an island, a prison cell, a hotel bed, a no man’s land some thoughts about ‘Quizoola24!’ by Tim Etchells
Sometime morning Saturday 13th April I’m walking from the hotel back to the Barbican to start my second of three stints in the 24-hour Quizoola! as part of SPILL Festival. Though it’s sunny and chill, on maybe 5 hours sleep I’m still struggling to focus and it’s only crossing the road to enter the tunnel that I see Robin ahead, also bleary eyed, heading back to the hotel for some rest after his first Quizoola! shift. We chat briefly – workers in a strange industry of questions and answers. How was the nightshift? Not too bad he says. Were there people? Yeah, thinned out a bit but pretty good. They tired? Yeah… but nice energy. That’s all it is and we’re past each other with a ‘see you later’ – Robin walking to the uniform Citidenes sleeping cubicles, me drifting to the clown-face coal face.
Each of the Forced Entertainment durational pieces to date is constructed through a game or rule system – a simple but strict framework which allows performers inside it to make decisions, improvising more or less freely, with the underlying structure as a kind of safety net and guarantor of formal cohesion. Each is both game and a catalogue; a focus on one or another performative (and often linguistic) modus operandi or system of exchange. Looked at in this way: 12am is a game of dressing up and of naming, Speak Bitterness a game of confessing, Quizoola! a game of questions and answers and And On the Thousandth Night…, a game of story telling. The games get more open and in a certain sense more demanding as they go along; so that the use of pre-prepared or fixed material in the earlier pieces – the pre-written cardboard signs naming or describing characters to be ‘enacted’ by performers in 12am or sheaves of pre-written confessions texts to be read aloud in Speak Bitterness – slowly gives way to projects in which material itself (not just sequence and tone) will be invented by performers in real time in front of an audience. In Quizoola! this means that questions taken largely from written sheets both cue improvised answers and spawn additional questions – follow-ups, versions and variations, whilst in And On the Thousandth Night… absolutely everything is improvised, with no rehearsed or written material in the mix.
It’s also true of all the durational pieces we’ve made, that whilst the actual agreed-upon rules are few and rather straightforward, they’re augmented by a set of shared knowledges and imperatives, many of them unspoken – some arising from the accumulating culture of the company, some from the specific experience of playing these pieces over the years. Around 1am, sat drinking and talking some time after the 24-hour Quizoola! has drawn to a close, I mention in conversation that we don’t prepare (rehearse) for the piece in any way, only to have performer Richard Lowdon remind me that in another sense of course we’ve been preparing for it for almost 30 years. Each of us, for sure, has her or his own way of behaving in the particular strange landscape, environment or trap that is Quizoola! Each has her or his own way of surviving, of generating change, of relating to the other, of making and selling propositions to the audience, of moving the game along. All six of us also share a set of loose co-ordinates – about balancing what’s serious with what’s not, about finding seriousness in strange places, about distrusting pomposity, about ‘keeping it moving’, about balancing truth with untruth, lies with fiction, absurdity and banality, about mixing the plausible with the preposterous and the farfetched. Having played this game, over the years, with many different people, we know a good few of the possible routes through it – the varieties of seriousness and unseriousness, the tendencies to self-protection and self-immolation, length and brevity, knowledge and ignorance, integrity and mischievousness. It’s easy to play the piece, the rules are so simple in fact it’s fair to say that anyone can do it – but to play it interestingly (fluidly, with jumps and layers) is not so easy at all.
All of the key Forced Entertainment durational pieces share a modular structure in which one short unit of information – enacted ‘character’, single-phrase confession, question and answer or micro-narrative – is ventured, followed by (and sometimes drawn from) another. Whilst sometimes these units accumulate with an evident logic, at others they contradict, contrast, counterpoint or free associate. It’s largely through the act of making choices, taking turns and trading ideas back and forth – the navigation (and creation) of a (dramaturgical) path – that the players in Quizoola! for example, become visible. The high turnover of short-order propositions lends all of the pieces a certain giddy, fluid energy – the ground shifts often, and chains of decision-leading-to-change build fast. As a performer you’re making many small choices all the time, more or less moment by moment (what to ask, how to answer, what kind of content/energy/tone/etc to offer), and through these small movements the larger movements in the piece are produced. Extending Quizoola! to 24 hours from it’s usual 6 builds on the fact that for viewers there’s always been a strangely addictive aspect to the durational works. There are lots of reasons for this perhaps but high in the mix is the fact that in each moment of these performances there’s always a new possibility in sight; always another story or confession just starting, a new ‘character’ or combination of ‘characters’ just arriving, and, in Quizoola!, a new question ready to be asked or answered. Once you’re in it (as spectator or as performer) you’re in, pulled from moment to moment, offer to offer, unknown to unknown – it’s hard to orientate and it’s hard to step out. Ghosting the performance in front of you, versions and variations, alternate possibilities for answering this or asking that proliferate additionally and spin in your mind.
Trying to look back at Quizoola!, its rolling, organic, jumping, free-associating structure makes it hard to remember in any detail, especially as experienced from the inside. You know you’ve been talking for hours and hours without a break, but quite what was said can seriously evade you – a feeling akin to that following long conversations in general, perhaps, especially late night, complex or emotional ones. This same rolling, jumping structure also makes the game hard to steer – as a player you can get caught in its logics, trapped in certain flows of idea and exchange, narrative and energy. In one sense finding and following these flows is the absolute life of the piece, but at same time players always have to find ways to make interventions – to break or shift a tone that’s been established, to reinvent the situation, the relationship, the topic, the degree of seriousness. It’s all in the flows, and it’s all in the shifting.
“Questions can be asked in any order (at random or by choice). Questions can be repeated – to get a different answer, to get a better answer, to get the same answer, or for any other reason. New questions are made up and follow-up questions may also be asked. The starting text is simply a catalogue of possibilities, a list of suggestions. Answers given can be true or false, long or short, playful or serious. Lies and mistakes can tell as much about a person as ‘true’ answers. Lies can be convincing lies, transparent lies, skilfully sold lies, incompetent lies. True answers can sound like untruths. A boring answer might be better sometimes than a supposedly interesting one.
Quizoola! is not interested in “true truth”, but perhaps in versions of it.
Quizoola! makes one essential demand – PLAY THE GAME.
You can prepare for Quizoola! in the same way as you can prepare for a football match – by training, by understanding the rules, by discussing tactics and strategies, by feeling good with your team. But you can’t rehearse a football match. Because a proper game has to be played, not performed. Or you can prepare for Quizoola! as you might for a jazz performance – by knowing some tunes, by having a curiosity or feeling for your fellow musicians, by having strategies formed together over years of playing together or apart. But not by rehearsing because improvised jazz must be played live in the moment, according to the feeling of what happens in this room now. A feeling between players and players and between players and the public. What does it feel like in the room? Where are we now? Where to take it next?”
(From unpublished notes on Quizoola!, 1999).
A restless feeling, which comes and goes whilst doing the piece, sporadic speculation about what might happen if one could shift it this way or that. Something like driving in one direction whilst all the time looking for another; a mode which can lead to a kind of performative motion sickness and with it a here/there split that in any case isn’t terribly helpful. You need to be grounded, but find yourself in the mental switching of ‘if X then Y, if Y then Z’, a speculative puncturing that flows alongside the more-or-less endless flip flop of the actual performance – one thing always cutting up or turning into another, the only ‘order’ being, perhaps, that of perpetual disequilibrium, of reaching for things, together and alone, of reaching for each other.
And yet, perhaps more often than not, you find yourself just drifting – inhabiting whatever comes, in fact trying to go with whatever tendency is at hand – to brightly and enthusiastically answer bright and enthusiastic trivia, to answer honestly honest questions, to chat amiably when invited to do so, to follow simple answers with simple questions, to answer without self-defence all kinds of prying or invasive personal questions, to offer no self-protection against the obvious fact you know very little (perhaps nothing) about a particular subject, against the fact that your memory of the facts or the science or the politics of a particular thing is poor. To have no defence, perhaps because to have no defence is the best defence, or because to have no defence is all you can manage, all you really have energy for. Or trying to defend yourself, sometimes successfully, though more often not – by trying to be funny, or silly, by trying to turn tables on the other one – to temporarily subdue them with a question, or to bat back a tricky question with what you think is a good answer (but which usually isn’t). And realising that it is pointless to behave in this way, because there are always more questions, and if you somehow win face now you are sure anyway to lose face later. Trying to negotiate, temper or cut the tendency at hand – your own tendencies and those of your playing partner – trying to resist or refuse the various pulls to sex or questions about identity or to easy autobiography and opinion or to trivia – trying to pull the frame wider instead towards content, to the world outside the room, to questions of definition or philosophy, to politics and history, reaching for each other, trying to move it along and yet all the time knowing that you will always anyway end up back at the anecdotal, back at trivia, back at passing time, back at the present, back at talking shit.
The joking can be something to hide behind, for sure – slowly, over the hours, becoming a common currency of grotesquery, sex, shit, language and violence gags. But it also stays close to the core of the piece somehow perhaps because the desperate joking is the force of Quizoola!’s residual drama, a significant heartbeat to its slapstick double-act ghost manoeuvring in that circle of circus lights. The thing (the make up, the lights, the adversarial pairing, the attempt to be funny) which nods back to that place where all this came from – a tyrannous, rather abusive and humiliating entertainment, a thirst to expose and pry open the person in the hot seat, a gladiatorial clowning routine.
Faces blanked and slap-dash equalised with the clown makeup, and trapped in the equivalence machinery of ‘swapping roles,’ it’s no surprise that with the comedy there is always conflict in the air. Two clowns! Two of anything positioned as identical is pretty much always a recipe for trouble, no? And people (I mean spectators of course) want blood, don’t they, they hunger for the slap and tickle, the up and down, the in and out; they want the violent comedy of the One vs. the Other. But all the same there are times when you’re both trying to avoid the pull to trivial contestation, competition and one-upmanship, the relentless ‘getting’ of or at each other, the whole carry-on as if the pile of questions were just a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon, humiliate, outsmart or trick the other; dynamics that are (or appear to be?) so prescribed by the binary of question and answer, questioner and answerer, with its implicit hierarchy, its ur-structure of one who knows and another who does not. You’re avoiding it, but you both know (?) that the pull away from conflict, like the pull to other, supposedly more significant kinds of content, is anyway a kind of vanity, part of the desire to come off well in this performance, as in any other. You both know the apparently endless desire to (somehow) succeed, even if failing, the desire to charm, even if in incompetence or in the self-deprecating admission of not knowing and not managing – the desire (urge? instinct?) written deep into the problematic two-ness and coupledom (two guys, two women, a woman and a man), to seem (appear) sharper or more down to earth or more witty or more humane or more thoughtful or more sensitive or more disarmed or just funnier, more disrespectful, more wild, or more present, more at ease, more interesting or more worthwhile than each other.
Or perhaps (most likely) at the very core of the piece it’s really not competition at all; but rather an act of constant salvage; of trying, for reasons of your own vanity perhaps, to appear well or in a good light, taking care of yourself. Or – at the same time – you are simply in a process of figuring out who you might be, and who you might be to each other in this space and time shared with the public – what combination you might be of friends, or lovers, clowns, idiots, siblings, philosophers, kids, interrogators, bullies. You are searching, finding and fighting each other, reaching for each other through the relentless Q&A.
And perhaps more than anything anyway, you’re glad, from time to time, for whatever reason – choice or exhaustion – when the pathetic cut and thrust of it all stutters to an end and you find for yourselves a space in which just talking to each other is possible, a space which allows small gestures of reconciliation and conversation; those moments when the ground levels, where you are just two people in something, passing time together, treading water, and not so much battling ego positions. You shift between all of these things, perhaps as the hours drag and spin by, time speeding and slowing in the room with no windows (an island, a prison cell, a hotel bed, a no man’s land). Even as you know, in the end, that all of your positions, possibilities, strategies are anyhow doomed to fail – that you will in the end be naked in any ambitions you might have – that your efforts will most certainly be revealed as easy or inadequate strategies. To accept the fact – which really you have to accept as you enter the game – that even if you play well, even if you make smart moves, even if at times you will outwit your fellow player, even if you stay alive together and alone and even if you both stay wakeful and open to the possibilities at all times – you will always, anyway, both lose.
In any case, my favourite bits are the moments where the game suddenly opens up to something real and counts for something in a new way, where a question or an answer hits a nerve and you stumble into something that has unexpected weight for one, the other or both of you. These kinds of deliberate accidents (the accident you are waiting and hoping for) are what the piece is there for; they can mean silence and more thinking time, or they can mean sudden sharp honesty, or they can mean reluctance to speak any longer on a particular topic. But one feels it, this stopping short in the midst of it all, somewhat beyond anyone’s control; the magic of it mattering, a feeling that the game has turned into something else, not even a game anymore.
To accept that you cannot win, not against each other, and not where the real battle is either, against yourselves; that you cannot come out of this without being naked – naked for everything that you succeed in and naked for everything you fail in. There is an arrogance in it but in the end you can only have humility. Beckett, probably. To fail. That is all there is.
And all your attempts to tell yourself a story about what you are doing, all of them, are always less than what is happening, always a pathetic covering or cowering, a hiding behind something. In the end the only way to be here is to be here, to do what you can, to do what occurs. To play it at all is to know that if you look back on it you would mostly doubt or critique your own decisions.
Even if. To proceed in such and such a way even if the opposite may also be true. Even if. Even if. Even if. Regardless. Despite the fact. And in any case.
These abstract considerations, which are there, sometimes very present in your mind as you are playing, are nonetheless rarely a thing you can focus on. You are more like a drowning person, not thinking of oceans and slipstreams and tides, even though they are known to you, but instead, thrashing arms and kicking feet, spitting salt water, heaving for breath. You’re in it. In the thick of it. And your ability to pull back is limited. The next question or the next answer always a very pressing demand.
Like this. And like that.
That’s how the hours go by.
To memory most of the 24 hours are lost, though for each of us I guess certain random exchanges linger; lurid fragments, some apparently significant, others of no consequence. Like drunks waking the morning after the long night before, we’re remembering slowly but in shards, waiting in vain for the full picture to return. Sometimes the files of the video recordings beckon but I’m not sure I’ll go there.
I remember laughing too much certainly, finding it hard to complete sentences, already ruining any chance of things being funny because of it. I remember disoriented exchanges about vomit, shit and capitalism. Questions about death and advertising. Exchanges about democracy and animals and arts sponsorship and racism and about waiting, waiting, waiting always waiting for the good material. I remember looping back over a certain set of questions with Richard, allowing ourselves to ‘do it again’ in order, supposedly, to improve it, the clock turned inside out, time slipping slowly from its moorings. I remember getting enjoyably lost in the deluge of donated questions – so nice to get different perspectives and angles, to sense other people’s wit, spin and take on the game. I remember the strange feeling of the room, the non-place of it, fake walls and chandeliers. I remember spending time in there, my own hours in the shift-work plus other hours outside working the door, and also time watching other people. I remember getting used to the position of certain spectators – the guy sat just off centre or more or less the whole 24 hours, the girl and her boyfriend sat round to the left also for the long game – people as landmarks, people as furniture, people you could perhaps rely on for reaction, or for eye contact, or for a smile, if not for laughter; amazingly familiar and intimate strangers who might, sometime around a mid-afternoon that felt like midnight have disappeared for a while, throwing your sense of the room into free fall. I remember the feeling in there slowly changing – tiredness blurring the edges of everything and the strange experience of playing in a space where people are openly sleeping; where sleeping becomes an acknowledged part of what the audience might do, might need to do. Something liberating about this re-writing of what’s possible, in this shared sense (for performers and live audience over 24 hours) that the work is something to survive, to get through – so that sleep is ok and distraction is ok and all kinds of watching and being strategies, that might seem strange in a more regular performance, are here sanctioned, accepted, given space. I remember sifting the papers of the text for ages, looking for a particular string of questions, but never finding them. I remember Hugo stood by the camera, almost always, never sitting or even looking tired, rarely leaving the room. I remember sitting out at the door position (listening to music on headphones and supposedly handing out tickets) and also remember after sleeping there, head down on the table for half an hour, waking and immediately starting to write more questions – as if the whole world were only questions and answers – coming back into the room to perform again later clutching new stuff in biro scribble, cheered and energised by that. I remember the bright too brightness of the Barbican café during a break, the feeling of needing to eat but not really wanting to, fearing its heaviness, mind racing, between shifts. I remember checking Facebook and the twitter feed and enjoying the picture that gave of the questions and answers spinning out from the basement of the Barbican, spinning out across internet space, to New York and Newcastle, to other parts of London, to Buenos Aires, to Brussels and Berlin, to Sheffield to Sydney. I remember trying to work with questions I’d read from the Twitter stream, picking up suggestions by half-memory, mangling them. Sitting on the door waiting for the last shift, chatting quietly to people that came by, or just nodding and smiling to them, tired, hearing a little of what Terry and Claire were doing in the room on their shift, but trying not to listen too much in fact, not liking the sneak-preview information, preferring instead to walk into the room knowing only who’s there – nothing about mood, tone or content. I remember feeling lucky too, making my marathon route (as others made theirs), performing in combination with my Forced Entertainment colleagues and feeling the pleasure to be in this space, in this playful language-prison, with these particular people that share such a long history, and who each brings his or her own ground, energy, play and version of trouble to this very particular structured-but-unstructured drama that is Quizoola!
Tim Etchells May 2013