3t Design:
Products of Play

Henning Skarbø GUI Design
Ten short stabs at authenticity

Tim Etchells

1. Are you there?

They were far away in geography but close in the heart. They wrote letters, emails, made phone calls. Not so much to collapse the distance as to measure it.

The essence of each letter, message or phone call was always the simple inquiry: are you there? And in the immediate answer of stories, questions, doubts and facts of daily life there was always a second more slippery answer; at best a burning bewildering 'yes' contained between the phrases and the words, at worst a dumb dead 'no' and between the two a flickering called 'perhaps'. Finding the other in text, staging the self in reply. Authenticity as the construction of presence in the context of absence, the experience of truth and eye contact.

Are you there?

A question for lovers, performers and spectators.

2. Nearly Midnight

A Stewardess Forgetting Her Divorce stands sobbing at the front of the stage while A Bloke Who's Just Been Shot wanders behind her, looking dazed, looking lost.

After seven years of making theatre Forced Entertainment took a detour in 1991 with the creation of our long performance 12am Awake & Looking Down. Lasting eleven hours the piece consisted simply of five silent performers in a small space, endlessly changing identities using nothing but cardboard placards scrawled with names and a vast collection of jumble sale clothes.

A Nine Year Old Shepherd Boy sits down on the floor and Frank (Drunk) hesitates beside him and then leaves. Jack Ruby conceals a gun beneath a ragged plastic anorak, while Banquo's Ghost waves sweetly from the distance. The scene changes continually, a narrative kaleidoscope, a product of diverse live impulses and negotiations that shifts and turns, throwing up impossible stories, chance meetings, and dream possibilities.

It is nearly midnight and the performers are exhausted. And in their tiredness defences are down. In this work and so much of what we've made the transformation of performer to 'character' is provisional at best - an attempt - as much a charting of the space between oneself and the other as a conflation of the two. As the hours go by no role is inhabited totally or for too long, every name one adopts just a place to rest on a journey, and the 'self' if seen at all is only what may be glimpsed between the cracks of so very many pretendings, assumptions, attempts, masks and versions.

Authentic meaning partial, slippery, provisional, impossible to fix.

3. Fiction

After periods of economy, minimalism and dark suits the theatre work we made filled up on occasion with stupid costumes. From our home in the depressed industrial city of Sheffield there were performers dressed as trees, angels, picture-book skeletons and thieves in stocking masks, as pantomime horses, dogs and gorillas, the whole parade of joke-shop costume and cardboard scenery as if to labour the point that to speak of the truth we sometimes have to lie. Authentic is not the same thing as true; we're made of stranger stuff than that.

4. Summer 98

I wanted to write to you about Terry's friend who would not read novels because she was too scared of being taken over by the characters. I wanted to tell you how many times I took a story that happened to you and told it as if it were mine.

As if Freud said this - real events and dream events alike haunt the house of memory, real events and dream events are held together and rendered equivalent in the circumstance of consciousness, language and forgetting.

Fact? We're made of stranger stuff than that. At night both real ghosts and fictional ghosts tread footprints through the house, leaving complex tracks which double back and overlap, impossible to trace.

I felt happy when I stole a story from you and certain, in the stealing, of my dubious history - is that what we mean by authentic?

5. Amsterdam ('97)

We were showing the long version of our performance Speak Bitterness - six hours of confessions from behind the long table, with an audience that was free to come and to go at any point.

A small space in which the eight of us performing could look right into the eyes of everyone present. A bright, scary space in which in place of a free-flow of people coming in and leaving, coming back and staying for a while we got a single block of forty people who came in at five and were ready to stay until the end. It was desperate.

After two hours or so the huge text of confessions strewn across the table was all but exhausted and whatever strategies, ruses, tricks, jokes and otherwise we knew had already too often been deployed.

We confess to back-flips and belly flops, to hitting hard and breathing deep,
We're guilty of sexist comments, secrecy and secretarial skills,
We were new lads and old labour,
We had hearts made out of neon and fishing wire,
We were the ones that led the retreat,
We're guilty of coldness, trivia and spite,
We worked in darkness against our fellow men,
We worked at Treblinka,
We took the long view,
We made special effects movies.

We were making things up, inventing frantically, shifting the tone around as best as we could and I remember at one moment really looking at the people in the room watching us and I was trying to figure out what on earth they needed, wanted or desired, what on earth for them might be enough. It was desperate, slipping into hysterical humour very often. A small space - so small you could count the audience, you could see every move they made.

I remember an endlessness of inquiry from me to them, an endlessness of eye contact, in which ones was asking and asking;
'what do you want? what do you want? why don't you leave us?... there's no release in this...'

It became the most fascinating night. Truly scary, truly fantastic. So tired in the end one hardly knew what one was saying or why. Searching the moment, trying to find.

We wouldn't let people swear in front of our wives,
We tied fireworks to a dogs tail,
We tied up our estate in complex legal clauses,
We believed that Elvis was more a mythical figure than a historical one,
We incurred a penalty clause for late completion of the job.
We thought of death as a place to hide,
We invented a money magnet and sold it exclusively to the gullible
We lied about our handicaps in golf,
We were white collar workers steeped too deep in blue collar crime.

Afterwards. I talked to some people from the audience. This guy said that over the six hours he felt he got to see us all as the performers that we would like to be, and as the performers that we really are. That as time went on he also saw us all as the people that we would like to be and as the people that we really are. He saw through us when we were too tired to pretend.

My love, it was only then that I realised - the desire in the public really, was for a nakedness and defencelessness that does not have a name. A lust for exposure, for something beyond. A lust for lovers, readers, performers, spectators. Authentic meaning naked - outside the economy of intention and control.

6. Brussels
Ron Vawter stood in front of the stage introducing his piece Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, addressing us directly, human-scale - so vivid, so present-tense.

"We hope you enjoy the performance. We made it for you..."

Ron seemed completely impromptu, responding to the moment with effortless casual charm but months later I saw him do the same piece again at ICA, London and the introduction which I had taken for real was the same too; I mean word for word and pause for pause, identical, identical. And just as present.

I have to learn it again and again - that something so obviously live, fresh, and now as what I saw in Brussels could also be so planned, technical and absolutely strategic. It is a lesson as strange to know the fiftieth time as it was to find it the first. That for all the truth of accident, of beyondness, of nakedness, luck and magic there is also always the truth of intention, technique and control. These two forces that hover in the air around all performance. Chance and absolute control. Chance and absolute control. Chance and absolute control. The binary we live under.

Ron told me: "I think we worked on that introduction more than any other moment..."

7. "This isn't looking at you.. you're in it.."

In Fiona Templeton's You -The City one gets passed from performer to performer, on a ninety minute journey through the streets of a major city. Barraged with text, caught up in a structure that only slowly lets you into its game one encounters performers who seem to be taxi drivers, shoppers and down and outs, performers who seem like spies, like lovers and like psychopaths. And all of them talking directly to you.

In streets, a taxi, a deserted playground and pubs a sense of contact with these phantoms is not always easy to find. There are performers who seem 'too big' for the street, performers who dwell forever in the elsewhere of the text, performers who miss the rhythm of your thoughts, not always coming close. Perhaps what one finds is flashes of contact, flashes of connection, flashes of something that burns - a series of moments where a weird synchronicity jumps between text, context and your own state of mind.

"You swear you haven't had an affair..." says the black guy on the steps of the church while you look out at the traffic and the dust swirling on Commercial Street. ".. She should leave him and live with you. You smile so you know what you face is doing."

Pure electric. Authentic as in contingent, the product of context, uncontrollable signs.

8. The edges of the frame

In another section of the same performance the woman sits on the bench next to me. Some movie-moment, only I'm in it. We're lovers. Or were. She has to go. Or I have to. Or maybe we both do. Or one of us left already and now comes back.

Anyhow. Somewhere between proximity, tone of voice, gesture and eye contact these moments we spend sat together on the bench seem more real than they ought. A distance collapses, I can't see the edges of the frame. I want to tell her it's OK, it's OK, but I don't know what 'it' is and when her eyes need contact I give it to them, not as a knowing performer but as a person, simply present.

She says: "My London isn't your London. My words can be translated into yours, but they're not yours. You fear and yet long to cross that line."

Couple of days later I'm at some party. I see a woman coming towards me and I'm sure I know her. We make eye contact and I'm sure I know her, met her, recently. But she doesn't react. I think about it for a while. I know her. Spent some time talking to her. Takes me ages to realise that she's in the performance - from the bench, and I smile to myself because the meeting we had was in fiction. It wasn't her I met. Some other person, some fictional entity, some collision between 'her' and a text.

Why do so many co-stars fall in love?

A question for lovers, performers, spectators.

Authentic as in the confusion of fact and fiction to create a sense of presence.

9. Task

I set myself an impossible task; to write on the authentic using only anecdote; as if what is real, present, true or authentic can only exist as example, as moments of life and performance burning bright. No theory and no title.

At 4am on the telephone there's no talking anymore. Just sharing the thing that passes for silence in this no-place of the phone system. There is a noise on the line somewhere, in the depth of telecom nothing and it sounds like very soft rain.

It seems that presence is possible in almost any circumstance, in any frame, in the strangest of contexts. Likewise authenticity. Are you there?

That burning bewildering 'yes'. Letter. Telephone. Stage.

10. Hannover
We are rehearsing a version of our marathon questions and answers performance Quizoola!. The text comprises 2000 questions which may be asked in any order, the answers to be made up by the performers themselves. The performers working in pairs, each pair in a room somewhere in the huge abandoned factory that has become our home.

We have struggled for ten days to make clear the possibilities of this simple, deceptively simple, game of Q&A. So much talk sometimes, so many examples and counter-examples, so many stories that one fears its hard for the students to see the wood for the trees.

The performers are made-up like sad pathetic clowns, their make-up smeared. Each pair sits within a circle of fairy lights, asking questions, stumbling to answer and all the time needing two things - to just do it on the one hand and to play it on the other, to simply ride the moment and be present and at the same time to look forwards, look for openings, look for possibilities in the game.

I struggle to find one last piece of advice, one single thing that could help clarify. I want to wish them good luck but it's more than that they need. And then I find it, perhaps the only good advice for lovers, readers, performers and spectators, I tell them;

"Get into trouble."

© Tim Etchells 1998.

Tim Etchells er forfatter og regissør i performance kompaniet Forced Entertainment. Kompaniet har base i Sheffield, Storbritannia og har samarbeidet siden 1984 for å skape originale verk innen teater, performance, installasjon og, i den senere tid, digitale medier og film. En samling av Etchells' skrifter om performance, Certain Fragments, skal publiseres av Routldege våren 1999.