Photo by Maria Baranova

Imagine for a moment you’re on the phone with a complete stranger. What would you reveal about yourself? What would you learn about the other person? What could that conversation tell you about the nature of human connection?

Those are the governing questions behind A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call, a play by way of a telephone conversation that will be presented virtually starting June 3 at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA.

Conceived by Michael Silverstone and Abigail Browde, better known as the experimental theater duo 600 Highwaymen (whose boundary-melting The Fever played at Spoleto in 2019), Part One is the first of a planned triptych of theatrical events that aim to interrogate the notions of performance. 

Instead of arriving at the theater, audience members are given a phone number to call at a specific time and then connected to an anonymous fellow participant. And with no geographic limitations on who can buy a ticket, an audience member from Charleston could conceivably be paired with someone on the other side of the globe.

Through a series of automated prompts, the two callers essentially make a piece of theater with each other, Silverstone said. That sort of ephemeral, spontaneous creation is at the heart of what A Thousand Ways — and, in a broader sense, all of 600 Highwaymen’s work — hopes to achieve.

“The thing that we’ve been thinking a lot about is: How do we make shows where we people can feel the feeling of coming together, where people can see one another, and can be in some kind of collaboration?” Silverstone said. “This piece is about sort of learning to see what you cannot see, and getting close to something that you actually are just inventing. I think it’s about two people who are making something, and it lasts an hour, and then it’s gone.”

Silverstone said removing the artifice of theater — where actors play roles and audiences passively receive the story — has been a central tenet of the work he and Browde have created since their days as students in NYU’s experimental theater wing; they officially started working as 600 Highwaymen in 2009. When the pandemic hit, the pair retreated upstate from New York City, and Silverstone became increasingly bored by the virtual theater — mostly Zoom or recorded work — that was being made in response to the pause on live performance. 

He and Browde had already been at work on what would become the second part of A Thousand Ways — An Encounter, which takes place in a theater, with pairs of participants (again strangers) meeting in person, separated by plexiglass and responding to a series of prompts on notecards. And so they decided to reconfigure the experience for the telephone. (Part Three: An Assembly is currently in development. Silverstone describes it as an “extension” of the first two parts, with audience members gathered together in a theater and reading from a script.)

The initial trial runs of A Phone Call were “really bad,” Silverstone said, especially since they were working so quickly — 600 Highwaymen shows typically have a years-long developmental process — and in a new format.

“We spent last summer hosting these phone calls with strangers,” Silverstone said. “We would just literally get two people who we know don’t know each other, and we got them on the phone. We started just giving them prompts.” 

The experimentation paid off, and cultural institutions from Ann Arbor to Austria have programmed Part One since the Seattle theater On the Boards premiered it in September 2020. The Public Theater in New York City hosted a sold-out run as part of its Under the Radar experimental theater festival and recently revived the show in anticipation of opening part two in June — the first time theatergoers will be at the theater, in person, since last March. 

Under the Radar artistic director Mark Russell has worked with 600 Highwaymen on multiple projects, including The Fever and The Record. What initially drew him to the company, he said, was Silverstone and Browde’s rigorous attention to detail and their unwillingness to stop experimenting until the work is just right. And, he believes that Part One could live on long after theaters have opened back up for in-person performances.

“It’s not just about the pandemic,” Russell said. “It’s something that, when I did it myself, with some stranger out in Albuquerque, I wanted to write that person a Christmas card. It really moved me. It taught me things about myself that I didn’t completely know.”

Silverstone said the audience responses have been overwhelmingly positive, even from those who were initially reluctant. Creating a play and not actually witnessing the performance has been strange for him; the calls are not recorded, and no one other than the two participants are on the line. However, he and Browde have set up a hotline for audience members to call in and share their experiences, if they feel so compelled.

“A lot of people say that they were just really surprised by how the performance took shape,” Silverstone said. “In the beginning, you do the call — and it’s a little clunky, you’re on the phone line, maybe the connection isn’t so great. By the end of it, it just becomes this other thing.”

Matthew Nerber is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.