Forced Entertainment has perfected the art of survival

Forced Entertainment’s celebratory The Last Adventures.
Forced Entertainment’s celebratory The Last Adventures.
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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There’s a contradiction about near-legendary Sheffield-based experimentalists Forced Entertainment. On the one hand, it has been at the far front end of performance and innovation, on the other it has become part of the establishment and had Arts Council England (ACE) funding for half its life. This year it is 30 years old.

It is an extraordinary accomplishment, especially so when you know that the six English and drama students who met at Exeter University in the early 80s, formed the performance company and, as soon as they had all graduated, shifted north to Sheffield, are still together, the core of the operation.

They, three women and three men, still drink together, still sit at a table thrashing out ideas and solutions late into the night, and still create sometimes stunningly new work. The difference now is that they have their own family lives apart from the group, and have their separate work projects. But they always come back to Forced Entertainment.

Although Forced Entertainment is theatre, the six prefer to consider it as performance; there are scripts, but what is most important is what happens on stage and the dialectic with the audience. The spontaneous is often what they are preparing for in the long smoke-filled hours at the Workstation, the creative industries’ business centre that has been company’s home for 20 years.

So it comes as no surprise that one of the 21 visual arts pieces to be commissioned by this year’s Folkestone Triennial, which opened on Saturday (Aug 30), is from Forced Entertainment’s artistic director (who no longer performs but directs almost all their work). Tim Etchells’ installation is in the disused and eerie Folkestone Harbour Railway Station – neon writing along the walls that reads: “Going and coming is why the place is there at all”.

And the company will be in Folkestone during the 10-week visual arts festival performing Tomorrow's Parties, a show about the future. Forced Entertainment sees no boundary without trying to find a way of crossing it.

[pullquote]They worked out long ago what larger arts bodies are only learning now[/pullquote]

But their success is due to having realised early what much larger arts organisations are only discovering now: they work abroad as much as they do here.

Etchells is convinced that if they didn’t have a complex network of collaborators in Europe, particularly in northern Europe, they could not have lasted five years, and half of the company’s time is spent overseas. Much of the material they thrash out together is gleaned from their foreign associations – The Last Adventures, which is being performed at Warwick Arts Centre as part of Fierce Festival, is a collaboration with Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui. Another current production, The Notebook, is a two-hander based on a Hungarian novel.

Avant garde performance may seem naive and simplistic, but it isn’t, especially at this level, and neither is the kind of business plan that keeps it alive. A knowledge and understanding of audiences and potential material abroad is becoming essential if long-standing experimental ensembles like Forced Entertainment are to survive.

Read more arts funding columns from Simon Tait