A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call 

Carolina Performing Arts | 600 Highwaymen | Tuesday, Mar. 2–Sunday, Mar. 14; $15 suggested donation 

At exactly 2 p.m. last Thursday, I dialed a number somewhere in southeastern Massachusetts, entered a six-digit event code on my cell phone, and joined a conference call from my home office with a total stranger. And just like that, I found myself plunged into a disquieting theatrical future.

“This is not going to be… a conversation,” said a voice at the other end of the phone, pausing awkwardly mid-sentence.

Thus began part one of A Thousand Ways, a multi-platform performance art triptych that Carolina Performing Arts is presenting starting this week. The stilted inflection continued: “It might feel like it”—pause—“should be, but it’s not.”

The narrator of the production’s first installment, titled A Phone Call—and the only voice heard during the work, outside of contributions solicited from our two-person audience—had already asked us to say hello: “Nothing else. Just hello.” Then it cast us, in a still-to-be-revealed drama, as Person A and Person B—and warned us to listen up, since its abilities as an interlocutor were limited. “I try to speak with clearness,” it confessed, “but I cannot repeat.”

Great moments in theatrical elocution? Hardly. But then again, the sole performer from the New York-based company in our virtual dress rehearsal wasn’t even human: It was an artificial intelligence-driven voice app. Over the next 50 or so minutes, the vocal clone would lead us through a curious mélange of braided experiences. Its central story, about a broken-down car leaving our group stranded, is an obvious enough metaphor for the country’s current moment.

“The feeling of abandonment [evoked in A Phone Call]—being thrown out in the middle of nowhere, having to figure out how to respond and survive—makes sense for our times,” noted audience member Sara Billmann, who participated in another performance of the work.

But as that narrative continues, the audience is prompted to provide increasing amounts of material for the performance. The initial traumatic narrative becomes interlaced with seemingly random requests for biographical information. Among them are items that seem lifted from a marketing questionnaire: Are we married? Do we smoke? Have we ever held a gun?

As A Phone Call continues, the AI’s requests become more personal, soliciting information about our heritage, and the people we come from: What they valued, and what we did and didn’t carry on from them. Descriptions of first-grade classmates and a photo from childhood lead, at the end, to very pointed, particularly disclosive questions: What is something that is gone, that you wish you could get back, and that you know won’t ever return?

These prompts, in turn, are interwoven with requests for details of where we’re experiencing the work, and physical cues to perform a series of seemingly simple acts, some of which will be familiar to those acquainted with somatic psychology: the self-comfort of a gently stroked forearm or eyebrow, the grounding effect of a hand on one’s chest or cheek.

If these discursive activities seem off-putting in print, well before the end of A Phone Call, they become aimed at something that so many of us badly need to conjure in our current social moment: a sense of intimacy—of swift, close knowing between two total strangers.

In recent decades, social scientists have toyed with the idea of accelerated intimacy. A famous set of 36 questions developed in the 1990s has been claimed to help any two people fall in love.

But the pandemic has put our culture’s issues around attachment and relationships into sharper focus. As the COVID-19 crisis has threatened human lives, it has also threatened and circumscribed—where it hasn’t fundamentally erased—the possibilities of intimacy itself.

Co-creator Abigail Browde notes how intimate encounters have become “much more precious, much more charged” in a time when it’s become unsafe to encounter one another.

“We weren’t so good with strangers to begin with—gravitating, falling prey to divisive ideas and assumptions about who one another were, in this concept of the Other,” she says. “We were doubling down with fear on that kind of categorization and an inability to widen the ways we hold or approach one another. It was like, God help us if we are now literally perceiving, even more than we were to begin with, that one another’s bodies are threats.”

That development comes with troubling implications.

“‘Who is perceived to be dangerous to me’ is the sort of survival question that has gotten hardened and amplified in ways that are obviously highly discouraging,” Browde says.

To counter that narrative, Browde and co-creator Michael Silverstone have woven together a surprisingly contemplative narrative of disaster and its aftermath and placed it against the backdrop of its audience members’ individual lives. The result is an unlikely work of psychosocial synesthesia: an audio work that manages to help us see one another, and a participatory story about strangers, in which the participants are no longer strangers by its end.

Its somatic strategies and carefully selected mind games invoke internal mental channels of communication to deal with trauma. As raw material, they incorporate not only the story outlined in the text, but the people who are participating in its telling. In short: This is necessary practice in intimacy, in a world where intimacy itself seems to harder and harder to find.

“It’s forcing us to reimagine a world which is more open, and where there are more opportunities to find connections and meet people from all walks of life,” Billmann says. Despite everything that divides us, she finds A Phone Call “a reminder that, at the core, we still have much in common, even if the surface differences might be the most apparent.” 

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