Four years ago, Englishman Tim Etchells left a deep stamp on Seattle.
He and his company Forced Entertainment blew into town for a weekend and performed Bloody Mess—their multihour spectacle of fog machines, brutal slapstick, gorilla suits, and nudity—four times at On the Boards. People are still talking about their favorite moments. (Mine: Two guys talking about different kinds of silences, moving from sweet things like the silence before a child blows out birthday candles to dark things like the silence after a car has flipped and the driver asks, "Is everybody okay?" "Yeah," they say after each example. "That's beautiful.") Just last month on Slog, a commenter wrote: "Bloody Mess at OTB was the best theater I've seen in the 20 years I've lived in Seattle."
That Night Follows Day, Etchells's latest show, is another performance experiment, an inversion of children's theater: 17 kids, ages 9 to 14, performing for adults. The children, in a very natural and nonperformative way, speak directly to the audience, telling us about ourselves: "You feed us. You dress us... You watch us when we are sleeping. You tell us that once the world was full of dinosaurs... You teach us that in the world there are bad men... You teach us not to fight... You offer to teach us a lesson... You teach us to choose our words. You teach us to watch our tongues. You teach us that certain words must not be said at all... You speak another language, so we won't understand. You whisper conversations at the bottom of the stairs."
An audience of adults watching children and being scrutinized in return creates an awkward, disorienting feedback loop. Audiences usually hold the power in a theater, watching actors much the same way that adults watch children—silently, unchallenged, handing out approval or disapproval. By flipping the script, Etchells puts us back on our heels, making us more vulnerable for his toughest punches: "You teach us... that poor people are dirty. That white people are full of shit. That black people are stupid. That foreigners stink."
The project, Etchells writes from England, started with the idea of "kids being 'presented'—school assemblies, choirs, school photographs. I wanted to turn the tables on the audience a little." He developed the script with a group of Flemish kids. "They tell me that the text is good!" he writes. "That they recognise it, that it speaks to things they've seen and felt."
This production stars kids from Vancouver, directed by Maiko Bae Yamamoto and James Long of Theatre Replacement (Sexual Practices of the Japanese). Directing kids, Yamamoto says, was "an eye-opener"—they have shorter attention spans but better memories than adults: "They sometimes get sad, and they sometimes cry, and they are prone to being ridiculous." But, she adds, so are grown-up actors.