Is the UAE ready for telephone theatre? A Covid-inspired performance has come to call
The interactive theatre series involves embarking on an hour-long "unexpected, imaginative journey" with a stranger through moments of guided interactions
Two people and a telephone. Say hello to the newest form of interactive theatre to call on the UAE.
'A Thousand Ways', created by award-winning theatre company 600 Highwaymen, is designed to "deliver us from isolation to connection" in the age of Covid - and all you need to do, as an audience member, is pick up the phone.
Co-commissioned by NYUAD Arts Center, the first instalment of the three-part series begins October 7 - and involves embarking on an hour-long "unexpected, imaginative journey" with a stranger through moments of guided interactions.
Speaking to WKND, the center's executive artistic director Bill Bragin affirms that the innovative 'theatre on call' experience gives civic encounters in times of social isolation a whole new meaning. "I believe they're trying to speak to the idea that there's so much information you can gather, even if you don't have a visual," he says. "There's also the idea that the person you're on the phone with during the piece - you don't exchange names or tell each other who you are throughout the call; you only exchange ideas - might just as much be someone you're crossing paths with every day as someone from a city on the other side of the world."
Bill admits it's a rather difficult piece to explain in words, but that it's not the kind of participation anyone should be wary of getting involved in. "You won't be asked to do anything outlandish," he laughs. "It's just an invitation to have a conversation with someone you don't know that ends up being quite magical."
As a theatre company, 600 Highwaymen is known for its projects that seek to create intimacy among strangers. 'A Thousand Ways' is no different. At the heart of it all, the poetic performance seeks to explore how we, as a physically distanced society, can still make new human connections.
Every attempt at the 'new and unknown' comes with a certain level of risk, and one imagines that telephone theatre is no different. Is the UAE ready for art in this form? "I have so much faith in local audiences," says Bill. "We're in our sixth season now, but when the Arts Center first opened, I presented all kinds of work that was experimental and found people really open and willing to take a chance. They're always willing to try it out, which is important, because we want people to see the Arts Center as a place that will bring them something unexpected, touch an emotional chord, or make them think about performance in a different way than before. With over 200 nationalities living together in the UAE, everyone here comes from very different backgrounds with regard to performance and culture. This [form of art] can now become part of the fabric of the UAE's cultural landscape as well."
It's important also to not underestimate what interactive theatre can do for society at large. For his part, Bill believes that more than anything, the medium can amplify our collective reserves of empathy. "Empathy is really critical to building up a city, a country, a world. Especially right now, when people are going through really challenging times and all kinds of emotions - trying to get through the day pretending everything is normal when it's not - carving out space in your life to go to a one-hour performance allows you to tap into your heart a bit, and think through what you're doing and what you're feeling in a way that's really human."
The ability to connect with a stranger, to their humanity and their stories, promises to be powerful. That sense of community through shared experiences is what Bill says is missing today, given that we can no longer attend large gatherings together. "And what this poetic performance is trying to say is that you can still find that community with two people on the telephone - but in a brand-new way."
(A Thousand Ways: Part 1 is available to book on the NYUAD Arts Center's website, with time slots from 3.30-9.30pm, October 7-18.)