Reviews Published 19 November 2020

Review: Telephone by Coney (online)

Missed connections: Alice Saville and Hannah Greenstreet have a phone conversation about Coney’s interactive telephone exchange performance.

Hannah Greenstreet and Alice Saville

‘Telephone’ by Coney

[What follows is a transcript of a phone call, edited for length, clarity and to remove digressions on topics including cats and broken fridges]

Alice Saville: So, how was Telephone? You’ve just done it, but I did it back in early summer, so remembering it makes me think back to that specific energy of everyone getting used to Zooms, not being able to go out. How did it play in second lockdown?

Hannah Greenstreet: I really liked it. It was gentle. I’m normally not a fan of audience participation. But I feel like for Zoom theatre to work, you have to have that. So I really liked the virtual bar set up at the beginning, with Tassos welcoming everyone, playing music. And I was sort of dreading the breakout rooms at the end, but actually, that was really nice – Tassos gave you some prompts to facilitate conversations, and I had a chat with a man about lockdown and a really significant phonecall he’d had with his sister.

Alice Saville: The framing of Telephone says something like, “gentle, non-compulsory audience participation”. But when you actually get there, you really do want to take part. I also had a really nice conversation in the breakout room, but we realised we didn’t have many emotive phone call stories to talk about – it ended up like having quite a silly conversation about like, being a small kid and doing prank calls, or being fascinated by the machinery of phones and stuff like that.

Hannah Greenstreet: It’s interesting thinking about the age gap between members of the audience – some might remember using the dial phone that Tassos shows us. I’ve never used a dial phone, my grandma had an old one that we played with. And then obviously, everyone’s getting rid of landlines. I get quite nervous that people call me without telling me they’re gonna call me now.

Alice Saville: I think it’s a generational shift; like, Generation X and older millennials remember and have more love and nostalgia for analogue formats like landline telephones, tapes, vinyl records… But I think that even if I was perhaps missing a layer because I don’t have strong emotions and memories linked to telephones, I did end up connecting with this.

I’ve seen a few viral tweets saying things like – the thing I miss most about lockdown is the friends I saw at parties two or three times a year. And I’m not saying it’s like the thing I miss most. But what’s really nice about Telephone is having that sense of a community of people who you have something in common with – you love performance, you’re open-minded enough to give this thing a go – but you also don’t know each other, and you probably never will. It’s just very comforting to know that there are like a lot of people out there who aren’t in your tiny shrunken world, and to get little glimpses of people’s homes and lives in a way that ended up feeling very intimate.

Hannah Greenstreet: In mine, there was a couple who bought separate tickets, but had two screens. On the same sofa. And then they did a big reveal: the girl in the middle is our daughter. And there were some pet appearances, of course.

Alice Saville: Oh, yeah, the pet appearance is the highlight of every Zoom! I feel like there are emerging Zoom clichés that have this comforting ritual quality; I quite like the awkward bit at the beginning of Zooms, where everyone arrives and the little heads pop up one by one; or the way that often, if you’re doing a performance or a workshop, there’s a bit where you have to write on a piece of paper and hold it up to camera, everyone doing the same thing at the same time.

Hannah Greenstreet: I really liked what Telephone did with a sense of place. Tassos said that until very recently, phone communication was grounded in a place. And he got everyone to make their own little area code and write it down. That was really nice, actually, because it felt local but the performance was global. There were people in Spain and America and I think possibly someone in Australia and then people around the UK.

I also found the structure really cool: Tassos gives you a list of numbers, and people read them out to call up the telephone exchange, and that determines which anecdotes he tells, or what calls would be made. And I also liked how we would still get to hear everything, just the order might be different, depending on the show.

Alice Saville: I liked the way that he gently held people to complying with the ritual of it. Like sometimes people would try not to say the full number and he’d be like, sort of gently nudging people into kind of sticking to the structure. The use of Tassos’s own story also felt really important -it prompts you to share and be emotionally open in turn.

Hannah Greenstreet: Yeah. I found that story of his grandfather, and of searching for that lost connection through the telephone directory was really powerful.

Alice Saville: It’s so universal, that frustrating sense of just missing a connection, a relationship you could have had, through just like human misadventure, basically.

Hannah Greenstreet: Oh, the phone is such a powerful metaphor.

I also liked the way he quoted other theatremakers, talking about a performance as a moment in time, a collection of people who might never meet again.

Alice Saville: It felt like it was a performance in conversation with ideas about liveness, and how you create that on a livestream, and that’s what made it so successful.

At the moment, there’s this real sense of blurring where people use the word livestream as a generic term for any kind of filmed theatre that you watch on the internet. But Telephone lets you see everyone’s faces, and gets everyone acknowledging each other’s presence, in a way that makes me think of that phrase ‘being in a room together’. Whenever I interview a theatremaker, they always say that’s one of the things that drives them. So in a way, it’s surprising how few online performances I’ve seen make it central.

Hannah Greenstreet: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about what it is about being in a room together that’s special. I read this book on stage presence – Stage Presence by Jane Goodall – which is sort of trying to work out and put into words what this feeling is, going through the history of science. She describes it as a kind of mesmerism. But the book also didn’t completely capture it, because I feel like you can’t.

But then I’m also wondering whether it’s something specific to the stage. I’m working in a university, and there’s a lot of stuff about how we must keep doing face-to-face teaching, even though students are going down with COVID-19. Is there something in that ‘being in a room together’ dynamic that makes things palpably different?

Alice Saville: Definitely. And it’s childish of me but I think for me, there’s something about accountability, and people watching you and making sure you’re joining in. Like if it’s yoga, in your home in your living room rug, then you can very easily just be like, ‘Oh, that looks really painful. I’m going to do my own shit wimp version until it’s over’. Whereas if someone’s actually looking at you, you mentally go ‘Oh, god, I’m really gonna go for this’ – you invest. And I think I connect more to online performances that help you do that.

Hannah Greenstreet:  I guess Telephone has made me think, maybe I do go to theatre for connection, because I did log on and think actually, I’ve really missed this feeling of sharing space, sharing an experience. Which I don’t know whether you do get in the livestreams so much. When I watched (the Old Vic’s livestream of) Faith Healer I didn’t necessarily feel like I was watching with lots of other people.

Alice Saville: With those big budget livestreams, the liveness becomes quite an esoteric concept. If you think about it really hard, you’re like, ‘Oh, right. Okay. It’s literally happening right now’ but it raises lots of questions. If the actors aren’t performing to people they can actually see, or acknowledging the camera and the livestream set-up in any way, why does it need to be a livestream?

Hannah Greenstreet: I wonder why Tassos chose to do Telephone as a Zoom. Not a telephone call. And why you chose to have this conversation on the phone not on Zoom.

Alice Saville: Haha, Zoom is strictly a nine-to-five affair, I won’t do any more than I have to. Okay, that’s a stupid answer. I guess more seriously, Telephone made me feel a sense of maybe borrowed nostalgia for having an actual phone conversation. And it made me think about how, just like form and content are so linked in theatre, perhaps the medium you’re having the conversation in changes what you talk about, and how you interact with people, and who you are – like, if I had to conduct only my friendships only by letter, would I be a different person? More cerebral and wise?

Hannah Greenstreet: It made me wonder whether there is something more intimate about phone call, because I feel like if you can’t see someone else’s face and they can’t see your face, maybe it’s easier to tell them personal things.

Alice Saville: I think so. Well, though, I remember someone telling me that people have the best conversations in a car when someone’s driving and they’re not looking at each other. That it’s like the ideal environment for openness. They told me that it was a good idea to come out to my parents while they were driving the car, which personally I would not counsel because what if there was a car crash or something.

But anyway, you said earlier you’re not sure if Telephone is theatre? What do you think made it not theatre?

Hannah Greenstreet: I might sound old fashioned, but maybe it was more like a set of musings around a theme and a set of invitations for connection. I felt like it was really gentle. And it was a really lovely way to spend an hour and a half. But I don’t know. Um, I don’t know whether it will stay with me. And that sounds bad. Because I am still thinking about a few days later. Maybe this is just my COVID frayed attention span but I find watching performances over zoom. I cannot remember them afterwards, particularly.

Alice Saville: I almost wonder if the brain is a filing cabinet. Do you think it kind of files Zoom performances under ‘socialising’ or ‘relaxing’ rather than ‘theatre’, or doesn’t categorise them as things that you need to preserve exactly? Or there’s another thing about memory where the things you remember are often things that are linked to very strong emotions, like pain or fear or surprise. And I feel like the tone of telephone is so incredibly measured. It’s like a kind of ramble in the countryside of performance – it’s not like one of those harrowing nights that’s like burned onto your memory.

Hannah Greenstreet: Yeah. And maybe Telephone does need a bit of tension, a bit of variation.

Alice Saville: […sound of door opening]. Sorry, a kitten was meowing outside my door in a really tragic way. Yes, cat interruption, a classic Zoom cliche. But anyway, what is your relationship with livestreams right now? Did this performance make you feel hopeful for the future of live streams or excited about them as the medium?

Hannah Greenstreet: It actually did? Yeah. It made me think about the potential of livestream as a medium, because even though there are livestream tropes that are already developing, I think, the form is still ripe to be plumbed and explored and for people to be quite playful. So I think when livestreams were first going up, in March, it seemed very much like, ‘Emergency, let’s just put up the archive!’ But now it seems like people have had the time to do a bit more thinking, a bit more development. Tassos said in the performance that he was still thinking that about this piece as a work-in-progress, which again, seems quite nice, it’s still growing. And I guess the audience is such an integral part of it, which means the show will always be developing and growing.

Alice Saville: Yeah, exactly. It feels so responsive to the people who are part of it. With me, I feel broadly positive about livestreams, but I have to periodically give myself a big shake by the shoulders when I find myself feeling that they never do everything at once; liveness, a sense of connection, a format that works, a story to get gripped by, bits that get you in the emotions… It’s very easy to get a bit despondent and a bit jaded, but I feel like every so often when you do a livestream that really does work, it is so heartening.

It makes you realise that with in-person performances, you automatically get that sense of specialness and togetherness, and they can still be flawed without you having that kind of doubt and uncertainty about what it is you’re experiencing. Sometimes livestreams make you harder on them, because they remind you of what you’re missing.

Hannah Greenstreet: Yeah, that’s true. And I’m just thinking about your piece for StageDoor about how you should organise a watch party for your friends. Actually, that sense of going to the theatre with friends is something you can do on a livestream; even if you didn’t make it [ironically, Alice missed her planned revisit of Telephone] there’s that sense of looking forward to it and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to watch this, and then we’re going to talk about it’.

Telephone first premiered in April 2020. It most recently played Voila Europe Festival. The next performance is on 27th November at Hampshire Cultural TrustMore info on Coney’s work here


Hannah Greenstreet and Alice Saville is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Telephone by Coney (online) Show Info

Cast includes Tassos Stevens



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