Interview with Tim Etchells

You feed us. You dress us. You choose clothes for us. You bathe us. You lay down the law. You sing to us. You watch us sleep.

Tim Etchells came to the Melbourne Festival with his company Forced Entertainment and their glorious big-massive-party of a production, Bloody Mess, back in 2005. This year he returns with a very different kind of show, That Night Follows Day. Featuring a cast of Flemish-speaking kids, it explores the parent-child relationship through the voices of children, but in a way that’s aimed squarely at adults. I caught up with him from his home in Sheffield, England, and began by asking him what brought him to Belgium and Victoria, the company who commissioned the work.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Belgium over the years and, in the course of that, I came across Victoria who are based in Ghent and who have this whole line of work which is involved with children and young people and they made a kind of invitation to me five years ago, even longer than that, to think about making something with kids. And I was very excited about that and it took quite a long time to actually nail down a date but that was the beginning. I think they naturally have this reputation, and rightly so, for really having an innovative edge on how one might think of working with children and what kind of thing that might involve.

For you to work with the kids in Belgium, I imagine you might have had to overcome the generational gap as well as the language gap, so how did you manage to gain the trust necessary for collaboration?

It’s interesting. In a way it’s like working with any group of people. I’ve got a fair amount of experience making projects or doing teaching projects of different kinds, where you kind of go slowly and you try to, I guess, build a conversation with them. You try to build a conversation and feel your way a little bit. I felt like in a way that working with the kids was absolutely no different than working with a bunch of adults, in that sense. I mean, you don’t make demands of them, you enter into a kind of conversation and you sort of see where it can go and you try to find out what is interesting mutually in the room and in what you are dealing with. I think working with the kids was very much that kind of process.

Where did the children come from? Were they actors? Or were they simply children from around the community?

There was an audition process whereby information went out to schools and to youth groups and to performance groups for kids and so on and as a result of that we ended up with something like a hundred kids on one very intense weekend. Just seeing lots of them and doing workshop things and out of that we ended up with a group of about 30-32 and we took those kids into a longer process, like 5 days. And at the end of that we made a decision on who we were going to work with. So, in that sense it was like an audition process. I guess that’s also about trying to figure out who’s there that you think you can work with or communicate with, who’s there that’s got an energy or a focus that’s going to be good for the project. Once we were making it, I worked very closely with an assistant, Pascal Patrallia.

Essentially when you are making you are guided by the energy and the focus of the people who are in the room with you. I mean I’m not a director who has an elaborate fantasy of some other “thing” that is in my imagination that I just have to make happen in the world. It’s about listening and watching and trying to figure out who you’ve got in front of you and what they can do. But [the casting] was complicated by the core idea of a chorus of children and how they would address the audience about the ways in which the adult world shapes and frames the world for young people, so it did have some quite particular demands in terms of what kinds of performance they were capable of. The children have to be quite controlled and it is quite demanding for them as a piece.

Having children yourself, I’m interested to know what their reaction has been? How do they react to this compared to your other works?

They have reacted really well. I had a very interesting evening in the theatre just after the show had opened. We opened the show in Belgium and then one of the first touring gigs was in Birmingham in England. I had one evening where I watched the piece with my two kids and their mum to one side of me in a line, and to the other side down the row were my parents and it was a weird evening because I think everybody, from my kids on one side to my parents on the other side, felt like some of what was said on the stage belonged to them or was recognisable from things that have been said or done in the family. So it was quite a personal set of judgements going on in the row I sat in. I think my kids have enjoyed this piece, and I think they, the little one especially whose 9 he’s seen it 6 or 7 times, because he’s travelled with me sometimes when we have been presenting it, he definitely has a kind of identification with it. The text in a way probably speaks with the kind of experiences that are upmost in his mind. But for the older one who’s almost 16, he is a young adult really, so he is on the edge of the piece having much relevance.

Has the show changed as the children in the piece grow up or is the casting changing to keep the show the same?

At the moment it is absolutely the same cast we started with and that will continue until after Melbourne but we will, sometime after that, have a re-rehearsal process with basically a whole lot of younger kids because the text starts to sit on the older ones differently and, at a certain point, that will become weird I think. There are lines in the text like “you feed us, you dress us” and you look at the old ones and you think, “they might cook your tea for you but they’re not going to be dressing you are they”. It’s not realistic. And it has always had that tension between the lines that speak directly to the older ones and the kinds of experiences that they have with adults and the lines which speak directly to the youngest end of the group. But at a certain point that that will become sort of silly. There is a change as well in that, when we opened the piece in Brussels, they were doing a fantastic job, according to me, in terms of performance, but now that they’ve been doing the piece for a year they have a kind of confidence and an ability to steer it and play with it really as a performance which they couldn’t have had at the very beginning.
It’s been great to watch them develop, even more so perhaps than with adult actors. I suppose because adults don’t change as fast, their shoes size stays the same over the course of the year. Whereas some of these kids are on their third pair of shoes, you know, in terms of the costuming. In other ways as well they’re in this period of growth and reaching out in all sorts of different directions and it’s pretty amazing to watch that, as more of an outsider than a parent, but still someone who has been involved with these kids over this same period. It is extraordinary watching that

In terms of the writing being adapted by other theatre companies, is that something you imagine being possible? I understand that that this production is in Flemish but you wrote it in English?

I wrote it in English, then there was a Flemish translation done by some of my colleagues at Victoria that worked fine. I don’t speak Flemish but I understand some of it and I’m used to the sounds because I’ve been there a lot. I didn’t find it too hard working that way especially given my collaborators at Victoria. There were times in the process where I would say, “actually that line sounds like there are not enough words in it,” or, “it sounds like you’ve done a more complicated translation of that then there needs to be”. I was able to sense the language enough to have those kinds of conversations even if I wasn’t able to say what a particular word meant.

In regards to the other question, yes. I mean, normally most of the work I’ve done is so much on the particular people who have made it — it is so particular. If you think of the kind of work with Forced Entertainment, well that doesn’t transfer. We basically don’t allow it to be done by anyone else. For us it doesn’t make sense for the most part if it were to be done by other people. With the Victoria piece, although it was made in the room with the kids it does exist as a text that can sensibly, meaningfully be done by other people. There will be other versions of it I’m sure. There’s pretty advanced conversations with a festival in Vancouver about them producing a local version. There is already a German radio version with a cast of German kids, which I have just received a CD of, but I haven’t had a chance to listen to it properly. For sure it is a project that can be done by different people and I think that will always bring out different aspects of it.

Has that shifted your perception of yourself as a maker of work? Are you now not just a theatre maker but perhaps a playwright to a certain extent, at least more so than before?

Yes, I mean I have always been interested in the idea that it might be possible to work as a writer making texts that other people can take on. But it is really telling that the way this got made was very close to the way I work with Forced Entertainment, in the sense that while I was writing a lot and shaping the material, I know the piece still got made in the rehearsal studio with those kids around to try reading it this way, or try reading it that way or try doing this or that. For me as a writer, I’m very attuned to bodies in space and time passing and all those things. If, as a writer, you’re sitting at a computer you can imagine those things but it is a very different thing than the experience for me of being in a room and feeling what 10 minutes of something feels like. I think as a performance maker I am very much in love with that process, which is a sort of process that has to take place in a rehearsal with people I’m interested in writing for. I write fiction and other things, which don’t need that process. But for performance it seems to me at least a proximity to a rehearsal room and some people is really important.