Rotozaza: When the audience is also the star

original at

By Jason Zinoman

Published: August 15, 2007

EDINBURGH: Producers must have fantasized about it. Couldn't we just eliminate the actors?

Think of the advantages: no contract disputes, no tantrums, more room backstage. But the stubborn fact remains that while you can replace musicians with computers and fire directors with impunity, the live theater needs living actors. Doesn't it?

Silvia Mercuriali, 30, and Anthony Hampton, 32 - the artistic team behind Rotozaza, an inventive London-based company with a growing reputation on the experimental theater circuit - don't think so. They have found a way around the problem of pesky performers by giving the audience something else to look at: themselves.

The troupe had already been practicing an unusual brand of cerebral theater, building dark psychological dramas about surveillance, communication and modern love that use a mix of actors and unrehearsed guest performers who are told what to do and say by an Orwellian voice offstage. This chilling aesthetic is based on a certain uneasy ambiguity among viewers over whether a guest performer knows the script or is just following instructions.

But if the line between audience and performer seems blurred, Rotozaza's new drama, "Etiquette," which they created with the digital media pioneer Paul Bennun, erases it entirely.

Only two people at a time can participate in this work. It requires the audience-members-turned-actors to follow a recorded script and essentially perform for each other. The show, which makes the point quite creatively that every conversation is a performance, opened in London in February and has been performed in Portugal, Argentina, Germany, Norway, Italy and Minneapolis.

My wife and I attended (in other words, starred in) "Etiquette" on a recent morning in Edinburgh. "Etiquette" is not technically part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - Rotozaza wanted to avoid the application fee - but it's playing during the duration of the Fringe (which opened Aug. 5 and runs through Aug. 27) in the café of one of its busy performance spots, Aurora Nova.

As we entered, we were given two CDs by a man at the bar and sent to the "stage" - a small table outfitted with a series of props and two DVD players. We sat down, put on pairs of headphones, and the show began.

"Take a deep breath and clear your throat," a woman told me in an authoritative English accent, before explaining that the table before me was a stage and I was an actor who didn't know my lines. It was opening night and there was a full house. And right when I settled into this play within a play, the voice ordered me to close my eyes and imagine a café in Paris. Next thing I knew I was in the middle of a Jean-Luc Godard movie and my wife and I were repeating lines from "Vivre Sa Vie" (My Life to Live, 1962).

Since for much of "Etiquette" (which begins every half-hour, from 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.) the participants are wearing headphones and speaking in a conversational tone of voice, others in the café are possibly unaware that a performance is even under way.

I then played an old philosopher trying to start a conversation with a beautiful stranger. It was a stilted exchange, but that might have just been my overacting. There was an awkward pause. "It often happens to me," said my wife, repeating dialogue. "I know what I want to say. I think before speaking to check if it's really what I should say. But when the moment comes to speak: Pfft! I can't say it." Still following orders, I shrugged and said: "No one's written your lines. You're not a character in a play."

The scene quickly shifted again to a melodramatic fight from Ibsen's "A Doll's House," until we headed into yet another heated exchange between lovers. I jabbed a finger at my wife. She furrowed her brow, turning in her chair to leave. And then a burst of giggles interrupted us. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a pack of girls laughing at what must have looked like an embarrassing marital spat. I broke character and smiled, red-faced.

"There's something very rare and special when two people find a bubble in a public space," Mercuriali said in an interview. "It's like when two people have a genuine exchange of ideas or when they are falling in love. It's that sense of event and of moment that we're trying to recreate."

Hampton and Mercuriali founded Rotozaza (named after a sculpture by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely) in 1998 after meeting at a theater workshop in Italy. They began experimenting with guest performers as a way to help a friend overcome stage fright. They wrote a play, "[Bloke]," that he could star in while having his lines fed to him through headphones.

"There is a quality to unrehearsed performance that can be quite beautiful, but it's something that any good actor could fake," Hampton said. "It's more about the situation in the room. If you tell an audience that these are unrehearsed, they become invested in what is going on in a very different way."

Indeed, part of the reason their shows are so gripping is the constant threat of disaster: flubbed lines, missed cues, technical difficulties. Some of these errors are built into the script just to remind audiences that they are indeed watching a live performance that could at any point go terribly wrong.

At the same time, Rotozaza's work exists in a tightly controlled world in which free will can seem like an illusion. In "Five in the Morning," for instance, three willing guest performers (or are they real?) tremble inside a futuristic amusement park while a disembodied voice orders them to perform mundane and humiliating tasks.

"Etiquette" however is slightly different since the characters appear paralyzed by themselves.

"I'm not very optimistic about real communication," Mercuriali said. "There's this constant inner dialogue in which we're worried about what others think of us. In real life, we are both performer and audience member. Our show isn't any different."


"A hyper-reality... By creating an entirely private space in the public setting of a cafe, something extraordinary happens." -  Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, August 2007

"Now it seems that real actors are no longer necessary for a performance at all (...) Watching my cousin, who has no formal training that I know of, follow a series of recorded commands during Rotozaza's show Etiquette ("sniff, collapse into your chair, look down, cover your mouth") and make those gestures seem suffused with emotion, I was as aware of the artifice of performance as its real effect. Still, none of these curious trends should distress Equity members. " - The Irish Times, January 2008

"Une situation aussi drôle que totalement surréaliste" - Les Inrockuptibles, Decembre 2008

"A surprisingly meaningful experience." - Donald Hutera, The Times ****

top l, r -  Buenos Aires, photo by Nico Goldberg

at Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2008 - photo by Elizabeth Hershey