“I regard theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” - Oscar Wilde
My cellphone illuminates a face as I sit alone in my bedroom. With every answer to the AI bot’s line of prompts and questions, her figure strengthens. What is something you walk around with? A hand appears. Can you speak more on that? A limb. She sits on the carpet, rolled up in a ball. We gaze at one another, hypnotized by the strange sense of intimacy. This is more than interactive theater—it’s theatrical interaction.
When first given the opportunity to review A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call, I was slightly nervous—there’s a social stigma around experimental theater and I wasn’t sure if it would be too “artsy” for me to appreciate. At the beginning of my journey, an unsettling voice emerged, like a cross between Alexa and Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey: “You’ve come to the right place.” Had I?
That depends: did I wish to be challenged, touched, and transcended in space through the power of voice alone? In my interview with the creators of A Thousand Ways, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone (known collectively as 600 Highwaymen), they expressed that the show was about “two people trying to imagine one another across this distance, but also about two people trying to create something together.” These ideas make the piece particularly resonant at this time of isolation without ever feeling nauseatingly relevant.
Questions, prompts, and bits of narrative are delivered by an AI bot to facilitate the conversation, establishing place and context in order to unlock less tangible details and create the possibility that audience members might be able to not only visualize each other, but gain a deeper understanding of their own character in the process.
I admit that it did feel awkward at the start, but as Silverstone said, “Awkwardness is useful—once you pass through it, you arrive at a place of poetics and comfort, you’ve accomplished something.” To engage in a shared experience at this time when there are so few was incredibly refreshing, even if it was with a stranger and an AI bot.
The show originated before the pandemic as a commissioned project for an art gallery regarding listening. “Oftentimes, we find that our first idea is not so great,” they told me, “and this idea of listening wasn’t so exciting. What was more exciting was the idea of making yourself visible and holding one another in the stillness and the darkness of this moment.” Thus, A Thousand Ways was born.
“It just started with me getting on a conference call with two people who didn’t know each other and asking them questions, giving them prompts,” Browde shared. “We would listen to how they responded, what gave people permission to expand upon things, and what sort of questions elicited reactions that we were interested in as makers. Sometimes it was the more pedestrian or simple things that felt the most meaningful.”
Silverstone added, “Early on, when we were working on this project, it always seemed like people were having a miserable time, and it took a while to get comfortable with the idea that they’re not miserable, they’re just having an experience, and even though they’re not performing enjoyment, that doesn’t mean they don’t like it.” Removing the “performance” aspect of performing arts made the experience even more provocative for me—I felt comfortable letting my guard down, which allowed me to fully participate in and enjoy the project.
Despite the immense vulnerability and active imagination required to fully participate in the piece, it’s both highly entertaining and rewarding to reflect upon. 600 Highwaymen achieved this by building the show on principles of gaming: “The audience is behaving in a way where there are incremental steps forward and a built vocabulary over time, always reaching for the thing right in front of you instead of focusing on the show as a whole.” This task-based approach makes it much more accessible than what is felt after the fact.
By requiring a “rigor to your presence as an audience member to show up, both for yourself and the other person,” A Thousand Ways fosters a connection between theatergoers that other pandemic art has failed to pull off. However, these are only fragments. “It is experienced by the participants on the call; all we’ve done is make the invitation.”
A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call was presented by On the Boards February 4-14, 2021. A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter runs March 4-14, 2021. For more information see here.