Tim Etchells on narrative, ‘Void Story’ and ‘The Coming Storm’

Void Story was a kind of post apocalyptic tale – two unfortunates escaping their apartment in a ruined city, trying to find safety. It was told through sound effects and projected images, with the live performers doing voices for the ‘characters’ appearing on screen. The feeling was like a graphic novel come to life and I wrote the text and made the images, collages using photographs I’d made as well as pictures taken from the internet. It was a very unusual project for us because it really did deal with a story, albeit a highly picaresque one in which the narrative is boiled down to an absurd series of events. It’s a project that falls between different possibilities which are held a really interesting tension – it’s both a story and at the same time ‘just’ list of unlikely incidents, it’s cinematic, and almost anti-theatrical but at the same time extremely compelling and vivid in performance terms.

We started work on The Coming Storm again with a singular narrative in mind but as the rehearsal process unfolded we moved more and more into a territory of fragments – unfinished narratives and ’scenes’ or images which appear to both relate to and to contradict what’s spoken. It’s a familiar journey for me! I’m fascinated with stories but in the work (and in life perhaps!) I’m frustrated with singularity – so the limit of one single story seems to be something that I always want to challenge in the work.
We are creating the text for the piece through improvisation – so that it retains a loose, easily spoken form and there’s a lot of interplay between the different elements of the performance  – text, sound, music, action. The stories we’re working with are very different – some appear to be personal, anecdotal or reminiscences whilst others are like incredible tangled movie plots.

What interests me very much is the way that an incomplete narrative is always filled in, or imaginatively completed by an audience. The way the work in rehearsals looks right now it’s radically incomplete – we’re creating a situation out of which many narratives are spinning and forming. Things – stories, tones, atmospheres – are constantly in a state of almost cohering and then dissolving again. The structure is elusive – it’s been hard for us to find the checks and balances in it – but I think we are succeeding slowly. In a strange way the frame we are working with is as much musical as it is narrative – the principles are associative, poetic, to do with energy and pattern, contradiction and connection. What this leads to (hopefully!) is a work that’s very live to watch – where the sense is precarious, always emerging, always on the edge of something.

I’m not writing much text but my role in the process remains very much connected to the generation and organisation of the material – text and everything else. During improvisations you often see me running on and off the stage, whispering instructions to people, or sometimes even yelling to try to change the course of what’s happening, adding a detail or adjusting things. I have an overview – where people are, what the whole picture is – and at least some sense of where it might all go. The rest of the group are of course in it the whole time, so their individual perspectives are always quite particular. Several of the performers in The Coming Storm are wearing quite absurd costumes at times – things that restrict their ability to move or to see or to hear properly – so there’s sometimes a very real sense in which they don’t know what is going on! Often my interventions in the improvisations are about trying to nudge the performers towards particular pieces of content or tone that we are working with, whilst at other times I’m trying to cut a certain scene and move on before it becomes too solid. This whole process in the studio is a kind of writing of course – a writing that we are doing together – inventing things, trying things, combining them, a writing that takes place between text, action, sound, light and time.

Tim Etchells, 2012