Interview with Rotozaza

This interview was originally published on December 1 2006 on London Theatre Blog. An archive of which can be found here.

I conducted the following interview at the Shunt Lounge (London Bridge) on the 29th of November 2006 with Anthony Hampton and Silvia Mercuriali from Rotozaza. I would like to express my sincere thanks to both of them for taking an hour out of their busy schedules to talk about their work. Performance group Rotozaza has been creating innovative and exciting performance work since 1998, during that time they have developed an extensive body of work that pushes the boundaries of performance on both a UK and international level. Don’t miss their show Etiquette opening on the 14th of February 2007 at the Shunt Vaults, more information on that will be posted here nearer the time.

Andrew: I’d like to start by asking about Rotozaza’s background. Where did you meet and what were the contexts you came from when you started out?

Silvia: Well we met in Aosta in Italy in the mountains, doing a workshop organised by an ex-student of the Lecoq school in Paris. Anthony went to Lecoq in Paris from 95-97 and I was doing a similar course in a school called the Arsenale in Milan. The workshop was organised so that the two schools could meet and work with this Polish director. So we met there and we decided to start doing some work together, that was 1998. Then in 1999, Ant came to Milan and we did our first show together Due; we did our second show, Next, the year after in Paris and then I moved to London and we started full-time.

Ant: Yes and that workshop in 98’ was just after the first show under the same name ‘Rotozaza’, called The Tune She Whispered. It was the same summer, and I’d just done that in the south of France and then come straight up to the workshop and met Silvia there and then pretty much all the work since then we’ve been doing together; with a few exceptions: Silvia’s done some work with Shunt for example, Romcom is something I did alone with a writer called Glen Neath, who has also done some work here (at Shunt) as well. In the first four years or so, we did a lot of work, about 14 or 15 shows I think. Some of them were one-offs and they were quite varied too; some of work included public interventions, large scale happenings and installations. The biggest thing we did was in Abney Cemetery, in Stoke Newington and that was a huge collaboration with over 60 artists, all responding to the idea of doing something in there at night, it was a really special thing to have been offered to do. That was our first commission. So for the first four or five years we weren’t really earning money through our work, we were trying not to spend too much on the projects and I guess we got quite good at doing things for very little.

Some of those shows, like Grace and Next for example, were really important in terms of creating certain worlds that we’ve often ended up going back to. Grace was a particularly important show, because through it we started looking at the idea of something going on in a room where the audience feels very present and it doesn’t feel overly representational. It doesn’t necessarily take you away. But then you suddenly realise that the whole thing is allegorical.

In Grace there were two girls on stage rehearsing a show, then after a while you realise that there’s actually only one person on stage, that they’re two halves of the same person; one of them is pretty much the director and the other’s the actor, so we got really into this idea of the two sides of the self being portrayed in that way. One person thinks hard about what to say and do and the other person does the best they can and gets on with it.

Silvia: And then what happens when someone’s watching all this? What does it change if there is someone there watching who can tell you what they think?

(Grace: Zhana Ivanova and Silvia Mercuriali, 2001 – video stills by Thomas Peter)

Ant: That was something that was there in the later work with the guest performers, and the unrehearsed guests. Being watched in Grace for example, meant that the audience was pretty much an invisible presence: you’re there watching but it’s like spying on the process, which is something that changed a lot later on but that we also came back to as well. The idea of being watched was explored by a sort of interruption in the show. We were in the Lion and Unicorn theatre, above this pub, with a lot of dodgy Irish drinkers in the bar downstairs. The door leads onto the stage and so during the show, there was quite a hermetic feel to the room, like a sort of bubble, but then the door opened and a man appeared holding a pint glass and clearly he had come up from downstairs. He said “sorry I thought the toilet was here” and one of the girls replied “no it’s downstairs”. He went away but then came back later and asked if he could watch and they say “yes, ok, sit down there”. So the audience thinks there’s some nutter in the room and eventually he starts chipping in with someadvice.

Silvia: He had a red light that he used to ‘comment’ on the action. Turning on the red light meant it was good.

Ant: Yes occasionally the red light turns on and you know for him the show’s working really well.

Andrew
: So was this a planned interruption?

Ant: Yes, he was an actor.

Andrew: What sort of training was involved for the actor to achieve a ‘credible’ interruption?

Ant: well this particular actor was a very good actor, generally I think it’s a matter of being convincing in quite a traditional way. It’s an interesting thing because there was never a moment where we decided that the audience was going to click. One night they’d get it early on and another night they’d get it very late.

We often have these moments in shows, like in Doublethink, when all the lights go out and we pretend that there’s been an explosion in the lighting box: the two operators are sort of scurrying around and eventually they come on stage and just keep the thing going by whispering the instructions into the guest performers’ ears. It then slowly becomes clear that they’re actually fictional characters.

Silvia: It’s the idea that they’re trying to put some sort of doubt in the audience as to whether it’s real or not, trying to keep them on the edge, not knowing how much of it is rehearsed. It’s fascinating when the real world comes in. But to what degree can you make it come in realistically?

Ant: In terms of getting that right, it’s a delicate thing; we talk about it a lot, just down to even how much you flick a switch to make it seem like they’re panicking, a bit too much and it it’s obviously staged, less then it’s as if they don’t care enough. It’s the sort of thing that audiences are very good at immediately tapping into. But in terms of mimicking reality, it’s an interesting thing because at the same time you’ve got people who are not acting at all on stage, who are literally being themselves and just responding to instructions.

Silvia: It’s quite a delicate balance.

Ant: When there’s a rehearsed side to the show, like in Doublethink, it’s a case of slipping ourselves in between the fiction of the scene and the structure of the show and the allegory that slowly starts to rise from a situation which is not at all fictional.

DOUBLETHINK1
(Doublethink: Lucy Foster and Finlay Robertson – with Neil Bennun and Silvia Meruriali – photograph by Chiara Contrino)

Andrew: From what you’ve already said about the diversity of work in Rotozaza’s early years, exploring different forms and concepts and then moving gradually towards work with guest performers and this sense of ‘performing the real’, is this something that has now become a recurrent part of the process in your work or not necessarily?

Ant: I don’t know if it’s necessarily about ‘performing the real’, to be honest it’s more a question of representation and playing with the line between just being in the room, just being in the present and then yes structuring something whereby an atmosphere or an allegory starts to appear.

Silvia: What we try to do is definitely not naturalistic. It’s not about trying to recreate reality, it’s about always making sure that we are here in this moment and in this room and then we can explore all kinds of worlds and weird situations, because we know that the audience and the actors are there and the unrehearsed guests are real and that they really don’t know what will happen next.

Andrew: So is that in some ways a point of departure? You’ve created a structure, that this is the world of the performance, and from that sense of the world you are free to lead the audience in unexpected directions.

Ant: It’s really about having a sense of an event, that it’s happening now, which for us we keep coming back to as the reason why we’re doing work in the live realm at all. You know, because there needs to be a reason, and I feel that a lot of theatre practioners quite often loose track of why it is they’re not doing film or TV or media that is inherently dependant on some sort of recorded format. In theatre it’s quite a hard job, it’s quite a laborious form to work with, there’s no staying at home and doing the work on the computer, and to really say you’re going to do theatre, you have to say “well what do you need for that format?”. So our starting point is always to think of a new way of creating a sense in the room that this is unique to the live realm, that there is a point of need for me [the audience] having travelled to see this, and then working from there.

Andrew: Where does the name Rotozaza come from?

Ant: I’ve always loved the work of John Tinguely, the Swiss sculptor. He made three pieces called Rotozaza 1, 2 and 3. One of them was a big machine that threw balls, it was popular with children, you sort of threw balls at it and it regurgitated them and threw them back out , it was great to see and it was really fun and wild, quite a scary sort of machine as well, you could see all the nuts and bolts. The second one was a huge installation that was made for a world peace conference in Sweden and it was a machine that took plates from one end of the room to the other, and at the other end was a big frying pan that smashed the plates, and then Tinguely turned that into a performance, using the sculpture as a site. There was an opera going on at the same time that dealt with the chaos of modern life, it was inherently a cross-genre, multi-disciplinary world that he created with a lot of structures and energies. I also just liked the word.

(Next: Alexandre Archenoult and Silvia Meruriali, Paris 2000 – photograph Gaelle Bona)

Andrew: You were talking earlier about Doublethink and Romcom, how did the guest performer element in your work come about?

Ant: The starting point for all the guest performer work was a piece that I did with a friend of mine called Sam Britton. He’s an electronic musician and a composer. We were invited to do a piece for a festival in Paris, I didn’t really know what I was going to do but I knew a friend of mine was going to be there called Henri, an artist in Paris, and I just had this idea of him on stage pottering around and dealing with stuff. I didn’t think too much about it to begin with but then I thought he’s never going to agree to rehearse a show with me; he won’t want to assume the responsibility of being a performer, because he’s not like that at all, he’s never been on stage and he’s not at all extrovert. On the other hand he has the ability to just speak into a microphone, for example, and yet remain within his own world. So all these things made me want to somehow create a strategy to nevertheless have him on stage and I thought if we create a list of instructions for him and that he agrees to do as well as he can for everything and he trusts that we’re not going to ask him to do anything embarrassing, because his friends were going to be there, it could work. I think he understood very well what we had in mind and, bravely, he said yes.

The voice for this piece was pre-recorded and we worked with this guy called Gab Sabba who we’ve gone back to quite a lot subsequently. There’s a very particular quality to his voice, somewhat ambivalent: sometimes he can seem very harsh and sometimes very vulnerable. In the performance, the voice is quite cut up and you forget that it’s pre-recorded until you’re suddenly reminded by certain glitches.

The show was a revelation for us, and because we had three nights we thought we can’t just do it with Henri three times in a row so I asked two other people who I knew to do it as well and was fascinating. We realised we could carry on doing it with different people, so we re-translated it back into English and developed it in England quite a bit making it more complex, and ended up going back to Paris two years later to the same venue with the developed version. It’s always been essential for us to choose the guest performers, because it’s not something everyone can do.

Andrew: Why is that?

Ant: It’s different for different shows. For these ones it definitely requires people who are essentially at ease with their own personalities and who are not going to stress out about being on stage or try too hard, or try to entertain, or try to be funny necessarily.

Silvia: Happy to be watched without panicking or without wanting to cover up what they are, that’s the most important thing.

Andrew: So even though these people are still receiving instructions and they don’t need to rehearse anything, they can go straight into that pre-made structure, you still feel the need to retain some sense of ‘actor control’, so it’s not the complete displacement of the actor’s role.

Ant: It’s not an ‘actor’s control’ that we require from them.

Silvia: They don’t need to be actors at all, just people that are comfortable with themselves, because that’s mainly what we want to show in the performance is themselves; how different people with different personalities and ways of doing things can change and enrich the show. The instructions themselves, if you read them on a piece of paper they’re nothing special and not that interesting to read, so what is interesting is seeing these people coping with the instructions and seeing them being performed there straight away live.

Ant: And there’s always the unknown things that happen. Take Henri for example, there’s a moment where he’s up the top of a ladder in the spotlight and there’s a deafening noise all around him, then suddenly there’s dramatic music and he walks down the ladder towards a cradle that’s descended with the sound of a baby crying and he’s told to unwrap it. He unwraps this bundle and it’s a watermelon and at that point a knife flies in behind him on stage and he’s told to cut it to bits, but in that show he didn’t see the knife and figured that he must have a knife on him somewhere because we were constantly asking him to take things out of his pockets. So he started searching through his pockets and he found all this stuff like a gun which he used later on, but he couldn’t find anything to cut with, so he picked up the watermelon and first took off the label, and that was very Henri, just that fact that he took the time to take the label off, everyone picks up on these things, and he raised it above his head and let it drop on the floor and it split into two halves perfectly. This sort of thing, the way he took his time there, another person may have panicked a bit.

Andrew: About the writing side of it, how important is it to leave spaces for things to happen?

Ant: Very important.

Andrew: What is an instruction in the Rotozaza context and particularly in your performance Five in the Morning? In that show the audience is able to hear instructions being given out loud to three performers on stage in a kind of deserted ‘water-world’ theme park.

Silvia: In Five in the Morning, which is very different from the other guest performance shows, the voices are our own voices which you find out as the show goes on. So the instructions are internal, giving yourself instructions in a situation where you’re having to decide what to do on the spot, but that’s a very different kind of instruction from Doublethink for example where it’s not about the voice being the other half of the self, but is clearly someone else. It’s like some sort of empty outsider who’s making decisions, a sort of brain out there that is doing an experiment on the guests.

(Five in the Morning: photo by Ant Hampton)

Ant: It [the voice] seems like that to begin with and we set it up as quite an alien presence. But actually the whole point of it being alien is to be like the kind of safety mechanism that we have inside ourselves, you know the thick wall between the person saying what to do and the person just trying to do as well as they. In Doublethink, there are two operators pushing the buttons, there’s a male operator and a female operator, there’s a male guest performer and a female guest and they pair up and slowly you start to understand that they never normally talk to each other, but here they’re forced to communicate because of a crisis. It’s like Five in the Morning in that it’s a very awkward relationship but one which can also produce some beautiful results in certain situations. And in Five in the Morning, the version that you saw is very different from what we’re doing now.

Andrew: In what sense is it different?

Silvia: We’ve cut a lot of the scenes, we’ve clarified what we want to really talk about, so all of the darker scenes have been taken out, now we only have the pool. The predicament for the swimmers is clearer and the fact that we’re pretending to be unrehearsed is now the main point. We can lead the audience more gradually to the realisation of the fact that we are rehearsed, that we are in this Aqua World place, and that it’s not necessarily the same theatre that we started off in. It has become a picture of the three of us coping with ourselves.

Ant: At the beginning you think there’s no doubt about it, the performers know the audience is there, but later you realise that even though they’re looking at you straight in the eye, it’s in fact also a part of the ‘picture’, it’s the idea of being watched. This whole place, this whole predicament of being enclosed in an entertainment space is all a mental construct, a sort of constructed persona, and a shared one, the idea of a place that isn’t really original at all, again it’s a security mechanism. We’ve fallen on a place which is one where there are rules, which is fun and safe and relatively inoffensive, which is supposed to provide fun for everyone, but there are people watching all the time – but are there or aren’t there? We make that quite ambiguous.

Silvia: It’s true that it’s quite a recurrent theme, the voice as a psychological entity, that it really comes from the inside. Even in Ooff which is probably our least conceptual show, the voices that give instructions to the two guest performers are the voices coming from the minds of the other rehearsed characters that are on stage with them.

AntOoff is a piece with two guest performers and Silvia as a character called ‘Mini Lavette’ who’s a sort of sport-obsessed girl in crazy, sporty clothes. There’s a grid on the floor, A, B, C, D – 1, 2, 3, 4 and two speakers. The two guest performers are inside the grid, moving from square to square, one listening to one speaker and the other listening to the other. The speakers are speaking together, so the whole thing is pretty chaotic and occasionally they’ll say copy Mini, and Mini Lavette is running around doing various exercises and then demonstrating a movement that they have to immediately learn and remember to recreate whenever they hear a certain sound cue, so they’re learning things at the same time as running around boxing and stretching. The whole piece is very brightly lit and exercise-video-like. Then it changes state and becomes a night time scene where the guest performers suddenly gain a lot of power and generally the situation turns around and Mini finds herself slightly bullied by these two people and the idea is that they are products of her imagination or dreams. We were interested in the way that when you dream, you can become a victim of your own creation.

Silvia: You can be a victim of the instruction you give yourself in various situations in real life. So that’s like in Grace, which is probably why we often go back to that show because there’s two people being the same person in a conflicting relationship. The same thing goes for the voices and the guests performers; it’s what you tell yourself and how you perform it. In real life you always have to negotiate between what you tell yourself and what you actually manage to do in the end.

Ant: And the whole negotiation is between extremes of violence and intimacy a lot of the time, and that again is something we discovered in Grace.

Andrew: It’s interesting, sitting on the outside listening to these descriptions of your performances and going back to the name Rotozaza, the installations you were talking about, the machines, the switchboards in Doublethink, people dislocated from one another, instructions from voices, whether internal or external, this reminds me of certain German expressionist work that portrays the insides of society as mechanical, powered by lost individuals with a sense of alienation from one’s work, oneself and others.

Ant: I don’t think the performances are expressionistic in form, but there may be a parallel in that we’re very interested in media and in the way that our predicaments in life are dominated by the media. This expresses itself in the shows through a lot of focus on process; seeing the nuts and bolts of what is going on is really important and generally things get taken apart until you can see through them. In almost all the shows up to Five in the Morning in one way or another you can see lights being switched on and generally the performers were always operating the shows from onstage. We hardly ever had things being switched on and off in the back, very often in the shows we didn’t even use theatre lighting – that was also in order to maintain the ability to latch onto whatever space we were in and acknowledge that we were in that room rather than trying to be somewhere else – which is something we really loved doing. It was also a way of being able to use all the elements of the show – including lighting – during the creation process, so that things didn’t feel ‘added’ at the last minute – something we think is quite often a problem in theatre production. Even if we still perform in theatres we feel each piece is site-specific in a way.

Also in terms of exposing the processes of how its done and of the actual performance mechanism of interpreting impulse, you know, the agency being the instruction; in a sense that may answer your question about what an instruction is: perhaps an instruction is agency for action, which may be obvious… We talk about agency but we also talk about agents on stage and super agents, who tell them what to do.

Andrew: Is this type of jargon specific to Rotozaza?

Ant
: Yes all that came out of a research period we did in the Shunt Vaults space. It was a really important two-weeks research period that ended up as a type of catalogue of ideas that we could draw on. A lot of those ideas went into Doublethink and then there were a few spin-offs that went into Ooff and some of the one-offs that we’ve done like the Punta projects, so we came up with that sort of jargon at that time.

Andrew: So what would be an example of a super agent?

Silvia: Maybe the closest thing to a super agent we’ve had was in Doublethinkwith a voice that is neither me or Neil, it’s something pre-recorded that we’ve been given, and we’re just operating it. That’s probably the closest to a super agent we’ve had in our shows, but a super agent is the one who controls the whole thing.

Ant: In Doublethink you have this screen with two people either side of it, with the voice giving instructions to both of them, so it’s like a homogeneous agency, like a common denominator, a bit like Five in the Morning was a shared space but turned out to be a psychological construct; obviously at a certain point there’s going to be a crisis in that, it’s not sustainable, it’s something that we naturally gravitate towards in ourselves. We tell ourselves things that we feel other people are being told and yet at a certain point we have to come back to the things that we can only really tell ourselves, and so that’s where the two operators split and come on stage and deal with things separately. That was a super agent, and beneath them when the electricity runs then the agents have to take over and do it themselves.

But there were a lot of ideas in that research period that we never took further. That again is to do with testing different kinds of process and for example in Bloke, one of the early shows, one of its main developments when we started doing it in English was that at a certain point he was asked to go and find a pair of headphones in the bin and he pulls them out and puts them on and from that point on you don’t hear the voice anymore you just see the results. Added to that, there’s a projection up above him that he can’t see, and it’s the text that he’s hearing, so it suddenly becomes distant, a distance that is easier to deal with.

Silvia: In a way when you can’t hear the instructions it’s the moment when you can lie to everyone more easily, when you don’t show your insecurity, you’re really persuaded by what you’re doing.

Ant: The experience was suddenly more in the image rather than being in the moment, because you’re (the audience) aware that you’re not actually hearing (reading) the instructions quite at the same time as the performer with the headphones and you’re taking everything from an image. So we started to lie. We told the audience that he was being told one thing whereas in fact he was being told something else, and we made him look as though he was doing stupid things or starting to go a bit mad. Then, when you realise you’re being lied to it’s not easy anymore and you’re forced to take a moral stance in some way and you begin to interrogate.

Andrew: You betray your audience?

Ant: Well it’s more like betraying the person on stage because your contract is very implicit, the contract of trust.

Andrew: How do you redeem that?

Ant: Well we redeem it mainly by making the audience think about those feelings and wonder what he’s actually being told to do and then eventually he gets rid of the headphones and the voice comes back.

Silvia: Also as far as the performer is concerned, it’s never about ridiculing, there’s always a responsibility that we have whenever we write something, that the person on stage has agreed to do the best that they can, that they are there kind of in a sense for us, so we have to be respectful towards them.

(Etiquette: Photo by Ant Hampton)

Andrew: What are you planning next?

Silvia: The next piece is called Etiquette and it’s something we wanted to work on a long time ago. It’s a very simple little performance / sound piece for two people only and no audience at all, where the role of the performer and the audience is exchanged between the people who are doing the show, without either of them really realising they’re ‘performing’. There are 2 CD’s, they have headphones, they just follow instructions. It’s going to premiere here at the Shunt Vaults, and it will be here as a semi-permanent installation for a while, so people can come here and do it any Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday evening. It premieres on Valentines day, 14th Feb 2007.

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