It’s been fifteen years since I first watched Doctor Who and marvelled at the sheer volume of people ignoring a huge galumphing police box, yet as I step into the phone booth in a town just outside of Leeds, it’s like casting an invisibility spell. The interior is like a time capsule, complete with outdated telecommunications mascots and scuffed windows well in need of repair. Outside, life goes on: the road is busy with joggers and cars frequently pull up at a nearby bakery. Theatre company ZU-UK have offered a lifeline to this grimy old box. At 11am every day, for ten days, this phone and thousands of others across Leeds rings. It’s up to you to take the call.
Pick Me Up (& hold me tight) has been five years in the making, highlighting the timeless importance of this piece and the connections it invites. As they elaborate in conversation with Pam Johnson on the inaugural episode of the Compass Podcast, directors Persis Jadé Maravala and Jorge Lopes Ramos were originally inspired by a personal brush with losing male friends to suicide. It’s not uncommon: according to the American Association of Suicidology, each suicide results in an average of 135 people who knew the person, exposed to such a devastating and personal event. This fractured community of mourners can often in turn feel isolated by the gut punch of the news, but the fact that this is nonetheless a community asks a query about how best to reach out over the gaps.
Pick Me Up offers a hand to anyone, extending beyond the norm of the average theatregoing experience. You’re directly invited to attend a short installation which dials in at 11am every day (11am on the 1st January being when a spike in particularly male suicide occurs). You could be listening along with nearly 34,000 others standing in public phone boxes across the UK. This sense of everyman participation echoes the ethos of Compass Festival, which is focussed on bringing theatre directly to people and communities. Festival co-director Annie Lloyd shines a spotlight on the importance of shattering predominantly middle-class, exclusionary impressions of what theatre is: “Art practise is much more than going to the gallery or the theatre- we’re not asking people to sit in the dark for ninety minutes. It’s more approachable. So many people think art isn’t for them.”
Compass Festival has set out to challenge that preconceived notion of what theatre and a theatregoer is. Originally planned to launch in November 2020, then March this year, the festival has responded to lockdown setbacks with a roadmap of their own. Rather than one traditional three-week festival, Compass will be releasing a series of pieces across the year. “We’re calling it a slow festival,” Lloyd says. A slow return to inhabiting public spaces is perhaps what we need coming out of lockdown, and Compass is taking public in the most literal sense, turning Leeds as a city into a performance space. The works coming up have been designed to interact with and respond to widely accessible, communal areas: there’s a makeshift pub, a high-street arcade game, and all events are free. Rather than gathering a large crowd, sat in silence and oftentimes fairly isolated during a performance, Compass hopes to breed a sense of connection with some one-to-one interactive pieces. “What happens if people encounter [art] in public?” asks Lloyd. She explains that she wants to offer “Something that gets them to pause for a moment, and meet somebody.” Connection is key to this festival focussed around a gentle easing back into your environment. So is openness, and there’s no better symbol of an open opportunity than a public telephone, there for those in need.
At the peak of public phone usage, you’d have your pick of 92,000 boxes to call from, which dwindled across the decades as BT reported an over 90% drop in usage across the 2010s. It’s a far smaller community, now, but a community nonetheless, and a reminder that so often those using public telephones are in a harsh situation- no mobile of their own, more likely to be working class and working at a lower (or no) income. All you need is 60p for the call. No wonder so many are holding the receiver so tightly, as the title implies. There could be a world of unseen desperation or uncertainty behind the call.
Despite the anonymised voice on the other end, there is an instant sense of mutual relief from both audience member and performer in the opening line of Pick Me Up. The piece skirts around the topic of its genesis, uncomfortably realistically. Instead our focus is on the present: can you hear, are you listening?
We only really listen to about 25% of what we hear, we’re told. It’s difficult not to be distracted by the outside world, or the interior of one’s own head which can roar its way through days and conversations. Even, as the voice candidly admits, those instances where we perform politeness and attention can be distorted by our own fixation on the next gap in conversation which we can claim as our own. This isn’t a chastisement, however. Maravala is quick to confirm this isn’t a piece designed to prompt shame of guilt: our current society of neoliberalism has encouraged a competitive environment where we fight for limited opportunities, she explains in the podcast, so we’re taught to block out others. Having had a year of being grounded has brought the absurdity of this self-serving idealism to the fore. Just as our personal achievements may have appeared smaller in 2020 (loaves and neighbourhood walks abound), it’s uncovered the small but undeniable joy of communality in the local area. Contradictorily, by taking a moment to listen to our immediate surroundings, or contemplate the spring sky (even if it’s through some grimy booth windows) we participate in a sense of something far larger than ourselves.
There’s also an undeniable joy in discovering something overlooked. As Lloyd puts it, “[the festival] is about bringing curiosity. This space is just for you, just for this moment.” It’s up to us to take the call, though this invitation feels twofold. It’s enough to simply listen, but a far more hopeful and impactful thing to reach out and offer yourself up to others.
Louise Jones is an embedded critic for this year’s edition of Compass Festival. Pick Me Up (and hold me tight) took place from 19th – 28th March 2021, more info here. For more info on the performances this year, visit Compass Festival’s website.