When is the last time you made a new friend? Chatted up a stranger?
If you're like most people, it's been months. Michael Silverstone and Abigail Browde, theatermakers who are known as 600 Highwaymen, want to change that with "A Thousand Ways."
Sort of theater of the mind, the performance piece brings two ticket-buying participants together for a 45-minute phone call where they become part of a story — involving a car that breaks down at sunset on a road trip through the desert — during which they are prompted by a female voice to answer questions.
"Already in the digital age our interactions with strangers have been reduced, and now in the age of COVID it's next to nothing. In terms of bumping into people or meeting them on the street or in a line at a coffee shop, those things have disappeared," said Philip Bither, the senior curator of performing arts at Walker Art Center, which will present "A Thousand Ways" March 2-14 to about 280 people. "This is a way to have a conversation with a stranger that is shaped by artists and is meaningful."
New York-based Silverstone and Browde, whose "The Fever" was part of the Walker's experimental Out There series in 2018, had been working on a piece about uniting people in a divided world. Once the pandemic hit, they began thinking of it in three parts: The first is the phone calls this month, the second (this spring, hopefully) will bring people to the Walker to commune with someone else through a clear panel, and the third, when it's safe to gather, will be what Bither calls "a performative party."
Silverstone doesn't want the "perform" part of the piece to put people off of an experience where they're both audience and actor.
"It's very gentle," promised Silverstone, who's no fan of the kind of audience-participation event where you're called on stage to be humiliated for the entertainment of others. Instead, "A Thousand Ways" is rooted in a simple thing in which 600 Highwaymen find a surprising theatricality: the telephone.
"We can't touch each other. We can't come together. But there's something about phones, which have always been this way people reached each other through the distance. This is a moment where the totally analog nature of the phone allows us to get closer to someone else than Zoom theater or all those streaming things do," Silverstone said in a phone interview.
After watching virtual theater alternatives, Silverstone concluded they don't supply the live quality he hungers for.
"It turns out I'm not a theater junkie. I'm an aliveness junkie," said Silverstone. "I've spent my whole life, whether in the first row or the fifth row or pacing at the back of the theater, born and bred on this chemical drug, which is people being in a room, constructing something together."
"Constructing together" is the part that 600 Highwaymen hope "A Thousand Ways" can address for stage fans. Existing in an entirely aural space is meant to lead participants to collaborate with a stranger, building a world.
"There's something about taking away sight that allows us to 'see' one another. Even when all we have is the vague crackle of a voice," Silverstone said.
To help participants feel seen, the show's prompts range from mundane questions such as "Have you ever ridden a horse?" to shared experiences that Silverstone prefers not to reveal but that help participants open up.
"You're establishing a spare relationship with another human. You're wondering what they're making of you while you're assuming a lot about them. You are imagining this other person," said Bither, who's still thinking about the "partner" he "met" when he participated in the event in November via Canadian Stage in Toronto. (Names are not exchanged and the expectation is that you'll never meet in person.)
One thing about actor-less, audience-less "theater" is that it's also directors-worriedly-pacing-backstage-less.
"Abby and I have been making shows in some form or another since I was a kid, but we don't hear this show. We don't get to be in the room, although we call in every once in a while," said Silverstone. "In the beginning it would drive me crazy. The show would be running, we're in upstate New York and it would be 8 o'clock when it starts and it's like, 'How's it going?' We have no idea! The only thing we know is we have to make dinner."
It's a small thing, talking on the phone with a stranger, but Silverstone and Browde are thinking big.
"I mean, Chris, if I could see you right now, if we were sitting across from one another, and I saw the type of watch you have and you saw the way I wear my hair, within 30 seconds, you would 'see' somebody and I would already 'know' who you are," said Silverstone. "All of that has to get dismantled because it's completely flawed, but there is something interesting about the fact that we write stories so quickly on one another. Part two will be all about that."
The "A Thousand Ways" idea is to follow an arc from the isolation of being in our basements on Zoom to meeting in person to perhaps a revolution of people connecting with each other.
Said Silverstone, "That's what I keep thinking: If you can do this on the phone, can you do it on the street? Can you do it at the supermarket?"
In other words, if art can bring two people who have nothing in common closer together for a time, might they take that impulse out into the real world?
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call
Who: Walker Art Center.
When: March 2-14 (various times).
Tickets: $25, walkerart.org.