Probably the most unusual production staged by Sheffield theatre company Forced Entertainment was one which lasted 24 hours.
“Midnight until midnight,” recalls performer Robin Arthur. “The audience kept coming and going, dropping in for a couple of hours, leaving, going to work, going home, coming back. It was pretty intense.”
Probably that was the most unusual. But there are others that run it close.
One production featured a performer pointing at audience members and predicting how they would die (cancer, drowning, suicide, all the cheery ones). Another saw a woman in evening dress spend seven hours writing obscenities on a blackboard. That had niche appeal. The Guardian loved it. A third was performed in an abandoned Manchester library.
“The aim,” says artistic director Tim Etchells, of Hunter’s Bar, “is always to transform the audience to another place, whether that be through comedy, cabaret, dance or drama. If they come into the venue at 8pm, we want them to have forgot where they are by the time they leave.”
It is something this six-person group, based in The Workstation in Paternoster Row, has been doing for exactly 30 years. Today, they have invited The Diary into their rehearsal space to kick off the celebrations for their anniversary year.
The coming 12 months will see two new productions, a world tour and a special book. They also plan to stream some of their earlier works online. More details coming soon. For now, in those three decades this remarkable group have created some 60 productions, performed in more countries than they can remember, and been labelled “one of the greatest British theatrical exports of the past 20 years”.
Their experimental, often obtuse, style might not appeal to everyone but even the critic who once called them a “bloody mess” had to eat his words.
The troupe named their next work after his words. It became their most popular ever production and was performed more than 200 times around the world.
In Sheffield they’ve staged various works in both The Crucible and The Lyceum, as well as one on a coach travelling round the city at dusk. Not bad for a group of experimentalists who started their project immediately after finishing their degrees.
The sextet - Tim and Robin, as well as Richard Lowdon, Cathy Naden, Claire Marshall and Terry O’Connor, all of Unter’s Bar or Nether Edge - was then an octet. They’d all just graduated from Exeter University and, despite having no links with Sheffield, decided to launch their new theatre company here.
“Why Sheffield?” ponders Tim. “We asked ourselves do we want to stay in Exeter and the answer was no, do we want to go to London and the answer was no.
“I had some friends in Sheffield and it seemed like a nice city, so we moved here. It could easily have been Manchester or Leeds, though.”
The eight lived in two houses in City Road; and used the then Enterprise Allowance Scheme to help set up the company. Their first performance, called Jessica In The Room Of Lights, was staged at the old Yorkshire Artspace gallery in Matilda Street, and included a back wall covered with old Chinese newspapers stained with tea. It went down so well they ended up touring it round the country.
“I think people recognised something in us that could be good,” says Tim.
From that first production, the group continued to evolve, writing, choreographing and producing their own work. In 1986, they got their first Arts Council commission, and by the late Eighties they were recognised as one of England’s finest young troupes, lauded for being unafraid to be different. Two members have left but, as their reputation has grown, the group have taken on four office staff.
Their work, they explain today, starts with a theme, which is followed by spending months improvising with ideas, recording rehearsals, analysing what works, improving what doesn’t, polishing and perfecting.
The final productions rarely have anything so simple as a narrative ark. Many are deliberately obtuse. The odd one involves nakedness. Almost all are chaotic.
“It actually takes months of hard work and planning to be that chaotic,” notes Tim. Their biggest audience was the 4,000 people who watched (some of) their 24-hour show which was streamed online when they performed it at London’s Barbican. Their smallest was the time - during a 12 hour performance - just one punter remained for a period.
“If it had got down to none, I’m not sure what we would have done,” says Robin. “Maybe stopped and told the people on the door to give us a nod if anyone came in.”
Whatever their audience size, Forced Entertainment won’t let the fact they’ve just turned 30 stop them from pushing boundaries.
They say they’re much the same as those kids who first moved to South Yorkshire, still trying to capture some essence of our society. They don’t all live together in two houses anymore, though.
“What’s kept us going?” muses member Terry O’Connor. “We’re friends, there’s no prima-donnas. There are arguments but we can argue about the show and not take things personally. I think we’re our minds meet is where we come up with things which work.”
And for the future? This weekend they’ve been in Essen, Germany. Next weekend, it’s Zurich, Switzerland. In March the European festival season begins. They hope to return to Sheffield with The Notebook in Autumn.
After that? “We’ve never planned ahead,” says Tim. “And there’s no point starting now. While we enjoy doing this and people keep booking us, there’s no reason to stop.”