He has a habit of running his fingers through his brown hair. I imagine his nails catching in the fine strands, wadding them into a ball or tossing them loosely aside after plucking a few from his scalp. Those hands have never been to Dublin or a disco, but they can scramble an egg and play the piano with ease. We share some comfortable chuckles and an hour of our Friday evening, never getting the other’s name. I know so much about this man, where he was born and his mother’s name, but I will never know his face.
As the world begins to reopen around us like the first rosebud of spring, imagine meeting your first true stranger in 15 months via an automated, anonymous phone call. A pseudo-blind date for the coronavirus era. Over the course of an hour, participants learn intimate details of the other’s life and even picture them in their space, but never learn their identity. In the end, they remain as they were first introduced; a stranger.
That is the experience offered in A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call, part of Spoleto Festival USA’s Spoleto at Home series until June 7. The immersive experience is the first piece of 600 Highwaymen’s triptych focused on the encounters of strangers. The experimental theater duo, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, use fleeting moments of intimacy to help participants create a mental image of their partner.
A feminine automated voice leads my phone call with a stranger, one of the first I have made all year, as we unpack the luggage we brought with us on this conversational journey. Each of us answers prompts that vary from detailing the room surrounding us to describing the sensation of being carried. As we spend more time together, we ease into our own vulnerabilities and offer a form of connection much deeper than a surface-level conversation. We even break down in the desert.
Positioned in the experience as A, I do more listening while my partner, B, does the emotional heavy lifting throughout the conversation. He offers deep, emotional stories that help me see into his anonymous existence and make me want to reach through the phone to give his arm a gentle squeeze. Asked to share something he’s memorized, he pauses before singing a hymn. After every prompt received by B, my answers sit perched on the tip of my tongue, ready to tumble out once the pre-recorded instructions ask for my own stories. They never do.
The slight unbalance of the conversation is A Phone Call’s first misstep for me. Depending on your partner, half of the duo can be left carrying more of the emotional burden of the revealing conversation, offering up more details than they receive about the other stranger. They cannot even ask the other for their answer, as the pre-recorded voice only waits a few beats before going onto the next prompt.
Technical hiccups with the automated instructions also occurred a few times during the hour, briefly removing me from the experience before my partner’s engagement brought me back in. The call’s abrupt ending returns listeners to reality after a quick goodbye to their unknown scene partner, leaving them in a daze.
But this does not mean your experience will be the same as mine or any of the others participating while the virtual piece plays at Spoleto. Others have reported visceral reactions to connecting with someone via A Phone Call that cannot be left unreported and uncelebrated. Every conversation, every pairing, is unique to that hour of time carved out by 600 Highwaymen and that allows it to be a stirring piece of theater, even with the few flaws present.
A Phone Call is really as strong as the stranger you are paired with. In order to have a thought-provoking conversation, you need two willing and able callers ready to completely engage. The thought behind 600 Highwaymen’s idea is strong, but the execution could be better. Allowing for equal give-and-take from both A and B would create a stronger connection and offer each stranger the opportunity to expose themselves in ways they never imagined, with someone they may never meet again. As we return to normal, a vulnerable phone call with a stranger who remains a stranger might be an interesting way to ease back into our old lives of oversharing and overcaring.
Samantha Savery is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.