A German translation of this text is published here.

In performance as in life, you can do something different in five minutes than you can do in five hours; two hours offers different options than 30 minutes, 30 months or one day. The events’ boundaries in the field of time determine the framework of seconds, minutes and hours, days, weeks or months in which it will transpire. Somehow regardless of content, each possible duration has its own set of givens, tendencies or parameters, its own shape or shapes, its own economies, its own possible architectures of energy, attention and information flow. It’s not so much that any one time frame is inherently better or worse than another, but rather that each offers its own particularly bounded space of potential for the flow of information over time. Indeed, we might say, that dramaturgy itself is precisely this flow; each performance manifesting its own particular version of introduction, development, withholding, slowing, speeding, revelation and patterning of data through the specific timeline of its being.

“The first 30 seconds of any performance are the most important” says Richard Lowdon as the narrator figure in the 1996 work I made with Forced Entertainment, “Showtime”: “… it’s in this time that you have to establish a rapport with the audience, and to get them on your side.” Richard is glancing down nervously as he speaks, appearing to notice for the first time what we have seen since he entered the stage – that strapped to his chest is a home-made more-or-less cartoon version of a suicide bomb, a make-shift waistcoat of red-painted broomhandles for dynamite, a fistful of circuitboard and wires topped off with a ticking old-school alarm clock. “It’s a good idea to put a joke into the first 30 seconds…”, he went on, glancing downwards again. “… it could be verbal gag or it could be a visual gag.”

Of course, whilst no time framework is better than another, they all come with their own particularities, their own socially and culturally inscribed expectations and patterns of established usage. There are biorhythmics to this, as well as cultural economics. Think about the length of time for which a human being can stand or sit in one place comfortably, the time it takes for hunger to set in, or to need the bathroom, or about the length of time for which one can really concentrate on speech. Think about the dips in and out of focus that take place over particular periods of time, the personal and socially triangulated cycles of comfort and discomfort, attention and its loss. Or think about the way that particular cultural and social structures and economies permission or inscribe specific temporal formats, validating and replicating them in specific historical periods. The amounts and divisions of leisure time that particular cultures are built on, in what particular more-or-less standardized time slots. Think about the different rhythms of work and social life in pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial societies, the way that historically leisure time activities are framed, bundled, replicated and distributed in particular increments. Think about attention itself – a construction that hybridizes biorhythmic, social, socio-economic and purely economic factors. Duration always means something, always allows something at the expense of something else.

For the most part in the performance I’ve made work with Forced Entertainment the time-formats we’ve chosen have been those aimed at the ‘regular’, continuous, 60 to 150 minutes of a complete theatre evening, avoiding the segmentation into acts or the division of the work into smaller unbroken time units by means of an interval. Of course an hour is already a very different thing than two hours and a half. The former hits its middle more or less as soon as it has begun, whilst its end follows on promptly thereafter. You’re never far in, and once in, never far from the end. Temporal immersion, your time away from the everyday, time spent in the other zone, of art, is in this case relatively slight. In a performance lasting two or more hours however, such things get harder to keep track of, the obvious measures (distance from the start and the end) are in greater increments, the time in the space of the performance somehow thicker, building it’s intensity through the extended banishment of the everyday. The structure of an hour is also, somehow, observable and mappable – if one breaks it down to 12 minute sections, there are only 5 of them. 150 minutes however, whilst hardly excessive as a duration, is harder (though clearly not impossible) to map mentally; it’s a duration that already begins to exert a kind of temporal version of the well documented mental limit that causes human subjects to see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or(suddenly) ‘many’ people. The events of two and a half hours, their peaks and troughs, twists and turns, excitements and longeurs are slippery, easily lost track of.

Even saying this though, working in performance, one slowly learns to weigh time, internalizing a sense of how time works or flows in different dramaturgical constraints, learning to know (to feel, to have a feeling for), at the local level, what ten, twelve minutes of stage time might feel like, or getting to know the strange pressure at 25–35 minutes, or the dangerous waters one might encounter at 75 minutes. The discussions we have after stringing sequences of material together whilst improvising in the studio, often have a mildly competitive aspect, especially when concerning questions of elapsed time, each of us (I’m as guilty as the next person) keen to demonstrate mastery of the material by being able to correctly estimate the length of time it’s occupied. Comparing these guesses about timing to actual timings taken from video recordings brings few surprises these days… we know pretty well how the time flows, how it weighs in the room, how it passes. It’s something akin to knowing what words do (the force and dance of them), or as sculptors of a certain kind might know stone or wood, the properties of stone, the qualities of wood. What can be done with it and what cannot.

Breaking with the frame of theatre time, in 1993, we began to work on a series of what we called durational performances, confusingly perhaps, since all performances have duration. Lasting 6, 12 or 24 hours these events challenged both the presentational economy in which we were operating and the habits or structures of audience attention. Performances of these works at the outset were relatively infrequent, since venues often lacked the means, experience or the confidence to present them. For audiences meanwhile, the new contract established in the durational pieces, more akin to that of visual artists working in performance, or to the mode-of-engagement found in pre theatrical forms like ritual or carnival, also made new demands. The marathon works could be attended for any part of their duration, each audience member making her or his own choice about when to arrive, depart or return throughout the structure of the piece. The ‘usual’ dramatic journey (from A at 20:00 to B at 21:15) was here replaced with incalculable numbers of possible journeys and experiences, each potentially unique to individual viewers.

At the same time we began to reap structural and improvisational gains inherent in the greater length of these works – the playful inventiveness of exhaustion, the liberating and creative erasure of the performers’ boundaries and systems of self-regulation amongst other things, as well as parallel reconfigurations of the spectators’ modalities. Finally the long works helped us to explore a deeper dialogue with the real time and space of the audience. Where a shorter performance could exist as a bubble – a place/time that one enters, gives up all contact with the outside world and stays there – the longer works encouraged a journeying back and forth – watching, sitting in the bar, watching again, going out for fresh air and to chat with friends, coming back and watching again – and so on, even allowing people to head out for meals, meet friends, see movies or whatever and still return to see more of the work. This extra level of porousness to the long events was fascinating to us, and it’s been amplified by our more recent decision to stream many of the durational pieces to the internet in real time. In that digital context, the co-existence of the work through other realities and agendas, it’s porousness and ‘transportability’ (viewable on desktop, laptop and mobile devices) has taken it out of the strict formal distribution of the theatre and into another more open zone. The time of the work and the time(s) of the world braid in and out of each other, the knowledge of one threaded through the other at all times.

In the most recent development of our work, in relation to duration, we’re doing something that breaks the mold again. In “Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare”, which premieres at Foreign Affairs this June, we’ve constructed a sequence of performances, each of them the telling, in intimate condensed form, the plot of a single Shakespeare play, using everyday objects as props to represent ‘characters’. The six Forced Entertainment performers’ narrations, made vivid by low level puppetry, are each around 40 minutes long, and they unfold at a rate of four a night over the course of Foreign Affairs’ nine days. The 35–45 minutes of each performance makes them delicate, fragile – temporal objects which weigh little when considered alone. But spread out across nine days, in serial form, the sequence makes a different imprint, creating a different relation to the running real time of the whole festival. “Complete Works” is a kind of time machine in other aspects too – it brings narrative shapes from 1600 to the present, condensing epic drama as everyday, intimate narration.

A salt and pepper pot for the king and queen. A ruler for the prince. A spoon for the servant. Lighter fluid for the innkeeper. A water bottle for the messenger.

Tim Etchells is Artistic Director of the performance collective Forced Entertainment“Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare” will have its world premiere at Foreign Affairs 2015. A German translation of this text has been published in the first Foreign Affairs Programme in taz. Die Tageszeitung on 25 May, 2015.