600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways plays with the line between audience member and performer, twisting it gleefully one way and the other. Presented as part one of a triptych but acting as a standalone performance in itself, A Phone Call is an interactive piece that asks its audience of two to readily insert themselves into set roles. It romanticises the rush of connecting with a stranger, even if a high degree of predetermination has gone into this chance encounter.
The two participants are given roles (Person A or Person B, it’s your choice), a script and specific call times. There’s a level of professionalism required from the off, with the performance starting from the moment the audience member is emailed to stress the importance of their attendance. You are after all, taking on the role of a supporting lead with a perfect stranger. Whilst the two people are “free” to talk with one another directly, it’s with an automated voice as conduit and only within the confines of specific conversation prompts. These prompts are questions, prompts to discuss loved ones, or even directly fed lines. It’s an experience of simultaneously being invited to share as much as possible, while also being left no space to be anything but a mouthpiece for a wider narrative.
This wider narrative provides the most theatrical element of the piece: we as participants are invited to imagine ourselves stranded by the roadside in the desert. It’s a distinctly lost and helpless scene, but one that is returned to, often accompanied by the voice’s mechanical reassurance that “one day, we’ll laugh about this”. Compared to the highly intimate nature of being asked about and sharing moments from one’s own life, this tableau (which eventually moves through the desert to a star-lit sky) feels harder to insert oneself into, a further leap into the role of actor, requiring full immersion. That repeated phrase acts partly to connect the two experiences, and to add the implication of a more long-term relationship which could emerge from the initial meeting. By creating a future point for two strangers, the piece confronts the concept of opening up to somebody whose name you don’t even know by imagining a deeper connection between yourselves. It’s a quality assurance of the conversation happening in real time, a pre-forged promise that the interaction will be something bigger than this.
This assurance feels necessary in a performance that asks such intimate and leading questions of its participants. Whilst the nature of the piece is known up front, guaranteeing some level of openness and adventure from its participants (this piece is certainly for the brave of heart who sit front row in the theatre, regardless of warnings), it’s still initially a surprise to find oneself talking about family members, year or place of birth, or the name of a person who made you who you are today. There is no option to refuse the questions. It’s a weighty ask of the participants, but one which pays off at the end, with a stronger sense of personal connection created by how much you are willing to share.
Everything here of course revolves around that romanticism, the Brief Encounter factor of hitting it off with a complete stranger. For all the planning, the tickets, the guarantee of somebody on the other end, the combination of participants itself is completely up to chance which lends some trepidation to the experience. Because of the joint nerves from either end, an immediate camaraderie is offered to the participant-performers, one that feels real enough that it could develop into a friendship. We know this is impossible in the long-term: no names are shared, you’ll likely never speak with this person again. Whilst the piece urges its two participants to picture one another in the room, holding hands, this intimacy feels less genuine than the panic I felt when the automated voice began a countdown. There’s counting across the duration of the piece, but normally prompted. Here, an isolated five to one sounds and almost heralds the end of the conversation. It’s not the ultimate ending, but points to the slippery connection a phone can offer. Is there anything worse for a human connection than a conversation cut off too soon, so nothing can truly develop?
A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call ran at Norfolk and Norwich festival from 17-22 May. It runs at Take Me Somewhere festival over 28-29 May. More info here.