It took me much to long to hook up with Rotozaza, and that's not all my fault. For Etiquette you needed a date, and for Guru Guru you needed a gang of five, and all these turned out to be harder than expected to arrange. But I finally got there, and I'm very glad I did. The claims for Rotozaza are not modest, nothing new these days when a transformational revolution is just a click away. But I had been better prepared for the experience by a dinner with Ant Hampton, the young founding genius of Rotozaza. He was theater trained but also theater repelled--bored by the predictablity of traditional theater, and dissatisfied with the way it marginalizes its audience. In "normal" theater we are rendered passive and therefore easily disengaged--there's no real need to pay a lot of attention to the butler serving tea; for us out there in the dark nothing much is at stake.
Rotozaza began by recharacterizing the audience, converting passive spectators into active "witnesses." One of their first projects involved a non actor, a visual artist they liked. He wore headphones on a simple stage and followed simple instructions that were delivered into his headphones ("stand up," "move to the cross on the floor," "smile," etc.). The trick was that these instructions were written on supertitles so the audience could read them as they were being spoken into the performer's head. As a result the audience began to participate and anticipate in a way not usual in traditional theater: because we imagine ourselves performing the same tasks, and because we know the performer is performing them only right here and now, we become much more attentive and engaged. We find ourselves looking at human actions and decisions in ways in which we normally and cannot do. All of a sudden we are experiencing a new kind of theater.
I found this description, over a good two bottles of wine and decent pasta, absolutely compelling. I was ready to go, ready to become a new kind of audience, and even a new kind of performer. And did Etiquette and GuruGuru deliver as advertised? Not entirely. I was advised to go to Etiquette with someone I liked but didn't know so well, and so I did. Sitting at the Sugah's cafe table we slipped on our headphones, listened, spoke and acted according to the clear and specific instructions. I found myself repeating some lines from a Godard film. Then we collectively mapped out on the table the last scene from an overheated spoken version of Ibsen's Doll House, where Nora famously walks out of her marriage and slams the door. Then we were launched into a surreal fable about a man and a woman and a hill of unspoken thoughts. We were dutiful, we were "good." We manipulated the little objects placed at the side of the table. We reached the end. And so what? Not much, really. A lot of the time I felt was going through fussy motions to a fragmented and not very interesting end.
Except, except .... at one moment my tablemate looked at me and told me she was a prostitute. Afterwards I realized this instruction gave my Etiquette partner a lot of choice: she might have said it seductively, matter of factly, awkwardly, with shame, etc. She chose to say it rather slyly, with a tilt of the head and the wisp of a smile. She looked a bit like the Cheshire Cat. It was suddenly uncannny. I also liked it when she held a small notebook in front of her face and raised and lowered it, revealing and concealing different parts of her face. And it was a big deal to be told to take a small dropper, hold it high over her hand while she was sleeping on the table, and try and drop three drops of water on the little x marked on her palm. Hitting that target was of immense importance, and then watching it splash on her palm. A drop of water splashing on a palm is quite a thing to create, and to see. These are things that just don't happen between people--but they did to us at Etiquette--and we were both their only witnesses and creators. I suppose others in the cafe might have been looking---but it didn't seem so,and it didn' t much matter either.
GuruGuru was another trip entirely. We were directed to the unfinished 11th floor of the Plaza of the Rockies--extraordinary space with huge wrap around windows; extraordinary view. I just wanted to hang out there. But an efficient office person I dimly recognized asked us each a few questions, gave us name tags, told us to follow the signs to Guru Guru when the buzzer rang. It rang, we followed---into a small room where we were grouped around a television set. Head phones went in, and off we went, each assuming a character, and following instructions delivered sometimes individually and privately in our ear,and sometimes collectively from the television screen where a group leader's face and voice were assembled bit by bit. He was the perfect therapist, balding with white hair, beard, sharp but kind smile, full of positive reinforcement-- so what if he smoked and had one panda eye (which my character proposed)? In the next forty five minutes we were guided through a group therapy session in which one character got to cry, another to confess stage fright, another to curse,and another to get up and leave the room. I have to say I found myself with too much and too little to do. I spent too much time trying to be a good group member--making sure I followed my instructions and performed my character. I found this and the insistent but tedious face on the screen (the screeen always wins) distracted me a little too much from what I would have liked to have been doing more--watching other people perform their characters. And on the other hand I had too little to do, and with really not much choice in the matter either (I remember long ago as a child my disappointment at Disneyland when I realized that every ride I saw would be exactly the same whether I was there or not. There was no chance of audience interaction, no opportunity to dent or impact the machine--the one exception being the rope and plank bridge on Tom Sawyer's island, where you could jump and sway: I bounced and bounced). It seemed to me that Guru Guru was not giving us enough opportunity to actually perform much of anything, and offerred really no choice at all. And I know enough about what that is like already. My hypertheatrical group had this pretty well figured out right away too, so we all playfully overacted, we all floated above the session, we were there and not there.
But once again there were moments that were out of the ordinary. At the end, when we were told we could take our headphones out, we did--and we sat there still. The television therapist had deconstructed, the sounds in our heads were chaotic malfunction. And we sat there. And we wanted our headphones back. We wanted more instructions. We didn't know what to do without them. We put our headphones back on---nothing but chaos. We realized it was over. We got up, giddy. One of my partners walked around the room yelling and beating his chest like Zorba the Greek. I went over to the television and mimed a doggy hump of revenge on the televison set. Our teenage girl companion giggled. And one of us continued to sit in his chair, either poleaxed or pretending to be poleaxed. Then we all got up and left, laughing. Free at last! When I think back on it, it was quite a scene. Not the way we usually behave after a show. And afterwards, we all agreed we would like to see what other groups did, or did not do. Surely we were under constant surveillance--everyone must be in Guru Guru. I look forward to future revelations on youtube.
The aftershocks continued in the brief discussion on the ride home. One of us said that the most fun he had was watching the rest of us,especially the non actors, perform our characters. We agreed,and we all wanted more to do, and perhaps a few more actual opportunities for choice--though part of the point may have been to deny us any choice at all, reminding us that many of our real life interactions actually are preprogrammed, offering only the illusion of choice. Another one of us had a little meltdown--he was the real actor in our group and he didn't have enough to do in the show, and now everyone was speaking and he couldn't get a word in edgewise. He was all hot and bothered.
Rotozaza is clearly on to something. Some of their assumptions and claims I find exaggerated. They are skeptical about the possibilities of genuine conversation, hyper aware of how we perform ourselves for others. Which we certainly do. But that all sounds very European, very French to me--if you are Jacques Derrida perhaps it is impossible to have a spontaneous unperformed conversation. But if you are a Henry James American, still innocent, fresh, unsophisticated in performance, you can have such conversations all the time--we can be ourselves and live fully in the moment quite a lot (I believe even Ant Hampton was having such a conversation over dinner, forking down his pasta, sharing his enthusiasm and ideas with full authenticity and spontenaiety). Wine always helps.
By offering its participants the chance to speak and act spontaneously while carrying out another's instructions, Rotozaza does allow us a transgressive fantasy, free from responsibility. I found I wasn't quite as free as I wanted to be, since I was acutely quite conscious of my responsibility as a performer--a responsibility I instinctively felt I owed my unseen "director"and most of all my partner(s). It was the opportunity to witness that I most cherised: watching another person confess, attack, choose to hide or reveal, knowing they were themselves and not themselves. In the end I wanted more space to witness, and I wanted to be less rushed with everything. I have to say I would gladly do it all over again. As with any game we get better with practice: next time I'll be more relaxed and committed as a performer, and more attentive as a witness. As with everything else I will master my roles. And then I will truly play well--though by then I might have missed the point.
As for the lucky 50 of you of you who played with Rotozaza while it was in town, I would only ask if it was good for you too. Do tell!