Forced Entertainment: Making experimental theatre

Forced Entertainment: Making experimental theatre

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 07/06/12

The group of six Sheffield-based artists known as Forced Entertainment is famous for a 25-year career of experimental and devised work. One of the founding members, Terry O’Connor, spoke to IdeasMag about how to turn an idea into an improvisation into a show…

Deciding to base ourselves in Sheffield was a case of sticking a pin in the map.

We didn’t know of any other theatre companies based in Sheffield, which seemed like a good reason to go there. We wanted to go somewhere industrial and all the music tumbling out of Sheffield was very, very exciting. Politically, it had the reputation of being the socialist republic of south Yorkshire. It was also a cheap place to find rehearsal space.

Of course, when we got here we discovered lots of other theatre companies, but there’s been a degree of benefit from relative isolation. I imagine that starting out in London means that you’re always looking over your shoulder to check that your great new idea isn’t someone else’s great new idea.

At particular points in a project, a degree of isolation can be very helpful because you’re just looking at one another, the space and the ideas you’ve got in the room. 

Creating a show is a very discursive process, between all of us. We come into the room and there will be some tiny scraps of an idea: with The Coming Storm, for example, it was something as rough as including an element of live music. We also had a rough idea that we wanted to revisit narrative or story.

Sometimes it’s something more tangible. For First Night, the starting point was the idea of very garishly made up faces. The make up led to a way of smiling like a fixed grimace, which led to a way of talking, through clenched teeth, which led to a whole architecture of a relationship with an audience.

Whatever the starting point, we talk about it, then we try to shape an idea for an improvisation. As soon as possible, we get up on our feet and try it out. Sometimes that improvisation lasts for 10-20 minutes and sometimes, if you’re lucky, half an hour. We record those improvisations on video, then watch them back and try to work out what we think is going on. We’re looking for the game or structure that is going on underneath. 

Improvisation is always going to be a very exposing thing. You’re writing with your own body, face and voice. Like everyone, you have times when you’re sick of the sound of your own voice or wish you could move better. You just have to stay as generous as possible with yourself and one another.

Don’t be afraid of laughing and joking. Sometimes you watch things back on video and they do look ridiculous. But it’s better to laugh than give up.

To keep things fresh you’ve got to trick yourself out of always working in the same space or same sort of spaces. We’ve evolved through site-specific, durational performances; we even did a performance on a coach – they all have a different contact with the audience.

Finally, when you’re in the middle of making a show, stay polite, wait it out and keep calm.


Terry O'Connor will be speaking at the International Student Drama Festival. For more details, visit their page.

Image of The Coming Storm by Hugo Glendinning.

The Coming Storm will be showing at LIFT Festival and other venues. For further details, please see the Forced Entertainment website.

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