I'm writing this on February 2, 2004, which will forever be remembered as the day after Super Bowl viewers briefly saw the majority of Janet Jackson's right breast. In this epochal dawn, we're all still trying to make sense of things, imagining a world with higher FCC fines, looking forward to Amy Grant's comeback on next year's halftime show, exchanging JPEG files, uniting as a nation. The dork and geek communities, I'm told, are especially grateful to Mr. Timberlake for introducing the phrase "wardrobe malfunction," which they hope playground bullies and Vogue columnists will accept as a reasonable explanation for all sorts of vestiary gaffes.
Coincidentally, one of the actors in Forced Entertainment's First Night, an original work by Sheffield, England's Forced Entertainment, spends a portion of the show with her right breast exposed. There's nothing particularly salacious about this peek of flesh, though. It's presented, indeed, as a wardrobe malfunction, the sort of mishap that entertainers dressed in cheap sequined dresses can expect from time to time. After a few awkward moments, the partly uncovered actor senses something is wrong, but maintains the plastic smile that she and the rest of the eight-person cast hold throughout most of the show. Hesitantly, then briskly, but always mechanically, she walks backward offstage.
First Night, which will play February 11 through 13 as part of the Walker Art Center's Festival of Forced Entertainment, imagines a bush-league variety show in which every show-biz convention and cliché is absurdly bungled. The performers are doing their damnedest to make the audience happy, but they suffer from a kind of collective Tourette's syndrome. "Ladies and gentlemen, while you're here with us tonight, we'd like you to try to forget about the world outside," says one performer. "Try not to think about road accidents and bereavements," she adds. Another performer's clairvoyant routine begins benignly enough ("I'm getting a great sense of loss. Someone in the audience has lost something, a key perhaps"), but concludes with predictions about how various audience members will die.
"The worse the show goes for these incompetent, grinning vaudevillians that we've invented, the better it is for us," says Forced Entertainment's artistic director Tim Etchells. "We've gotten increasingly interested in this relationship to the public--how that's supposed to be and how it's not supposed to be--and in the kinds of fun you can have when you start disrupting...those kinds of expectations."
Speaking of which, a person might expect one of the world's leaders of provocative experimental theater to be a bit more outré than Forced Entertainment's honcho is offstage. When I showed up to interview Etchells in the very bohemian lobby of the Holiday Inn on Minneapolis's West Bank, I looked first for guys wearing capes, monocles, or "Fuck You and Your Shoddy Commercial Theatre!" T-shirts. Etchells, however, isn't that sort of fellow. He wears jeans and a V-neck sweater, talks modestly and softly--sometimes about his two kids--and generally comes off like the Artistic Director Next Door.
Etchells jokes about being a family man who "gets paid to leave the house." The six core members of Forced Entertainment spend about half of each year on international tours. Thanks partly to its multi-media approach, collaborative spirit, and interest in "found" source material, the company has been called a British Wooster Group. And, true to that tag, the influence of founding Wooster member Spalding Gray could be seen in Etchells's solo piece Instructions for Forgetting, which closed the Walker's Out There series a few weeks back and began the Forced Entertainment Festival.
For Instructions, Etchells asked friends from around the world to send him stories and home videotapes. His only guidelines were that the stories should be true and that the videos should be something previously recorded. During the finished show, a seated Etchells provides a deadpan tour of what his friends have offered him: low-budget striptease videos and stories of deep personal tragedy; a hypnotic shot of the ocean and news footage of a hapless attempt to use dynamite to dispose of a beached whale. It's dry, touching stuff, something like an international This American Life.
The final installment of the Forced Entertainment fest, And on the Thousandth Night, finds the group working with a more traditional form of storytelling. For this six-hour, overnight marathon (11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.--the show is part of the Walker's closing party), seven performers will extemporize fairy tales--all beginning with "once upon a time" and ending when the next raconteur says "stop." Young lovers looking to stay up all night talking about art and philosophy without actually having to talk might have found the perfect date.
Besides, don't all discussions about art and philosophy devolve into TV memories anyway? If, at 3:00 a.m., someone asks me if there's a teleological suspension of the ethical, I say, "I don't know, but Dukes of Hazzard really sucked during the Coy and Vance season." At any rate, while pondering the allure of other people's awkward moments, Etchells and I started sharing classic live-television mishaps from our continentally separated youths. He recounted an indelible moment in British small-screen history, from a talk show aired in 1976.
"There's a very famous interviewer in the U.K. called Michael Parkinson," explains Etchells. "He did an interview with this guy Rod Hull, who had an emu puppet. Hull was basically a kids' entertainer, but he kind of grew into something else. The emu thing was very naughty. It liked to kind of pick stuff up, and it was quite violent; it would attack people. And he attacked Parkinson so much that it was clearly annoying him. The emu knocked him off his chair, and they were rolling on the floor. You could see Parkinson thinking, 'I really don't like this, this is really unpleasant,' wanting to hit the guy. But it was all done under the guise of this puppet, so he was kind of stuck."