Tim Etchells on making ‘The Possible Impossible House’

POSTED 13.05.2015

image credit: Vlatka Horvat

For 30 years Forced Entertainment have been making mischief in theatre – upending the mould, bending the conventions, twisting the envelope – to make compelling and challenging performances for adult audiences. In much of the work you’ll find serious ideas approached with a playful wrongheadedness and stories that get told in arresting ways, even if the scenes are out of order or the endings are misplaced.

Starting in the mid 90’s children have featured in our work, not onstage concretely or as characters, but rather as reflected or even refracted presences, presences that became more and more tangible as we as members of this six-strong, Sheffield-based ensemble began to have kids of our own. For particular projects the rehearsal room – always home to some strange scenes, objects and sounds – even filled with cardboard trees, a toy house, animal costumes, painted skies and dances choreographed to ‘Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes’. Somehow though, despite all this, it’s only now when most of our kids are teenagers or older, here, in 2014, that we’re arriving to the challenge of making a show for children.

The project we’re making, The Possible Impossible House, is a first – a new piece commissioned by the Barbican, created in a first-time collaborative process with the visual artist Vlatka Horvat, who is making a series of animated collages and photo-sequences that form a key element in the unfolding of the narrative. Like much of our work, the performance is a mixture of inventively used technology and obstinate low tech; everything deployed in a DIY style. There are eerie sound effects teased out by fingers on wine glasses half-filled with water, there’s the sound of doors slamming made by dropping biscuit tins half filled with stones. The projections meanwhile often appear in the air, caught by the performers as if by magic on pieces of cardboard, populating the space itself rather than being confined to a screen. This home-made visual magic, hopeless and beautiful at the same time, is how the story of The Possible Impossible House gets told – the central figure journeying through a labyrinth of corridors, to a deserted ballroom and an overflowing library amongst many other places, meeting an odd cast of characters along the way – from a talking mouse to an army of identical soldiers intent on unison dancing, to a hand-drawn ghost and a girl, doodled in the pages of an algebra book, who slowly comes to life.

A hallmark of Forced Entertainment’s approach to theatre in the 30 years of the company’s work has been an impulse to deconstruction, from both an intellectual and a comical perspective. It’s no shock that the latter wins out in The Possible Impossible House; though the show will offer plentiful ideas, conundrums and mind-bending questions for kids eager to stretch their minds. As ever in our work meanwhile, the comedy lies both in the tale itself and in the act of telling it – in rehearsals this month we’re enjoying improvising wry dialogue for the cat that our protagonist meets on an Escher-like staircase in the centre of the house and at the same time we’re working to comically escalate the war of words between the performer who is telling the story and the one-person orchestra who’s responsible for the sound track to the chaotically emerging narrative. To our minds, giving the orchestra a vast array of home-Foley sound effects and noise-making devices was inviting trouble – the best kind of trouble perhaps – that kind that threatens to take over, or crash the whole story, but which, in the end, just knocks it off course enough to open up the adventure of The Possible Impossible House in a series of surprising and evocative ways.

Tim Etchells

December 2014

The Possible Impossible House
had its world premiere at Barbican, London 17 December 2014 and continues to tour – please see the project page for upcoming tour dates and more news.