You don't need a face mask or copious amounts of hand sanitizer to visit the theater this month. You just need a quiet room with good cell service.
A Thousand Ways, presented by Obie Award-winning theater-makers 600 HIGHWAYMEN and On the Boards, is a three-part, year-long performance designed to meet participants "where they are and when they are," gradually taking the audience from isolation to congregation.
The first part, running until the end of September, is a smart piece of auto theater: After dialing in to a specific phone number, an eerie robotic voice mediates a conversation between you and a stranger for about an hour. Some aspects of this person's identity are kept completely anonymous, like their name and profession. But over the course of the performance, you get a more intimate portrait of the other caller—how they see themselves, who they love, their family history.
The second part will take place later this fall, with strangers separated by a pane of glass on opposite ends of a table, creating a connection using a script and a few objects. And the final installation will come next summer, with participants convening together to follow a shared score.
The Stranger's Chase Burns and Jas Keimig phoned in and participated in the performance last Saturday. Then, in the spirit of the performance, they phoned each other to debrief:
Jas Keimig: Okay, be honest—wasn’t this a little horny?!?!
Chase Burns: No.
But I’m gay and I was paired with a person who seemed like a straight woman in her late 30s. Were you horny?
I thought it was intimate.
JK: Okay, intimate is the right word.
My germ circle is so insular lately, so meeting strangers in any context seems jarring. And, uh, due to extenuating circumstances, I had to do the whole performance in a bathroom—
JK: Not while using the bathroom. Just in the bathroom. It added a whole new layer of intimacy between myself and a room where I rarely get intimate. Well, a room where I rarely get emotionally intimate.
CB: So who were you talking to while sitting on your toilet?
JK: He was about twenty years older than me. Partnered. He had a child. I imagined that he was a homeowner.
CB: Was he also doing it from a cramped bathroom?
JK: No, I don't think so. He also told me he successfully defended a dissertation, so he has a PhD. And I imagine he's in the arts because he's participating in this play. Weirdly, I thought I recognized his voice from an interview I did, so I spent some of the call trying to place him. I guess I'll never know.
Didn't you do this with your boyfriend? Were you guys in different rooms?
CB: Yeah, I was in the kitchen and he was in the bedroom, but we did it at the same time. He said he did it with a woman who was about 50. At one point, he said he found himself describing his thighs after one of the robot's prompts, and that got a little horny.
CB: So maybe, yes, it can get a little horny.
JK: Did you two have similar experiences? Or did you come away with wildly different experiences?
CB: I think we had personal experiences—we talked about different things with our strangers—but we still had to follow the same script.
At a certain point, the robot narrator cuts you off and moves you on to the next prompt. I was polite and followed the narrator’s instructions, and he did too, but I’d love to know what happens if a participant just really goes off-script. Does the robot force you to start over?
Regardless, I thought an hour on the phone with someone would be stressful, but it went by quickly. Do you even like talking on the phone?
JK: I do! I think it's a little romantic. There's no pressure to perform for a camera like there is with FaceTime. I don't call people all the time, but when I do, it's often for hours—while lying in bed or cooking or walking around my neighborhood.
CB: Did you want to ask the stranger anything after the performance ended?
JK: No. At the very beginning of the call I wanted to ask, like, "What's your name? And star sign?" But that seemed trivial by the end. The questions the play asked gave me a better portrait of this stranger than a name or sign ever could.
Was the ending too abrupt for you? Did you feel like you needed aftercare?
CB: I guess I wanted to thank the stranger I was with afterward, but maybe the mystery makes it better? I could run into that person at a grocery store in 2022, and we’d have no idea that we had an hour-long intimate conversation, just us and a robot, during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s really weird.
But I actually thought the silence that happened immediately after the performance ended was the show's strongest moment.
You start to get into a rhythm with your partner, and then it just ends. I think that moment—when the conversation bursts and you’re just sitting alone in your kitchen or wherever—is a familiar moment for a lot of us. It’s like the moment after a Zoom call. We hop onto these calls, and suddenly we’re in a room with five, ten, forty people, and then—boop! It’s off, and you’re in your room. Alone. Again. That moment has been unique and unsettling.
I'm gonna remember this time period by those moments.
JK: Yeah. The pandemic has forced us all onto really lonesome journeys. I think once we're allowed to be together in public like "normal," the way we relate to each other is going to look different. Maybe more intentional or reflective.
God, maybe this could mean the end of small talk.
CB: I think there will be more small talk. We may even end up liking small talk. Talking to strangers will become a sort of soothing thing. Maybe. I guess we'll find out.
The first installment of A Thousand Ways, "A Phone Call," runs through September 27. More info on how to sign up to talk to a stranger and a robot here.