theatre goes digital, plays out over the phone: the one-person audience, rendering performances from the comfort of their living rooms. The experience is somewhat surreal. At first, it seems a little mechanical as a series of recorded messages greet the listener, asking them to press numbers to choose one’s preferred language and genre. When one finally picks a topic that interests them, however, they are assigned a living, breathing, and talking voice—and for a second, one is a little unsure whether it is still a bot talking on the other side. Though a little hesitant at the beginning, conversing at length with a stranger—it feels a bit like trying to have a casual chat with a person who has dialed a wrong number—akin to an icebreaker exercise that a theatre troupe does with its players to lose one’s inhibitions. The audience thus is a co-actor in this rather experiential “play.”
Audio interactive play is an experimental theatre performance that brings one audience member and one performer together over a phone call at home. In a sense, it is a theatrical interpretation of an absurd telephone line where humans connect with each other over something seemingly mundane but ultimately crucial in their lives.
Using the medium of telephone and Interactive Voice Response System, the play offers one-on-one interactive narratives that capture the absurdness of our lives. It stems from the fascination with the good old days of the telephone when we experienced monumental things—from relationships to heartbreaks and earth-shattering news—all over the phone.
Each experience has a somewhat fixed format and storyline. For a play like Kala Ki Pukaar (‘When Art Calls’), one hears the slow-paced, soothing voice of Srijan calling from a tiny publication house in a small suburban town. He informs the listener about a new book written by a Hindi pulp fiction author Ramswaroop Desai, who happens to be Srijan’s long-time friend. While it seems random at first, one realizes that the story is just a starting point for the listener to steer through the next hour in whichever direction they please. The audience is offered multiple narrative choices that interrogate their beliefs and ideas based on their conversation around these peculiar scenarios. The audiences, thus, collaborate and complement the process of narrative creation and decide the ending for themselves – each call personally curated for the listener.
Srijan, at one point, says a word, after which the listener says another that comes to mind, followed by him saying another word, and so on. At one point, the performer stops performing and leaves the responsibility of carrying the narrative forward on the audience. Thus, it is a kind of visceral performance experience that places the audience at the center. Further, along the course of the conversation, the listener finds an uncanny resemblance between Srijan and the stories in the book that he tells. This makes the listener wonder whether Srijan is himself art personified. The experience finally leaves the listener with the question: “What comes first, the art or the artist?”
Without sharing identifiable details of one’s identity, such as name, age, location, or profession, one ends up sharing with this anonymous caller far more personal belongings, such as one’s thoughts, views, and ideas. And just when one starts feeling settled and comfortable with this faceless friendly voice at the other end of the line, the call sharply snaps and gives way to a series of recorded messages, once again leaving the listener with a flurry of curiously mixed feelings.
With isolation becoming more and more the norm, and with humans investing more attention into technology rather than connecting with the people who matter around them, immersive interactive performance seems somewhat fulfilling. The new age play’s ‘distanced’ composition style where audiences, performers, and spaces continue to be separated is brought together by reclaiming this distance of time and space.
Author: Neha Kirpal
[Journalist (IIMC); St. Stephen’s College; World Traveler; Author]Illustration/Image/Graphics: TDLM Design Team