Etiquette is politely impolite


Sam Lavigne and Ian Kizu-Blair perform Rotozaza’s Etiquette at Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco, a presentation of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Wren Coe

I’m so sorry you missed my performance in Etiquette, the unique show brought to us by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ DARE program. I must say, not to be too boastful, that my performance bordered on brilliant. But the only person who will ever know that is a charming woman named Sylvia, who happened to be visiting from Vancouver to celebrate her 50th birthday (happy birthday, Sylvia, my charming co-star!).

A creation by the UK-based Rotozaza, Etiquette is one of those highly original theater/art experiences that tries to reconfigure the form. For this interactive, two-person-at-a-time show, participants are performers and audience.

The experience starts prosaically enough at the YBCA box office – even wacky theater events have to concern themselves with commerce. Then you head out the doors and up the stairs above the waterfall in Yerba Buena Gardens, along the promenade to the Samovar Tea Lounge (a charming place even if you’re not visiting for a show). A friendly guide ushers you to a side table in the cafe and offers a few instructions. She points out the various props lined up on each side of the table and instructs you to sit down and put on your headphones. The experience will last about a half hour and you will be instructed exactly what to do.

Sylvia and I took our places. I took the “B” role, which is traditionally a woman, and Sylvia took “A,” the male role – if gender roles are going to be assigned, why not mess with them? The voices in our heads begin the scenario – we’re in a theater preparing for a show, but one of us has terrible stage fright. Using chalk on the table, we outline a stage, and using tiny male and female figures, we become actors on that stage.

The scene shifts many times. One of the most entertaining is set in a cafe as we’re fed lines to create a seeming conversation. I turned out to be a prostitute who became shy once that fact was revealed.

At another point, after arm wrestling Sylvia and losing (the tape told me to lose – I totally could have taken her), I was to lay my head on my arm and close my eyes. The narrative began to spin around a rain storm, and as the sound effects began the deluge, Sylvia began dripping water on my hand using a dropper she conveniently found in a glass of water.

My favorite scene involves a house on a hill and a murder that happened there. One of the “special effects” involved turning the glass of water blood red.

Clever and completely engaging, Etiquette is an intimate version of the kind of dynamic audio-theater that our local company, Antennae Theater, has done. Two years ago, the Climate Theatre produced The Group, a Dodeska Performance Ensemble audio-theater/group-therapy experience. Rotozaza calls this sort of thing “autoteatro,” which they define as “a self-generating mechanism where the audiences’ participation is the show, nothing else.”

With the audio program telling you what to do and what to say, you’re removed from having to think for yourself, which definitely has its pleasures. You also get to be the audience, so as you’re repeating your lines and listening to what your partner is saying in return, you’re also one level removed, watching the scene play itself out – you may be trying to recite the lines and make them seem realistic or sufficiently acted, but you’re also taking in the whole scene. In my case, I was greatly amused by the attempt to create the rhythms of actual conversation, especially in an exchange between people who aren’t listening to each other at all. In Sylvia’s case, her level of remove was embarrassment, though I didn’t really notice that from the other side of the table She had to tell me afterward.

Etiquette was developed in 2007 for the Edinburgh Festival and has since been in more than 20 countries and is available to experience in about a dozen languages. I’d love to see if different nationalities respond in distinctly different ways. I also wish I could have received a review of my performance when I was done. Like so many brilliant moments in theater, I guess it has been surrendered to the ages. Go experience Etiquette and create (and watch) your own brilliance or help your co-star discover hers.


Etiquette continues through Oct. 3 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Mission and Third streets, San Francisco. Shows are on the hour, noon to 8p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and noon to 6p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10. Call 415 978-ARTS or visit for information.

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