Writers: Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone
Directors: Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
Although theatres in New York are closed and likely to remain so for months, the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater is still bringing cutting edge theatre from around the world to its audiences with free remote programming. UTR offerings include streaming video, live Zoom events, and, in the case of A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call by 600 Highwaymen, carefully guided phone conversations with strangers.
A Thousand Ways is planned as a triptych of interactions between strangers—a phone call, an encounter, and an assembly. Only the phone call is part of Under the Radar, as the encounter and assembly are more challenging to organize while also adhering to social distancing protocols. To participate in the phone call, one makes a reservation for a selected time (you will likely need to provide several options) and then receives a phone number to call at your assigned time. The phone call is an encounter with one other person; both parties follow a series of directives given by an automated voice. Directives might include naming the yellow things within your sight or describing yourself as a child or telling the person on the other end if you can drive a car with a manual transmission. Periodically, the automated voice tells the two callers to imagine a scenario, offering sensory details to set the scene. The goal is that at the end of the hour you will have found “a way to see one another” even though you never exchange names.
The experience that A Thousand Ways offers is unique to each audience member; there’s no telling what you might have in common with the person on your phone call or even what details each person might reveal about themselves based on their frame of mind during the call. There is a heightened awareness that this is a small, intimate experience, something that many people deeply miss right now. To be sure, theatre as a phone call provides some distinct challenges; most of us are used to doing other things while on a phone call, even if it is just scrolling through social media or keeping one eye on the television, but this exercise really requires focused concentration on the call itself. The automated voice that guides the call is often funny, announcing that we have to stop because they forgot a question or dropping expletives when it repeats a question. Unfortunately, the voice is not consistently clear but will not repeat questions, which can be frustrating. There’s also a long hold time at the beginning of the call—nearly fifteen minutes before the other person is connected. At least the hold music is better than what the New Jersey Department of Labor plays.
A Thousand Ways won’t appeal to all audiences; it certainly asks the audience to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and the automated voice can be off-putting for those who have spent a lot of time navigating corporate phone menus. Conceptually, though, it asks us to think about how we interact with others and what details of our lives and histories we are willing to share with strangers. Towards the end of the call, the automated guide asks the callers “How will you see this person? How will you hold them?” These are valuable questions to consider not just in light of our interactions with others, but in light of this work—it offers food for thought long after everyone hangs up.
Runs until 17 January 2021 | Photo Credit: The Public Theater