For nearly three decades, Forced Entertainment has been making work at the forefront of experimental theater in Britain. Their work is playful in nature and often subversive, but after almost thirty years, how relevant is the work to a contemporary audience? Can their work still be considered "experimental," or has it become the mainstream of alternative theater?
In June 2012 I attended the UK premiere of FE’s latest performance, The Coming Storm, at Battersea Arts Centre, London. Like most people who have studied contemporary performance at the university level, my first and most substantial experience of Forced Entertainment has been institutional. I found myself sitting through the performance thinking about how the work is similar to their other pieces, the different strands of work they have made, and making connections to the conventions.
Forced Entertainment has dominated the world of alternative and experimental performance in England almost from the outset. They challenged the way that theater was being made: their work is created collaboratively, which indicated a new way of working by breaking away from the traditional hierarchy found in most theater, and their notion of collaboration is a rich and complex area with multiple definitions and practices undertaken. Ranging from Deleueze and Guattari’s collaboration of the self along to the more contemporary debates around the subject within the field from Claire Bishop and Grant Kester. The development of socially engaged art in recent years has seen the development of a new model of collaboration, adopting a much more democratic approach where performers and audience work on the same level, without having one author the other. For companies such as the Wooster Group and Forced Entertainment, their model of a collaborative practice is slightly different, placing the artistic director at the top of the spectrum.
Forced Entertainment has different strands of work that they present, ranging from the very theatrical performances—The Thrill of It All (2010), Bloody Mess (2004), 12 am: Awake & Looking Down (1993)—all of which seem to have a level of chaos and a suggestion of spontaneity. However, we know that all of these performances are highly rehearsed. The performances make a clear parallel to the form of traditional theater, yet clearly shaking up normal conventions by creating chaos and mess on the stage. Spectacular (2008) consisted of two actors standing on a bare stage. The male character wore a skeleton outfit and the female screamed into a microphone, enacting a death scene and trying to provoke a reaction from the male character, who was describing all of the things that would be happening and the scenery that should have been onstage. This was the first Forced Entertainment performance that I saw live, and it was something completely different from what I had seen from their previous work, and not what one would expect from the mainstream theater context in which it was presented.
The suggestion that the work is experimental means that some of it will inevitably fail. This is most apparent in their durational work, a challenge on both audience and performers, as performers reach a point where they will shift from performance mode into their natural state. "The essence of Speak Bitterness (1994) is a line of people making confessions from behind a long table. Occupying a brightly lit space, the performers take turns reading from the text that is strewn across the table." (Forced Entertainment, 1994) As Speak Bitterness was six hours in duration, there would have been points where the traditional concept of performer/audience was destroyed and was replaced by a new relationship and experience.
This idea of failure, then, suggests that to experiment is to open up the opportunity to fail. Work such as Speak Bitterness, Quizoola! and 12 am: Awake & Looking Down all have an aspect of uncertainty. They are inquisitive: the format has been decided beforehand but what happens within that is open to chance and as well failure. Reciting confessions in Speak Bitterness, there is no way of knowing who will be talking, at what point, and if people are going to over lap with one and other or cut in at the wrong moment. This is what is exciting about these works—it is these acts of failure that are experimental, or at least leave the opportunity for failure, so the performance is not closed off, creating an exciting atmosphere and potentiality for something new to be created at each performance (although arguably, no performance is ever repeatable). The challenge, now the company has settled into its own format, is to avoid habit. The audience can find itself identifying techniques and devices rather than being surprised, shocked, or challenged. But, the question still remains, are they still challenging the norm if after three decades, they are the norm?
This April, Forced Entertainment will performa a 24-hour version of Quizoola! at the Barbican Centre as part of SPILL Festival. More information about participating in this performance is available here.
Chris Green received a Master's degree in Visual Language of Performance at Wimbledon College of Art, London, and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Performance at Sheffield Hallam University.
Images, from top: The Coming Storm, Quizoola!, and 12 am: Awake & Looking Down. Performance views. Photos by Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of Forced Entertainment.