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Illustration by Cass Sachs-Michaels

  • Title: A Thousand Ways
  • Created by: Abigail Browde & Michael Silverstone
  • Company: 600 Highwaymen presented by Canadian Stage
  • Year: Continues to Nov. 29, 2020

Unlike Blanche DuBois, I never realized quite how much I depended on the kindness of strangers until the COVID-19 pandemic came along.

When Toronto was under a strict lockdown earlier this year, I started to truly understand that those little daily interactions with people I didn’t know at the coffee shop or in an elevator made a significant contribution to my good mental health, to making me feel like a human instead of a hermit.

A Thousand Ways, a new piece of call-in performance art that Toronto’s Canadian Stage is presenting through the end of November, creates the conditions for a bit of small talk with a stranger over the phone.

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The interactive experience is a creation of a New York-based troupe called 600 Highwaymen, which is currently in residence at Canadian Stage until the end of the 2020-21 season.

Here’s how it works: Two ticket-holders call into a number at a designated time, enter a conference code and then are guided through a playful and personal back-and-forth.

I say back-and-forth rather than conversation because, at least during my experience with A Thousand Ways on Wednesday evening, there was no opportunity for the stranger I was connected with and me to talk outside of the prompts we were given by a recorded voice (which is operated by an unheard monitor also on the line).

We could have gone rogue, I suppose, but neither of us did so.

The stranger I was connected with was given the name A and I was given the name B. I never learned A’s actual name (or personal pronouns, so I won’t assume), but I did learn that they were a few decades older than me, had grown up on a dairy farm, and had a special memory of an aluminum toboggan.

Actually, I discovered quite a bit more about A, who was a lovely collaborator for our hour together, but, as it felt a little bit rude to be secretly doing so, I stopped taking notes at a certain point and tried to just immerse myself in our unusual interaction.

The recorded voice – made to sound like the ones you get when you call into a government agency or corporate office – didn’t just have A and me exchange factoids about our lives and childhood memories. It also asked us to do certain, small physical movements and, recurrently, to close our eyes and imagine a scenario in which we were driving through the desert and our car broke down.

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It instructed us to repeat back lines of dialogue on occasion. “How much do you know about cars?” I said.

“Someday this will be something we laugh about,” said the recorded voice.

Much of A Thousand Ways felt very similar to other interactive performances that I tuned into or experienced earlier in the pandemic. There was a mindfulness element to the proceedings, an attempt to make participants slow down, disconnect from our immediate anxieties and connect with our bodies and each other.

If you’re still in a part of the world that is under strict lockdown, or are being extra careful and are behaving as though you are, perhaps you’ll appreciate it more than I did. A Thousand Ways felt a little bit like what I needed five months ago (or what I’ll need in a couple of months) rather than what I need right now, however.

Mind you, the artistic curation of interactions between strangers has not been a pandemic invention. There’s a whole field devoted to that, sometimes called relational aesthetics.

This type of live art emerged in the 1990s and has steadily increased in popularity as we’ve moved from dial-up to broadband to total smartphone immersion in the internet – an artistic response to a widespread sense that our increasingly digital lives have left us feeling inauthentic or uneasy during in-person interactions (or, in a word, lonely).

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Diseases, as well as digital dis-ease, have pushed theatre and performance artists toward this type of work in the past though, too. For instance, Mammalian Diving Reflex – the internationally known relational-aesthetics company based in Toronto run by Darren O’Donnell – primarily produced plays until the SARS outbreak in 2003. Then, that year, O’Donnell created a series of events born out of the lingering fear of social contact called The Talking Creature in which, as described by journalist Robert Everett-Green, “people fanned out through a neighbourhood and recruited strangers to participate in unstructured conversations.”

It’s not surprising that the current pandemic would spawn even more interest in relational aesthetics – but the paradox right now is that, because of continuing COVID-19 restrictions, artists have to rely on technology, which we’re so often told alienates us, to bring strangers (and artists) together.

In order to make their performances feel distinct from our Zoom calls and doom-scrolling then, artists have been working with older technologies such as the telephone – ones we’ve lost our fear of and perhaps even feel nostalgic for.

600 Highwaymen follows in the steps of Canadian companies such as Outside the March and Convergence Theatre in getting audiences to reach out and touch someone in this way.

At this point in the pandemic, however, the novelty has worn off and I was hoping for something deeper from A Thousand Ways. I appreciated and enjoyed my time spent with A, but something about the project overall ultimately felt a little phoned in.

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