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A Magazine for Sheffield

Forced Entertainment: Interview with Tim Etchells

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From 21-23 November, Sheff-based experimental theatre company Forced Entertainment will be bringing an extraordinary performance to Theatre Deli. A reinvention of a piece they performed twenty years ago, Dirty Work (The Late Shift) is, in their own words, 'a provocative and intimate celebration of the power of language to make things happen'. We sat down for a chat with the company's Artistic Director Tim Etchells to find out more.

It's been twenty years since the original production of Dirty Work, what was the catalyst for you deciding to produce a re-imagined version of the show? And why do you think now is the right time for it?

The piece is about the relationship between theatre and politics - about the theatricality of politics; how the real world is packaged, presented or described as spectacle. That was definitely something you could see when we made the piece back in 1998 but in the intervening years things have moved even further in that direction. There's a kind of constant theatre to everything now, from the daily moment-by-moment performance of ourselves on social media to the kinds of global antics and manipulations that go on from Trump and all, so it seemed like the time was right to go back to this piece.

When we made this show it was something of a ground-breaker for us. We were known for very visual and physical pieces often with soundtrack and video. Then suddenly we were there with a very simple piece, really focused on text, and with a smaller, more focused group of performers on stage. That, from us, was shocking in its way! And there was a sense in which the shock stopped people from seeing the work properly. Since that time I think we've proved that our interests and approaches are pretty broad, and we've built an audience that's excited to engage with the diversity of what we do.

What is the premise of Dirty Work (The Late Shift)? Are we right in thinking audiences should be prepared for something more than a little out of the ordinary?

The premise is that the two main performers work together to describe a performance that only happens in the imaginations of the audience. It's a very simple piece but there's something audacious in its simplicity. It's a strange combination of fun and challenge! The delight really - and this is true of many of our pieces - is in seeing how far we can go, how far we can take the audience inside a constraint like this.

There's also something glorious in this 'described performance' because of course it doesn't need to follow the logic of a real performance, something that has to be staged. The first line describes how the show starts with five great nuclear explosions! And before long, a few lines later, we're hearing about a mechanical dog called Spot that does tricks down there on the stage. There's a tremendous capacity to move things around - in terms of scale, in terms of genre or style, and in terms of what kinds of reality or fantasy things require. It's in this shifting around that we get a lot of the enjoyment, and also the questions of the piece.

Real things are constantly dissolving into theatre or cabaret, while theatre and cabaret are constantly turning back into real things, into scenes that demand a different kind of attention and engagement. That instability is right at the heart of the piece - and it's the thing that gives it its comic force, as well as its power to unsettle.

Over the last 34 years Forced Entertainment has carved out a reputation as a world leader in contemporary performance practice, touring groundbreaking work in the UK, Europe and the United States. What is it about Sheffield that makes you want to bring Dirty Work (The Late Shift) back to where it all began for the company?

Sheffield has always been the base for the group, and it's always been important to us. In the early pieces it was reflected quite directly at times - the landscape, the atmosphere of the city. And even now I think there's an oppositional humour, an outsider angle to the work that really comes from Sheffield, from the North. There's a wryness there, and a politics that I think is linked to place.

Audience-wise Sheffield is great for us. There are people there who've been watching for decades. That's amazing. And there are always new people too, just discovering the work. The mix is great.

In the last couple of years we've been really happy partnering with Theatre Deli on presenting pieces and on our workshop project with young people, Art Breakers. I think we really like the energy with which Deli are intervening in and transforming the city.

The company has been described as 'radical' and 'innovative' and your website talks about you 'reinventing theatre to speak about the times we are living in'. What do you think it is about the medium of theatre that makes it well-placed to explore the issues of the day?

It's a cliché perhaps to talk about live-ness, about the fragility of the temporary community that convenes around a performance event. But that is what interests me more and more about theatre and performance - the possibility to connect and disconnect with real people, in the same space, to pass time together. The difficulty of that, and the joy of it, is something that's really central for theatre and for its connection to the politics of the moment.

Dirty Work (The Late Shift) is on at Theatre Deli from 21-23 November. Tickets £10.99-£13.09 -

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