Renaissance man of the British theatre world

Tim Etchells
Tim Etchells
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‘Greedy’ man of arts Tim Etchells tells Nick Ahad why he leads one of Europe’s boldest theatre companies – while also going solo.

There are many things that mark out a piece of theatre made by Sheffield based, world-renowned Forced Entertainment.

One of the strongest qualities is arguably the inclusiveness, the way the company engages with an audience and makes them part of the piece – the word generosity sums it up quite nicely.

So it is ironic that the man at the helm of the company, Tim Etchells, appears to be so, well, greedy. Etchells, fortunately, laughs at the description.

“As a theatre maker my interests are very diverse. I don’t really look to the traditional theatre canon for inspiration – I tend to look at visual art, or listen to music, look to literature, for what inspires the theatre I make,” says Etchells.

Which is why the theatre director and performer has also appeared in recent years as a novelist with his book The Broken World published in July 2008, and as a visual artist shortlisted for the Northern Art Prize for the past two years. He also makes installation art and has been collaborating on a project with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with Etchells doing all of these different things, exploring so many different media: lots of people have hobbies. It’s just that, as one of the leading theatre makers Britain has produced over the past 30 years, Etchell also appears to excel at so many other artforms.

“Ever since we began Forced Entertainment I have had other projects going on, particularly in writing. And in digital media. And in installation art,” says Etchells. You get the feeling if you don’t stop him listing the artforms that inform his work, he might never stop himself.

“Over the past few years visual art, in particular, has become something that I have taken much more seriously.” Yes, but he has also had a novel published that sold very respectably.

“I think the thing that ties it all together is the audience,” says Etchells. “It’s always about the work, whether it’s a novel, a piece of visual art or a piece of theatre, relating to the audience. How does the audience receive the story, how does it involve them?”

Putting the audience at the heart of the story is one of the things that has made Forced Entertainment one of the most remarkable successess in recent British theatre history. After setting up in Sheffield 27 years ago, the same group of six theatre makers and performers remain the core of the company that continue to create work from their Sheffield base.

“When one of us goes off to create work on our own it’s a sense of escaping from the tyranny of our friends,” laughs Etchells. This tightly bound group of theatre makers are virtually unique – few, if any, other theatre companies have kept so many original members creating work together for so long.

“Because we have been creating work together for such a long time, we all know we will never be in a room again with six people that we have worked together with for 27 years. It is extraordinary that it has continued for such a long time, and we’re aware of that, but we don’t sit around thinking about it.

“As a director it is an amazing resource to be in a room with a group of performers that have an understanding of each other that you can only get from working together over such a long period of time.”

Long life of forced entertainment

In 1984 six graduates from Exeter University decided to come together and create a theatre company.

They would be based in Sheffield and call themselves Forced Entertainment. Experimental work, playful, always pushing at the boundaries, the company soon gained a reputation as one of British theatre’s most interesting companies. It remains virtually worshipped by theatre fans across Europe, where it constantly tours.

The latest show, The Coming Storm, plays at Sheffield Lyceum on Oct 24. Tickets and details on 0114 2496000. www.forcedentertainment.com