As part of the 2008 Melbourne International Arts Festival, Flemish theatre company, Victoria, is presenting That Night Follows Day directed by the multi-talented Tim Etchells, an artist, director and writer based in Sheffield, UK. For 24 years, he has led the performance ensemble, Forced Entertainment, whose recent works include Bloody Mess (Melbourne Festival 2004), Exquisite Pain (2005) and The World In Pictures (2006). Etchells is also currently a Creative Fellow in the Department of Theatre Studies at Lancaster University. In July 2008, his first novel, The Broken World (Heinemann) was published.

Anna Lozynski plays 20 questions with Tim Etchells.

That Night Follows Day1. When you were approached by a Flemish theatre company, Victoria, to create a work starring 16 children, what made you accept the offer? 
The invite was to make a work with children and young people. The large number of them was my idea! So I only have myself to blame for that.  I liked the idea of making a chorus – a long line of kids all facing the audience was my first image for the work.

“That Night Follows Day” explores the ways in which adults determine the worlds of their children. What was most challenging about you as an adult directing the artistic world of 16 children to make this piece? 
I was surprised by their abilities really. They can really focus, and even from the first rehearsals some of them could deal with the gaze of the audience incredibly well. I have kids of my own so I guess that was a useful preparation for the project. I had some idea already about how to deal with them, how to be there in a conversation how to listen. Really though, I didn't find the process very different than working with adult actors. It’s about going to the rehearsal room every day, spending time together, trying things, trying to figure things out. You have to find a way to meet each other, a way to understand and grow the thing you are working on, a way to talk together, a way to work together. This is just the same if you are a group of adults or if it’s a group of adults and kids.

I suppose the thing that did take some getting used to was how to ride the rhythm of the kids energy - when to push them, when to give up and take a break. For the younger performers the work is pretty exhausting. They really have to concentrate and they definitely look forward to the breaks! There were days when I thought we'd never find the energy or the focus we needed, but we got there, slowly.

How did you reconcile the ideas raised in your text with the perspectives that emanated from the workshops and conversations with the children? 
There were details, or different emphases from the kids perhaps but nothing major. I think that the map the piece draws of childhood, at least as it’s experienced in the so-called developed world, is pretty inclusive. In any case I guess I didn’t want to make ‘one’ version or analysis of childhood. I wanted to float different versions, contradictory ones. So I always welcomed new spins or perspectives on the material. 

The play has been described as confronting and daring. What do you want audiences to take away from “That Night Follow Day”?
I tried to find a balance with the content. I was interested in describing or mapping the ways in which adults make or influence or simply create the world for kids - not just parents but also the way that adult world of teachers, the media, extended family, neighbours. All these, working together and in conflict, collectively create a frame called childhood. I wanted to map as much of this ‘landscape of childhood’ as I could - in listing or cataloguing all the different ways I could think of that this happens, both positive and negative. Adults are very powerful in the world of kids. They set the frame, make the rules, create a general atmosphere of what's possible and what is impossible. I wanted the good and the bad aspects of that. Of course in a certain way, I was pulled to the bad things, the troubled territory, the places where that power is problematic, or where it’s perceived as problematic. I guess there, in the contested areas, is where the dynamic edge of the performance lives. Apt is the 'saying the thing which shouldn't be said', the drawing attention to the problems. I've had a few complaints that the piece is too harsh and some that it's too saccharine. So from the combination of those I think that the balance is probably good!

For me, a piece like TNFD [That Night Follows Day] is about opening a kind of space for reflection for the audience. The kids describe or catalogue all these ways in which adults frame their world. And in a sense we just let that catalogue of statements sit there and the audience are left to try and deal with it, line by line. Each of the statements is a kind of question. There’s always a ‘do you do that?’ implicit and a ‘why do you do that?’ One thing I talk about with the performers a lot is that they should let what they’re saying be the audience’s problem. This means that as performers they look very directly at the public when they speak and they don’t take their eyes away when their sentences are done, they wait for a reaction. It’s slightly confrontational, and in another way it’s also rather blank, just a way to let the statements hang, a way of putting these statements into a room with some strangers and seeing what happens. So if the audience goes away questioning, themselves, their own childhoods, their relations to kids now as parents and carers, teachers and neighbours, that’s a good result for me.

Children, particularly when younger, can provide adults with a rich dose of uncomplicated perspective at times. Describe an amusing moment that has stuck with you involving one or more of your cast members during rehearsals?
I like it that the kids take things in their stride. Sometimes on the bus from their airport one of the kids will ask Pascale Petralia, the assistant director or the piece “if there is a show tonight” and she will say “Yes” and whoever she’s talking to will say “OK” and go back to the Nintendo DS or looking out of the window. It’s no big deal and I like that. They take it all in their strides.

What have you learned from working with a cast comprised of children, rather than adults?
I’ve learned to take my time and to look under the seating bank to check if any cast members are hiding before starting rehearsals.

The play’s premise examines a topic close to the heart of the parents of the children in the cast. Were there any unexpected reactions?
There were some reports that the kids used the observations of the text as a tool in their negotiations and debates with parents, which I liked. I think the piece made them to know better (and more able to articulate) the shape of the space they are kept in. Ideas are power to a certain extent!
{xtypo_quote_right}Being stupid, or being wrong, or taking random short cuts or being slow is all part of being an artist. You have to take the route you are taking. There’s no sense in wishing it had played differently. Sometimes the long road is the better one.{/xtypo_quote_right}
8. Do you believe your teaching experience assist you in this project?
Certainly the experience I’ve had running workshop projects over the years has helped; working with 15-30 people at a time is something that you get better at with some practice. I’d say the most important experience for the project is probably all the work I’ve done making performances, communicating with performers and other collaborators, mentally keeping track of all the different issues, questions, practical and artistic questions involved in making a complicated piece, and keeping other people ‘on board’ as you negotiate the difficult weeks and months of rehearsals.

Would you want to be a child in today’s society?
Sure, if I can pick what part of the world I’m in. 

10. You are clearly a jack of all artistic trades, but of which art form do you believe you are a master? Why?
I don’t like the idea of being a master of anything. I do my work. I try to find good solutions to the problems or creative situations I find myself in. Mostly that involves a lot of struggle, a lot of being wrong! That seems about right to me. I like working with language and I seem to gravitate to that in many different ways, but like I said, I’m more interested in challenges and finding new solutions than I am in feeling satisfied. Not knowing is really the thing that drives the work along. Working with the kids was really a great challenge. Something quite unknown. That’s the kind of thing to which I look forward. This last year I published my first novel too. It’s called The Broken World and starts from the premise that it is a walkthrough to a non-existent computer game. As the narrator describes the game he starts to write also about his personal life, his relationships, his friends, his problems in his day job. I found it really interesting and challenging working on an extended narrative in the book.  

What, and who, inspires you in your work?
Not knowing. Fascination. Stubborn-ness. Different challenges. I get inspired by other artists of course – theatre and performance makers, visual artists, writers, film makers. So many of them though, and for so many very different reasons. I’m also inspired by the people around me in the most immediate sense – my kids especially, my friends, my colleagues in Forced Entertainment.

You have a 24-year relationship and maintain an instrumental involvement with the performance group, Forced Entertainment. How do you remain engaged and energised about this long-standing project?
I think we’re lucky in that the conversation about the world that we have through the medium of theatre and performance has proved fruitful and inspiring for so long. Early on we were smart enough to give ourselves latitude. We encouraged or arrived at a broad and changing definition of what Forced Entertainment is, or what its work can be. This means we haven’t got trapped doing the same thing over and over. There’s room to breathe, grow, change.

What do you now know that you wish you had discovered at the beginning of your career?
I think the order in which I’ve got to know things has been OK. Being stupid, or being wrong, or taking random short cuts or being slow is all part of being an artist. You have to take the route you are taking. There’s no sense in wishing it had played differently. Sometimes the long road is the better one. Sometimes being lost is better than knowing where you are.  

What is your greatest indulgence?
Oh I have lots. Spending money I don’t really have is the thing that covers the main ones I guess.  

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up? What did you want to be?
I don’t think they wanted me to be anything. They wanted me to be whatever I wanted.
I wanted to be an ice cream man. Or an archaeologist. Or an astronaut. This summer I made a project with an ice cream maker. So maybe the middle part of my ambitions came true.

That Night Follows Day 16. How do you react to adverse publicity after the opening night or debut of any of your works?
In one sense it’s depressing or hurtful. In another sense, one just has to get used to, it. Or I have to get used to it! There’s always someone that wants to write and tell you that ‘what you’re doing isn’t really theatre’ or that you’re rubbish. It’s OK. There are usually people that write nice things too. We don’t agree on what’s important or amusing or beautiful or necessary. I’m happy to put my version of these things on the table. After that there’s nothing any of us can do.

What is the first thing you do when you arrive in a new city?
See if the wifi is working. Go out for a walk in the vicinity of the hotel. Make at least some attempt to understand the currency exchange rate.

What do you do to relax?

19. Given your fascination with language, what is your favourite word in the English language?
My favourite word is one that hasn’t been invented yet, and it means something that hasn’t been made, felt or experienced yet. Or it’s an old word that means something different now, in one place, or for one group of people. I love language as a thing that changes. Something fluid. Improper. Unstable. 

20. What are you most looking forward to about the Melbourne International Arts Festival?
I’m excited about the kids in the show getting to travel so far from home, to such an amazing place.

That Night Follows Day
opens Oct 22 at the CUB Malthouse. Further information»

All photos: Phile Deprez

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