A Stranger on the Phone Creates Drama in ‘A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call’

A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call pushes audience expectation of what theater can be in this pandemic world

promotional photo for the show

I don’t know her name; we didn’t share that information. She was calling from outdoors in California — or was that just where she grew up? Pretty sure she has blonde hair and she’s ten years younger than me. I believe she teaches art —whether to kids or adults, I don’t know. The last thing I said to her was, “You seem really free.” Her voice was very pleasant, gentle but confident and happy. Over the course of a slightly awkward but friendly hour, I must have projected a great deal onto this stranger, because after the call, I felt almost bereaved.

Writing such stuff in a review might seem weird, almost embarrassing, but that’s the position A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call puts me in. This interactive performance connects you to another caller, as an automated computer voice (vaguely feminine) prompts each of you to describe your surroundings; identify anything that’s yellow; touch your cheek, neck, and arm; and share facts about your childhood. Because the conversation is mediated by a mechanical voice, it doesn’t have the flow of an organic dialogue, which makes it both alienating and absolving; not as exposing as therapy, not as dehumanizing as a phone tree. Does that make it… normal life?

A Phone Call (the first part of a triptych) is the brainchild of experimental duo Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, a.k.a. 600 Highwaymen. It’s being presented through January 17 as part of this year’s all-online, all free Under the Radar Festival. Wanting to create participatory theater that obeyed the need for social distancing, they engineered this low-tech but compelling crowdsource. Balancing our natural need (intensified by quarantine) for human connection with a respect for privacy, the script alternates semi-confessional prompts (what are four words that describe you as a child) with metaphorical scenarios (you are driving in the desert together and the car breaks down). Two or three times the mechanical voice reminds us that words are insufficient, a universal verity. But we cling to them, and still have faith that words have meaning—even if they only point to a million things unsaid.

I didn’t think I could be moved by mediated theater after so many hours of pandemic viewing, but 600 Highwaymen did it. There has been so much theatrical—or theater-ish—stuff pumped online in the past nine months, at varying levels of quality, it’s tricky making generalizations. Is any of it good? Um, sure. One does not live on Netflix alone. Some of the eye candy is downright inventive. Even so, nothing I’ve seen has been a genuine game-changer; it’s all sideshow, stunts, and gimmickry—cultural placeholders until we get back inside together. 

For me, the material which best simulates theatrical satisfaction doesn’t depend on visuals, but sound. Audio dramas such as Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck; classics recorded for the mind’s eye such as Audible’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Language-centered streamed performances such as the Old Vic’s Faith Healer or Wilma Theater’s sublime outdoor capture of Heroes of the Fourth Turning. I adore live plays for the unbroken take, the big rhetorical gesture, the immersion in language that charms and bewilders. I’m sick of screens.

So in the pandemic choice between pivoting to bleeding-edge pixels or old-timey audio, you’ll find me at Camp Headphones. It’s a pretty primal reason to attend theater: to relax in the dark, let strangers talk to us, and feel less alone.

A Stranger on the Phone Creates Drama in ‘A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call’