Preview: The Coming Storm

Matt Badham hears how Forced Entertainment’s novel rehearsal process has led to a playful production far removed from conventional theatre

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In The Coming Storm, crocodiles strut across the stage, trees walk and ghosts dance, all to an intermittent soundtrack of sometimes discordant music. It’s chaotic, yes, but that chaos is organised by Forced Entertainment. This Sheffield-based ensemble is a group of artists who have been making theatre together since 1984. Their shows are devised during a rigorous rehearsal process. Despite the fact that artistic director Tim Etchells is a writer, the creative process doesn’t start with a script.

He says: “I personally find that it doesn’t matter how much thinking in advance or inspiration I might have or try to have before we start rehearsals, it’s only ever a fraction of what can come once we’re improvising and working on our feet.”

The rehearsal process sounds almost like playing when described by Etchells, who has also directed The Coming Storm.

“The first space that we worked in had a piano in it, which was incorporated into the show. Inevitably, if something’s in the room, it’s not long before somebody starts to fiddle with it. We work a lot on gut feeling and the fact that something is funny or upsetting, but we don’t know why. There’s a lot of intuition involved.”

The company doesn’t just go with its gut, however.

“There are also a lot of relatively theoretical arguments about theatre and performance and how they operate, which would be excruciatingly boring to most people, I’m sure. That talk is there to probe and test and push all those random things you decide on. For example someone is sat on a piano while being pushed round the stage – because we think it’s funny. That’s good and it’s nice to work like that, but it’s also important for us that everything’s justified. We have a lot of ideas in rehearsal that are funny or stupid, but what finally enters our shows will only be what’s passed all sorts of tests. And those tests mainly involve being discussed to death.”

The result, this time, is a show in which six characters compete for one microphone in a bid to tell their stories. These fractured narratives play out against a backdrop consisting of the aforementioned organised chaos.

“I think The Coming Storm builds on an interest in stories that we’ve had for a long time,” explains Etchells. “It does something that we’ve done in other shows in different ways. Here, we’re very much interested in stories that are being interrupted and collapsing, that rub up against each other and collide.”

The Coming Storm is about as far away from a traditional, so-called “well-made play” as it’s possible to get. This reflects Forced Entertainment’s interest in the many, varied possibilities offered by theatre.

“We’ve tried to approach the question of what theatre is and what can happen in a play in lots of different ways. I suppose one answer that would be relevant to The Coming Storm is that theatre can be something that mixes influences from stand-up, vaudeville, bad television and movies, and that can mix speech with music and or dance. In fact, it can be a mixture of all sorts of different kinds of things. The Coming Storm, as well as our other work, shows that you can come up with many answers to that question of what theatre is.”

However, none of these answers would ever exclude the audience.

“We are very interested in the encounters with audiences that performance creates.”

In fact, the live nature of the work is one of Etchells’ favourite aspects of making theatre.

“If you write a book, it goes off out into the world and you’re not sat there watching over people’s shoulders while they’re reading it. In theatre, you get to observe audience reactions and adjust your work according to what you see. It’s always about that kind of negotiation – an event that takes place, and the people that watch and respond to it.”

24 Oct, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield; 29&30 Oct, Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster; 14-16 Nov, Contact Theatre, Manchester (

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