Tim Etchells © Zeichnung: Anje Jager, basierend auf einem Foto von Hugo Glendinning

Can you tell us about the role and meaning of the dark in “From The Dark”?

The performance takes the night as a space of thinking and as a kind of limbo, a zone that has to be crossed, got through, waited-out until morning – the audience and performers go through that journey together. We’re removed from daily business, in a space where the daytime world is on pause. We’re out of place – awake, but supposed to be asleep – in this non-space of the night, a kind of contemplation zone, and a place that soon fills with anxieties, anticipations and questions. It’s the night of fairy tales and horror stories, but also the night of anxious lovers, conspirators, people awaiting news or facing dilemmas, people awaiting morning and the time for action.
One recurring action in the piece is that performers make lists of things that they are frightened of. Some of it is obvious stuff; they’re frightened of the dark of course, frightened of losing people they love, frightened of dying, frightened of getting old. But they’re frightened of other things too – natural disasters, political shifts to the right, economic uncertainty, war, terror. Or they are frightened of forgetting the names of their friends’ children, or frightened of themselves, or frightened by certain kinds of sounds. The night (and the piece) becomes a container for all these fears.
We speak about the piece, sometimes, through this idea of ‘getting through’ the night. Like in a horror story, or fairy tale where the scared inhabitants of a haunted house, or strange forest, have to survive until morning. They tell themselves that if they can make it until daylight things will be OK. Seen in this way the performance is a way of surviving – staying awake and alive, they spend the time telling stories, confessing what frightens them, reminding themselves through a series of questions, tasks, games and dances, who they are and what they know. There is something about this nighttime space of worry that takes you back to this sort of… I don’t want to say “essential questions”, but nonetheless there is something very core about where we go during the night. It’s connected to childhood of course – to that state where the outside world, and the night itself, are something unknown, something mysterious.
Regarding uncertainty… the night is often a place where you can be thinking, but in which you can’t yet act to solve or deal with things. In the morning you can have that meeting with somebody, or you can deal with a problem that needs to be addressed, it’s more this sort of no man’s land where thinking can take place. It’s an interesting airlock in that way.

This list of fears is something that each of the performers is preparing individually, is that right?

It’s always improvised, though everyone gets some space to practice and try different things. So yes, it’s an individual thing.

But at the same time it really appears in the moment of the show. So it’s kind of a shared thing in the presence with the audience, it’s coming from that specific moment when we will be together.

Yeah, very much so. The form is fixed, but the contents are open to the moment.

When we discussed and made plans for “From The Dark”, we agreed that it would start with the sunset, then go on until morning arrives, so the whole idea of these uncertainties and the specifics of the night – as you describe them – is also in the timing of the show itself. What are the specialties that this nighttime performing evokes?

Well at a certain point you’re outside the ‘usual’ part of the day, outside the hours during which we are used to working, living, or watching performances. Physically – by 3, 4 or 5 in the morning – people’s energy changes of course. As an audience member and as a performer; you get tired, you perceive things differently and attend to them differently, your brain starts to function in a different way, you slow down; all sorts of crazy ideas can seem fine or important, simple ideas can seem very complicated. That’s one of the pleasures, drawing people into that kind of space. It’s not just this piece, but other projects of ours that rearrange time and draw people into a different watching relation, a different economy of looking. The work offers the opportunity to think and experience in different ways and transforms the relation between the stage and the audience, between different audience members. Or the audience, being in the theater at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning is very different, they are more informally present, the auditorium becomes their space. You are part of a different kind of community going through the night together in this way.

That’s the appeal that the long-duration pieces have for you, these different dynamics?

Yes. We are drawn to the way that the long works dismantle the performers’ defenses. Onstage you’re always trying to do your best, making plans, being very conscious of the moves that you make. And something in the long duration and the tiredness that accompanies it really interferes with that process. You can’t keep controlling. The result can be that you are inventive, vulnerable and open in really different way as a performer; it’s very distinct to do and to watch. I think there’s something parallel for the audience too, that over long duration and especially through the night, you enter a slightly different mental and social space where different kinds of attention and presence are possible. That’s definitely the interest.

„Who Can Sing A Song To Unfrighten Me?“, 2004 © Hugo Glendinning

When working on this piece you revisit material from the show “Who Can Sing A Song To Unfrighten Me?” that you did earlier with Forced Entertainment, but at the same time – as you describe it – this is going to be a new piece. What does it mean to go back after all these years and what are the differences?

It’s interesting! “Who Can Sing…” was a 24-hour-performance that we only played four times, back in 1999. Now that we are looking at the videos again, we see the scenes and images that we remember of it plus all the things that we’d completely forgotten! The biggest difference between what we do now and what we did back then is that “From The Dark” will be a legible construction; a seven-hour shape, made with the expectation that many people will follow it all the way through from the start to the end. When we made the 24 hour-piece we knew that nobody would see all of it – they’d have to take breaks, even if they stayed in the room the whole time they would have to sleep; nobody could really be expected to grab it as an object. Whereas for “From the Dark” it’s clear that people will stay through seven hours – they’ll experience the journey of it, and the structure. Suddenly 7 hours seems like short time – neat almost, manageable! It demands that we are more careful what is in and what’s out, all the elements are more placed, and the journey of the piece is more considered. Also there is a different energy in going from the moment of darkness to the moment of dawn, very different from the 24-hour-piece, where we went from midnight to midnight in a kind of circular structure, around the clock. By comparison there’s a narrative drive to the seven hours from dusk until at dawn; it’s about the journey to the morning, the beginning and so on, the idea of release, being out of the night, a kind of escape. These are things that float, that’s what we have to think about as we are putting the piece together.

Sounds almost like the story line of a fairy tale or even a nightmare… You have those skeletons, the journey to the light, a forest, animals – is this like a catharsis thing, waking up with some things becoming clear? Going out into the light, having changed?

There is definitely a hint of fairy tale and children’s picture book in the piece. There is something about learning what the world is too, trying to think about what the world is though the form of a picture book – what’s real and what’s not real? What’s a human being and what’s an animal? Is magic possible? What is it to be alive or to be dead? What are you frightened of? What would you do if you ruled the world? How do you want to die? These kinds of elemental questions. And yes, there is something about getting through the night, like if you are frightened or worried, your concerns about something, how do you get through the night, making it through to morning, where things might change. It’s not about there being a solution or an obvious easy answer by morning, that everything’s going to be okay. It’s more about this space of contemplation and thinking. Coming out, seeing what happens, what’s possible in that other space of the morning.
I’m thinking about the title we have taken for this piece – “From The Dark”. In English it can mean two things; it can be about escape – about coming out of, or emerging from the dark. But it could also mean that the piece itself comes from the darkness, that it’s a message or an utterance from that other place – bringing the fear, uncertainty and questions we have been talking about. There is something very useful about those doubts of course, something that you can carry with you into the daytime. It’s not about saying goodbye to those doubts in the morning. (laughs) I was looking for images that could perhaps represent the performance in the catalogue and I selected pictures of a few of my neon work. One of them takes a phrase from a Portuguese idiom, which translates into English as “the night is a good advisor”. What I liked about that is that… in Portuguese it’s understood as meaning something like “sleep on it”, or “wait until morning and things will be clearer”. But I also like an idea that it suggests – that the night itself would really be your advisor, that it would whisper to you and tell you to do things. That’s a much more mischievous and potentially troubling interpretation of course – because the night might advise us to do all kind of things! I like the idea that the night is a dynamic, mischievous, trouble-making, frightening thing. That’s something I think the piece also has in it.

So there’s dark and light at the same time… Would you say that there is in general a certain mood in your works – like melancholy, rage, joy, hopefulness…?

We mix those things. I think this piece is very playful on one level. Something that intrigues me a lot is the idea that the work can feel light, throw away, easy, like not a big deal, but that, at the same time, it can also be serious, troubling and opening all kinds of questions. It’s almost an obsession for me, the desire to make something that you could say that has very little weight, deceptively easygoing. But that once you start to look at it closer, to engage with it, all kinds of other things open up behind or through the work, in all directions. Then you realize that what looked so simple and straightforward is actually immensely complicated. Every show we make is probably trying some version or another of that maneuver. It’s a lot about wanting to meet the audience in a very transparent and easy going way, so we don’t have to arrive onstage announcing that the work is going to be really serious, like “watch out”. We would rather arrive saying “Don’t worry about it, it’s going to be fine, everything’s very simple, it is what it is, don’t worry”, and then half an hour or an hour later you start thinking “Oh. We’re really deep in this now”.
I often see things in the theater where you walk in at the beginning and think “Oh, ok, this is serious!” And I always ask myself how did this seriousness get there so quickly, that’s asking a lot from me! I’m rarely prepared to go in that fast. I’m much more interested in a starting point which is just a bunch of people in a room, a performance that says this is where we are and then we go from there, on a journey, as far as we can go.

„From The Dark“ by Forced Entertainment can be seen during the last night of Foreign Affairs 2016, starting at 21:21 pm at Haus der Berliner Festspiele and going on until the break of dawn.