Mention the Man Booker Prize or the Ivor Novello Awards and most people will nod in recognition that they’re a crowning achievement of a career in literature or music. Mention the International Ibsen Award and those same faces are likely to turn blank. And yet when it comes to the theatre the prize, whose first winner was the renowned director Peter Brook, is not only the richest, but also the most sought after.
Given out every two years, the 2016 award has just been won for the first time by a UK company – Sheffield’s Forced Entertainment whose back catalogue is best described as eclectic.
Founded in 1984 by six drama graduates from Exeter University, the company has not just pushed the boundaries of what most people would recognise as traditional theatre, but pretty much demolished them.
Over the last 32 years, Forced Entertainment’s repertoire has included a show where the dialogue was complete gibberish, another which was conducted in absolute silence and a third, Speak Bitterness, saw them spend six hours confessing to everything from reading other people’s diaries to genocide.
There’s more. At First Night, which superficially had the glitz of an old fashioned variety show, a psychic act predicted the painful deaths of most of the audience members. Then there was their tabletop Shakespeare, using familiar household objects to retell the Bard’s most famous plays – Macbeth ended up as a cheese grater and light bulb stood in for Pericles.
And that’s just Forced Entertainment’s stage work. Along the way they have also created an imaginary city out of balsa wood for their installation Ground Plans for Paradise and recorded a seven hour film, Filthy Words and Phrases, in which a woman wrote down 2,000 different sexual obscenities. JB Priestley it’s not.
“When we started out, Britain was not in a good place politically,” say Tim Etchells, one of those six drama graduates who is now also a professor of performance and writing at Lancaster University. “This was Thatcher’s version of austerity and life was pretty tough for many ordinary people. I think we thought that theatre should and could have something to say about what was happening.
“The six of us had made work together at university and after we left we just kept on finding ourselves back together through a shared desire to make work which we thought was relevant to the society in which we found ourselves living.
“I don’t suppose we were ever going to be happy putting on traditional revivals of The Importance of Being Earnest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s not that we are anti-theatre. Far from it. We love it or we wouldn’t be doing what we do.”
Etchells is the first to admit that Forced Entertainment’s work is not necessarily an easy watch – Speak Bitterness for example was inspired by the struggle sessions which took place in China during the Cultural Revolution where people were encouraged to confess to crimes against the state doctrine.
“What we have always aimed for is a direct and powerful connection with the audience. Some of our work last six hours or more, so people are encouraged to dip in and out, but while they are in the room we want them to feel totally connected to the piece. Finding work that will do that is not easy, although right from the early days we were influenced by cinema and that need to make a really strong visual impact.”
It’s an achievement for any theatre company to to survive for 30 years, but even more so for one whose work sits so outside the mainstream.
“When you have a company where everyone has an equal voice, that inevitably means there are differences of opinion and straight up arguments, but we know what works,” says Etchells. “Experimental theatre is sometimes seen as the preserve of the young, but we have kept on going and the Ibsen Award is a nice recognition of that three decades of work. In the past it has always been to an individual, so it is really great that they have given it to us as a group because every piece of work that Forced Entertainment has done has been a genuine collaboration.”
While the work that it produces might challenge a traditional theatre season, Forced Entertainment has won the support of the Arts Council England. It is one of its National Portfolio Organisations, which means it receives a fixed amount of public subsidy each year.
“That money is about 38 per cent of our total income and the rest is raised through touring, sponsorship and individual donation.
“Funding is always going to be tough and we are acutely aware that the next time we apply for Arts Council funding we might be rejected.
“However, I think one of the reasons why we have survived is because we’ve forged really good links with theatres and festivals in Europe. Had we been starting out now, who knows whether we would have been able to stay together? Graduates are now coming out of university with huge amounts of debt and that inevitably influences what they do in the future.”
Whatever Forced Entertainment’s money worries have been over the years, they can put them aside for a while having banked the £230,000 cheque from the International Ibsen Award.
“Exactly what we do with the money is up for debate, but we do know that we want to commit a significant chunk of it to helping emerging artists, both through mentoring and commissioning.
“We know how hard it is to make a name for yourself, but we also know that sometimes what can seem to others like a silly idea with a lot of work and enthusiam can end up having a great deal of poetry.”