What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About

18. September, 2010 Theater No comments


Show #96: Etiquette, Rotozaza, September 17.

Sam Lavigne and Ian Kizu-Blair perform Etiquette. Photo by Wren Coe

By Sam Hurwitt

My Theatre Bay Area colleague Clay Lord has been having an interesting discussion on TBA’s Chatterbox blog and in a forthcoming article about what is and isn’t theater, particularly where technology is involved: What if some of the action takes place on Twitter?  What if all of it takes place on Twitter?

We had a lively argument about this in the office, but for me, as for many of the people polled, having the performers and audience present in the same physical space, as opposed to virtual space, proved to be the dividing line.  Scripted or improvised, no problem. Having some of the action on screen, sure, that happens all the time. Having the audience walk through a performance with all the sound on the headphones, as Antenna Theatre has been doing since the ’80s, certainly that’s theater. When all the action takes place on screen, well, that could be theater in the same sense that you could say a TV sitcom is theater, but I wouldn’t.

One of the examples Clay brought up in his poll on the blog is “A play in which the actors are members of the audience who are reading prompts and stage directions off of synchronized iPods.”  When I saw that I thought, “Sure, that’s theater.”  Yesterday I had a chance to put that proposition to the test with Etiquette, a piece by the London-based experimental theater company Rotozaza that’s now taking place at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Etiquette is a piece performed by two audience members for each other.  They sit at a table in a cafe being fed their lines and directions through headphones.  There is no other audience.  The other patrons in the cafe may or may not be aware of what’s going on in the same way that people always overhear bits of other people’s conversations in public spaces, but the experience is entirely between the two people at the table. You can’t experience it without participating. Now in its Bay Area premiere, Etiquette debuted in London in 2007 and has since traveled the world. The program says it can be performed in English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Slovene, Hungarian and Welsh.

There’s only one performance at a time, for two people who meet in the YBCA lobby on the hour and then go over to Samovar, a cafe nearby in Yerba Buena Gardens. The whole experience takes a half hour. Two people can book their tickets together, but I opted to be matched with a stranger so as to go into the situation with as blank a slate as possible.

While I waited in the lobby for my unknown partner to arrive, a young man came up to me with a postcard and asked me to write him a message on it.  This was the final step of an entirely different experience that he was having, part of the TechnoCRAFT exhibit at YBCA Galleries called “Playcraft – A Game of Your Design.” I was happy to oblige, although I had no idea what the game was all about.

When my partner arrived, she turned out to be a rather withdrawn young woman in her 20s whose name I only caught when the stage manager at Samovar introduced herself to both of us and etiquette demanded that we respond in kind. Another two strangers might have fallen into small talk to defuse the strangeness of the situation, but we just went straight to it.

That turned out to be appropriate in a way, because the awkwardness of the situation defined the whole experience. The dialogue we were given to speak after we donned our headphones was just small talk, but the type that doesn’t really go anywhere. The bits of conversation are disconnected and also disconnecting, as between two people who don’t have much to say to each other.

The table was off to one side of the cafe, with various small props laid out along the table’s edge. One side of the table was designated for the woman’s part, the other for the man’s, and as neither of us seemed to care one way or the other, I played the woman and she played the man.

The man is a middle-aged philosopher, and the woman is a young prostitute. This isn’t really important because there isn’t much of a plot. It’s relevant only because talking about her occupation might be uncomfortable, so it’s interesting to see how we react when we’re compelled to bring it up.

In our case it was hard to gauge the effect because my partner and I didn’t particularly connect. When I was told to make fine facial movements I was keenly aware that they’d be wasted because my partner wasn’t looking at me. I couldn’t know if that was due to shyness or sheer preoccupation with following what she was being told in her headphones. Perhaps she was even told to look away, so as to increase our mutual discomfort, or perhaps she was merely uncomfortable because I’d been instructed to look into her eyes and hadn’t yet been instructed to stop staring at her.

Although the dialogue on our two pair of headphones were synced perfectly well and our movements made sense with each other, occasionally the instructions would be unclear.  Twice I was told to turn 90 degrees in my chair to look away, but I was never told to turn back even when I was clearly supposed to be addressing my partner or manipulating objects on the table, so I always wound up shifting back to my original position on my own accord sooner rather than later. This felt like a lapse in the soundtrack, because most of our assigned movements, particularly with objects along the table, would never have synced up properly if we took any such initiative to put things down or return to a neutral position between them.

Written by Ant Hampton and Silvia Mercuriali, the two people who make up Rotozaza, the script is a bit abstract, fragmented and inconsequential. One of us may be a philosopher, but there are no particular insights imparted. At some point we’re a different pair of people whose dialogue is made of short, contradictory interruptions.  We act out the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with small figurines on the table in a room we drew with chalk. An arm-wrestling match (which I, the woman, lose) turns into a pastoral reverie, my eyes closed and my head on my outstretched arm as my partner drips raindrops of water from an eyedropper onto my palm.

At the very beginning I was told to relax and feel my stage fright fall away. My partner may have been told the same, or she may have been having an entirely different experience in her own audio world. Certainly at the end I was told to wet my eyes as if crying and clap wildly, and I was on my own as far as that went. It had the overall effect of taking me from the initial anxiety of waiting in the wings, not knowing what would happen, all the way through to the triumphant round of applause.

So is it theater?  Beforehand I would have said (and in fact did say) that certainly it is, but having experienced it I’m not so sure. We’re called upon to be both performers and audience at the same time, and the result is that we wind up giving neither role our full attention. It’s even hard to pay attention to the words coming out of our mouths or the things we’re told to visualize, so distracting is the desire not to do anything wrong that will mess up the way the sequence is supposed to go. Ultimately it feels more like a participatory art installation than a theater piece, but more than anything it feels like a game–a complicated parlor game that’s interesting to do once but doesn’t bear repetition, unless it’s to swap places and see how the other half lives.

A few years ago I was buried alive by some Austrian artists. They’d filled a large dumpster full of dirt, and they’d put you in a coffin, cover it over with dirt, and just leave you there for 15 minutes. No charge or anything–they were just providing you the opportunity to “experience the experience.” It would never have occurred to me to call that theater, although a crowd gathered around to watch me buried ‘neath the sod and a webcam captured my face while I was down under.

Because of the presence of an audience witnessing the spectacle, Experience the Experience of Being Buried Alive had as many of the earmarks of theater as Etiquette does, but because it wasn’t presented as theater, I never thought of it as one.  It fell into the category of an art piece, which you wouldn’t necessarily say of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, but ultimately Pirates, Buried Alive and Etiquette are primarily experiences, things that you participate in to a lesser or greater extent but are primarily things that happen to you, and in a more active way than simply sitting in a theater watching a play or on the couch watching the telly. Does that make any of them, all of them or none of them theater, or is it just a question of what each of them sets out to be?

The line is drawn in different places for different people, and for many it seems to come down to “I know it when I see it.”  Is it vital to categorize things in a rigid way?  Probably not. In his blog post Clay asks “who gets to decide” what’s theater and what isn’t.  For me that question, at least, is an easy one.  The people making the art decide whether or not to call it theater, and the people witnessing it decide whether or not they agree. Art is ultimately a conversation between the artist and the onlooker, and any conversation is also a negotiation, the meaning determined not by the speaker or the listener but by both at once where they connect, or sometimes fail to connect. By that measure Etiquette may be theater or it may not, and for me it didn’t end up feeling like theater even though my preconceived understanding was that it was, but it certainly distills that essence of a conversation connecting, or failing to connect, in an unusually direct way.

Etiquette plays through October 3 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco. http://ybca.org

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