Strangers on a Phone, Theatrically Speaking


In the lockdown days of early spring, after they’d left New York City for their house in a village upstate, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone — better known as the experimental theater duo 600 Highwaymen — were as eager as any other drama aficionados to dig into the bounty of archived productions that were suddenly, mercifully online.

It wasn’t as much fun as expected.

“I’m sitting in my living room,” Silverstone recalled by phone recently, “and I’ve got my dog in my lap and I’m watching this Peter Brook show, but something isn’t right about this.”

The not-rightness had nothing to do with Brook, the pioneering stage director, and everything to do with the nagging awareness — familiar to those of us who have struggled to adjust to screened theater — that the audience, so vital to the live dynamic, is superfluous to performances unfolding on camera.

“I don’t feel —” Silverstone broke off.

“Needed,” Browde supplied, because they are the kind of couple that finishes each other’s sentences.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m going to get up and, like, go get a cookie, and this thing is going to keep happening.”

But frustration can breed inspiration, in this case to refreshing effect. The latest I-dare-you show from 600 Highwaymen, “A Thousand Ways,” is a triptych whose first part, “A Phone Call,” is both a product of that digital alienation and the reason I wanted to speak with them.

Mark Russell, the director of the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater, will present “A Phone Call” from Dec. 21 through Jan. 17, first as a prelude to the annual festival, then as a part of it — continuing a relationship that started when he presented 600 Highwaymen’s “The Record” in 2014.

“I always say that Under the Radar is about ‘Why make theater now?’” Russell said. “And they are sort of the prime example of that, because they make the theater moment. They crack it open to its essence. It’s surprising, it puts you off, it’s challenging, but when you walk away from one of those things, you will have feelings.”

It sounds odd to describe an hourlong telephone chat, which is what “A Phone Call” is, as a work of theater, and I’m not even sure that it qualifies. Yet the performance, which requires two anonymous str angers and one automated voice to guide them through a structured conversation, employs the tools of theater. And it achieves more goals of theater — telling stories, triggering imagination, nurturing empathy, fostering connection — than nearly any other show I have experienced since pre-pandemic days.

There are actual stakes to it. As a confirmation email from the host venue warned before the call I took part in last month: “This experience is between you and one other person. It cannot occur without your presence.”

We are the performers, we are also the audience, and we could hardly be more necessary — or more socially distanced. I did “A Phone Call” by way of the Arts Center at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, matched with a student ending her Saturday in her dorm there as I started mine in my apartment in Manhattan.

I didn’t learn her name or much about her beyond what kind of a child she remembers being, growing up in India; a few details about her family; and which professor advised her, kindly, to fail more. But I do know the sound of her overcoming nervousness to hum a tune, because the electronic voice asked her to, and of her saying, “Spooky!” when it instructed us to turn out our lights. I got a sense, too, of what makes her laugh.

In this time of widespread social isolation and fragmentation, our compassion has gotten rusty. It is not nothing, then, to make even a momentary connection — to spend an hour revealing pieces of oneself and imagining the complexity of someone else’s humanity.

The prompts in the script elicited only bits of us, but they were enough. Near the finish, our robotic guide (not a human but rather a computer-coded, feminine simulation) told us to ask each other, rhetorically: “Can you see me out there in the world?” Then: “Have I come into focus?”

My unspoken answer, more certain than I’d have expected, was yes. There is a person out there whom I will probably never meet, but because of that call I am quietly cheering her on.

The most striking thing about “A Thousand Ways” — which is produced by ArKtype and is not yet complete; Browde and Silverstone are still making the third part — is how its progress follows the arc of the pandemic and our response to it.

That first part (currently presented by Canadian Stage in Toronto, Arizona Arts Live in Tucson and the Singapore International Festival of Arts) is entirely distanced. As with online performance, people can get tickets to participate in “A Phone Call” from anywhere. In Browde’s words, “You, the audience member, have to bring your own theater, you have to bring your own chair and you have to bring your own life.”

The second part, “An Encounter” — which Russell hopes to present at the Public in January, if state regulations allow — takes place in person, but it, too, depends on the audience to enact it. Two strangers at a time, different pairs than in “A Phone Call,” meet for 60 minutes at a table across a pane of plexiglass. With no audience to watch them, each follows prompts on a stack of index cards, but this part of the triptych is about looking, not listening. In a series of guided narratives, participants use visual information to imagine — the way we so often do with strangers — who the person on the other side might be.

“An Encounter” premiered in July at the Festival Theaterformen in Germany, where pandemic adjustments — a glass barrier and having just a single pair do the piece at a time — allowed a show already planned for this summer to go on. There, people were allowed to remove their masks once they were behind the partition. The piece is now at On the Boards in Seattle, taking place indoors with participants masked throughout. The artistic director, Rachel Cook, said each stack of cards is set aside for 24 hours after a single performance before being reused.

Only with its third part, “An Assembly,” will “A Thousand Ways” return — once it’s safe — to a more conventional form of theater involving a crowd. Because of the pandemic, it has no firm performance dates set anywhere, but Browde and Silverstone envision it as a gathering of about 80 people, sharing space, reading aloud.

For 600 Highwaymen, the triptych’s time-wedded storytelling trajectory is new, and retrofitted. They were already working on “An Encounter” when the pandemic struck; the idea of complementing it with pieces at more extreme points on the social-distancing spectrum arose only when it was clear that there was no quick path back to live theater.

It is strange for them not to be present for performances of their work — to have, with part one, no control over crucial elements like a bad phone line or participants who just don’t click. Even with part two, they feel, as Silverstone put it, like a “visual artist who ships something to a museum.”

“All of our shows are always in some way about the body, and everything that comes with the body,” he said. “And there is a perverse thing going on with bodies right now, which is that they are ill: We are sick, and we are spreading it. And so I don’t know what that’s going to do for our work.”

“I’m thinking,” Browde said, “about another show of ours called ‘The Fever,’ where it’s performed by the audience and it’s 70 people in the room and you’re very close to one another — even moments of physical contact between audience members. I can’t even reconcile in my head what it would be like to ever get to do that show again.”

In the four years before the pandemic, 600 Highwaymen were on the road more often than not. When they headed upstate in March, they welcomed the break. And like so many people far from their families, they picked up the telephone.

“The phone is a way that I can hold my mother right now,” Silverstone said. “I can sit here on the couch, and I can look out the window, and I know she is halfway across the country and she is old and she is frail and she is scared, but I can listen to her voice and somehow in both of our fear, together, we can connect.”

In that old-fashioned method of communication, he and Browde recognized theatrical utility. It’s a form that suits their work much better than Zoom, which she said is “not as vulnerable of a space” as the phone, where you can “hear the moment when someone’s voice cracks, or the moment when they pause, even, and don’t say anything at all.”

In “A Phone Call,” the electronic voice asks us to imagine we’re together in a car that breaks down in the desert.

“We were having so much fun a minute ago,” it says.

As were we all, relatively, before the virus came and stopped so many things.

In the show, night falls, and someone makes a fire. We bed down under the stars and tell a story.

Like 600 Highwaymen in a pandemic, we use what simple tools we have. We make the best of it.



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