Artist Tim displays force of nature

TO THE average punter they might seem like a bunch of arty nutters.

In fact they are told as much, and worse, on a regular basis.

But Tim Etchells and the Forced Entertainment theatre group have put the name of Sheffield on the world's avant-garde map - if there could ever be such a thing - with their experimental shows, plays and art installations.

They are revered from Vienna to San Francisco though few in Sheffield have heard of the group who have been based here for 24 years.

With works like Spectacle, A Person Moving, Bloody Mess and When Clowns Go Bad the Sheffield based group have won rave reviews from contemporary art and drama critics from the Guardian to the Financial Times.

And puzzled many more.

"Sheffield is always a part of the fabric of our work, " said artistic director Tim Etchells whose first novel The Broken World is published today.

"The city goes in and out of focus in our work but it is always there and what we do is different because it is made in Sheffield rather than Paris or London."

The drama and artistic group of six friends has been based in the city since 1984 when they moved into a Sheffield of industrial depression and unemployment. Then they rehearsed in a space in Wicker Arches under where a young Jarvis Cocker was hanging out.

"When we were struggling to get things going he was in the same position with Pulp," said 45-year-old Tim of Hunters Bar.

"We did the meltdown festival with him recently, we sort of know him to nod to these days. It was fantastic, a great experience, to be on the same bill as Iggy Pop, one of my all-time heroes was brilliant."

Tim Etchells is a calm and thoughtful man, serious about what he does and, having fought off serious heart problems throughout his life feels he has much to say.

"We first came to Sheffield because I had friends who had been to college here and I am from Derby and wanted to move back north from Exeter and Sheffield was affordable.

"We did one of our first gigs at the Rotherham Arts Centre in 1984. Since then we have played in 120 venues around the world."

Their work will not appeal to most people.

Oblique, non-narrative pieces that require the viewer to drop their search for meaning through conventional dramatic and artistic devices and surrender themselves to the spectacle of the performance.

Of course not everyone can or wants to do this. So what can the non-university educated, TV-watching, manual-working, football-and-shopping-loving Sheffield folk get out of Forced Entertainment and its vision of the world?

"It's not about class or education for me," says Tim. "It's about people connecting with art in all sorts of places. I think most people can get something from what we do if they just give it and themselves a chance. If I did not believe that I would not be doing anything. I think there are a lot of assumptions about what people want to see and watch, that's why we have the TV and films we have.

"It's crap really."

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People are able to respond to many different things and we are always optimistic about our audiences. If people come to see us with an open and curious mind they can find something in our work that will appeal to them. People often say that they really liked a performance but say that they didn't get it at first and gave up on it after 15 minutes and then they started to enjoy it. When they stop worrying what they are supposed to think, it comes to them what it's about."

In their latest work, Spectacular, a lone performer, dressed as a skeleton, takes to the stage, explaining that the show is different tonight. The atmosphere is different, his entrance was off, the lights are wrong, some scenery is missing, performers are absent.

Things are somehow falling to pieces, or maybe falling into place. The audience reaction is not quite what he expected, not what he's used to. So what's the big idea?

To change the world, obviously.

According to Tim his works and those of forced entertainment ask something more of the viewer, audience, or reader whether they are playing in Sheffield, the Pompidou Centre in Paris or a converted pit-head baths in Essen, east Germany.

People are urged to recognise the fact that all art and culture from Coronation Street to La Boheme requires them to join the dots of understanding to make sense of a performance and for it to have meaning.

What Forced Entertainment's work makes the role of the viewer more obvious and transparent. The idea is to get people to realise that they are doing this all the time and to remind them they have a role not just in art and drama but in their everyday lives and in politics.

"There is a desire to remind people of their own impact in making meaning and changing the way we see things," said Tim. "We remind them that they are making choices all the time and that their choices make a difference in every area of life."

How do people respond to this freedom and responsibility?

"Some people come up to us after shows and say: 'That was crap', said Tim.

"But they also come over and say things like: 'I saw you in Leeds in 1991 or in Paris in 2000 or I read one of your short stories and you changed my life'.

"That happened to us and it can happen to anyone.

"That's what we want to do."

n The Broken World by Tim Etchells is published by William Heineman.