‘We break theatre to see what we can build from the wreckage’

Void Story
Void Story
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Sheffield is home to one of Britain’s boldest theatre companies. Director Tim Etchells explains Forced Entertainment’s unique work

One of the great things about making “experimental” theatre is that you can make up the rules as you go along.

You have to think about what might be interesting, and about different ways to tell stories to draw an audience into the event of live theatre, but the possibilities are pretty much infinite. Working from our base in Sheffield, Forced Entertainment have been making good use of those possibilities for more than 27 years, breaking theatre to see what we can build from the wreckage.

The last few months have seen us perform in Krakow and Buenos Aires, but being in the UK is what keeps us going and gigs in the North are a favourite.

This month in Huddersfield we’re showing the dark comical modern fable Void Story, performed on stage as a radio play with the actors “doing the voices” and sound effects while a storyboard of graphic novel style images plays out behind them. It is one of the few times that we’ve really made a piece that tells a story from start to finish, although the story is absurd and the telling highly unconventional.

The second performance, showing in Leeds as part of the Compass Festival of Live Art is one of the most fascinating and compelling things we’ve ever made and it’s been shown very rarely in the UK. It’s called And on the Thousandth Night... and it takes its title from the Persian storytelling epic One Thousand and One Nights.

In the piece, eight performers dressed in nativity-play red cloaks and cardboard crowns, improvise stories that range from fairy tales, to recycled movie plots, absurd thrillers or horror stories, coming-of-age tales, hard-luck stories and romances. The main rule (and arguably the only important one) is that no story told as part of the work is ever allowed to finish. Any performer who is speaking may be interrupted at any moment by any other player, who will use the word “stop” to halt the narrative and claim the stage.

This unpredictable and competitive quality makes for what you might call a cut-throat playfulness. As befits a performance lasting six hours, the audience are invited to come and go as they please – arriving, departing and returning any time. What we know from experience though is that many people come for what they think will be a quick look-see and end up staying for hours.

It’s that playfulness which really makes And on the Thousandth Night... , such a unique experience in the theatre combined with the edge that improvising always has – the knowledge that this could all come crashing down at any moment.

Part of the fun is in seeing the performers make less-than-perfect decisions and then have to deal with the consequences. Since no story in the piece is allowed to end unless stopped by another player’s interjection, it’s more than possible to find oneself stuck telling a story running out of steam. Players often start stories on a whim – a story about a robotic poet that works in a dry cleaner’s, or an elephant that wants to learn to sing – but what seems like an amusing premise can get amusingly sticky if you’re forced to continue too long.

As the myriad stories of And on the Thousandth Night... evolve, you get the impression that the world is full of stories, that the human race is a story machine. There’s a great pleasure in watching the failures as well as in the successes – and that’s the secret of the piece really, the reason that audiences connect to it so well – that you get to see people working, thinking, playing right there in front of you.

There’s no script, no safety net. Just liveness, language and the moment.

Void Story, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, Nov 24, 7.30pm. 01484 430528. And on the Thousandth Night... Howard Assembly Room, Leeds Grand Theatre, Nov 26, 6pm. Tickets 0844 848 2706.