates the stage, entering like a character shying away from form. “The piece reflects this real conflict we have about narrative, and how it organises ideas and material. You can see in the piece that we are compelled and forced by that, and at the same time there’s a kind of revulsion from it, and it’s slightly dubious because of its seductive power to charm. This is constantly something we want to disrupt” Etchells speaks of the ways in which narrative is often mistaken or passed by as truth, at the same time, something that both ridicules and survives that process.

Intervening in this process of authentification is the object onstage; and throughout The Coming Storm, objects play an important part in materialising or contrasting elements of the narrative onstage. “I think objects either arrive by accident or they arrive in a process of trying or rejection. The piano was an accident; the first rehearsal space we were in happened to have a piano, and we of course started to fool around with it, and eventually it became clear that the piano should be there, it embedded itself in what we were doing. The trees, for example, were brought in; we played around with their presence and they slowly made their way in. Things start having a relation to each other; particular textures start to happen. There is not a very concrete principle that one is working from, there’s a play with intuition and accident that give a palette to work from.”

The Coming Storm is the first Forced Entertainment performance to use live music; when I speak to Etchells about it, he mentions the slow introduction of instruments to shape the performance in various ways. In this instance, it’s not just about music inhabiting the space, but also provide a particular aesthetic and nuance to the narratives. “Making music installed itself in the piece and all its aspects. It started with the piano, and we brought in a drum kit, and then slowly instruments arrived. We realised that you can use music to back up a scene or provide certain kinds of energy, but you can also use it to ruin things, to spoil them, to provide a counter-energy. I was found of both approaches, approach those modes of disruption.” He mentions the drums as particularly good for that. “They are a good weapon for and against talking and language forming.”

The Coming Storm dictates its own mode of engagement; you attach yourself to narratives and characters, to the dissipating humour, to the tragedy that keeps wanting to unfold, the drama that bathes the stage without leaving traces. “I suppose we made a whole bunch of shows that were in their own way reasonably confrontational with the audience, but that feels a bit done for me as a topic now. I’m more interested in the audience as witnesses, there in an encounter with a particular set of material.” In the politics of that act of witnessing however, there’s a sense of a range of negotiations too; a particular kind of social contract. “Theatre seems to me to be an odd thing; you’re in a room with some people, and a bunch of them do something at one end of the room and the rest stay there watching in the dark. It’s an interesting space, because it’s one that asks questions about who we are, and what is happening.”

In a similar way, The Coming Storm does the same; it’s a performance of frontiers, navigating the social and the theatrical, the imagined and the real, the simile or metaphor.  In its cartography, it brings a collectivity to this sense of anticipation for a disaster that might just struck. We’re not sure if it’s already passed, if we are looking at its debris, if we are about to witness, encounter or confront it.

The Coming Storm has been touring nationally and is back at the BAC between 20th November and 1st December 2012. Tim Etchells’ solo work Sight is the Sense That Dying People Lose First… is also at  BAC from 22nd to 24th November. Both shows will be on as part of Neon Night at BAC on the 23rd November, when Tim Etchells will also be launching his latest book Vacuum Days

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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