It's only a game show - and then some

Louise Gray previews 'Quizoola!', a performance that changes the rule-book
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The Independent Culture

Three questions from a possible 2,000: Can poverty be beautiful? Do you love me? Do you believe in the existence of demons? People ask questions because, says Tim Etchells, "there's an extraordinary intimacy, fun and risk to them". And to that end, the artistic director of the acclaimed Forced Entertainment (FE) performance company sat down and wrote the 2,000 questions that - with their unscripted answers - form the basis of Quizoola!

Three questions from a possible 2,000: Can poverty be beautiful? Do you love me? Do you believe in the existence of demons? People ask questions because, says Tim Etchells, "there's an extraordinary intimacy, fun and risk to them". And to that end, the artistic director of the acclaimed Forced Entertainment (FE) performance company sat down and wrote the 2,000 questions that - with their unscripted answers - form the basis of Quizoola!

Anyone who has seen any of FE's works since their foundation in Sheffield in 1984 - from the broken narratives of the confessional Speak Bitterness to the 24-hour Who Can Sing A Song to Unfrighten Me? - can testify to their continuing power to both bewitch and unnerve. Quizoola! itself began life as a 45-minute work at the ICA in 1996. In its mature form, the show lasts six hours (and in London, 12 hours) during which the audience can come and go as they please.

Written as a challenge to the stasis that much text-based theatre finds itself in, Quizoola! is an immensely portable show. It needs, at minimum, just three actors and a suitcase, but its thrust is to cut through the limitations of language to access a communication and emotional content that can only be expressed in words. This essential paradox supplies what Lois Keidan of the Live Arts Development Agency and who, as the ICA's former Live Arts director, co-commissioned Quizoola!, describes as "Something that changed the rule-book of theatre. It's work that speaks for a dysfunctional, fragmented society."

"I think what's interesting about Quizoola! is that it negotiates with the place it's staged in and what's happening in the room at that moment," says Etchells. "Because the piece is totally free within the context of the questions and answers, you can always respond, in an atmospheric sense, but also culturally. Two questions are 'Can you sleep through gunfire?' and 'How do you measure the impact of war on a country or a people?' We've asked these before, but in Beirut, where we performed in a cellar close to where the fighting took place, they had a special resonance. The audience stiffened and you knew instantly you'd touched a nerve."

Quizoola! is defined within strict parameters, changing only through its temporal context. Etchells speaks of a tacit agreement between the two performers - who sit, in dilapidated clown make-up in a circle of lights - to get each other into trouble. Quizoola! can be - and often is - cruel. "You have to be really on the ball as a performer; you've got to be able to make it savage, to be offensively prying and intimate with your co-performer, and then know when to flip the questions to another subject. The actors are responsible for creating the architecture; if they're not thinking about that, nothing's happening. You have to be good in the moment, but also thinking, where do we go next?"

It's a question that could be applied to many theatrical currents. Etchells is no fan of traditional theatre - "Its pretence, its rhetorical aspect and approach to narrative is over for me", he says - preferring, instead, the ephemeral. Indeed, as his participation (with photographer Hugo Glendinning) in multi-media exhibition "Void Spaces" and a series of events and, latterly, a book entitled Small Acts of the Millennium, shows, his interest lies in those infinitesimal acts of everyday drama that, for their participants are as every bit as life-changing and profound as, say, Lear's encounters on the blasted heath. He's enthusiastic, for instance, about the situation of this summer's hit TV show. "If Big Brother wasn't performance art, I don't know what is. It had moments that will stay with me a long time."

If FE's work highlights an essential vulnerability, there is precedence. Quizoola!'s clowns are reminiscent of no one so much as Godot's tramps - but also, says Etchells, the panto, Santa's grotto, school plays. "It's about an amateurish, crude means to achieve an end ... In Club of No Regrets, we had a shoot-out scene in which talc was sprayed around by the characters to make smoke. We could have used smoke machines, but I'm more interested in seeing the gap between what people want to do and the effort itself. One of the reasons I like Quizoola! is because it's about thinking, not acting."

'Quizoola!': touring, 3 November to 15 December (information: 0114 279 8977); 'Void Spaces': Chapman Gallery/ Glass Box, Salford (0161 295 5241), to 18 Nov; 'Small Acts of the Millennium' is published by Black Dog, £16.95

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