A Seattle theater stages socially distanced plays — no Zoom required

From phone performances to drive-ins and two-person plays: On the Boards is outsmarting coronavirus constraints.

A person in a car puts their hand on the window, another person stands outside

In the experimental theater experience 'Acting Stranger,' audience members show up at a public place and act out part of a script with a stranger. The rules are strict but simple: no hellos or pleasantries, no rehearsal, no direction and no do-overs. This scene, written by Minna Lee, is performed by Lee and Liz Kumaki. (Andrew Schneider)

My living room is pitch-dark. I’ve turned off all the lights, as the robotic voice on the phone requested. Through the window I can make out a tree shape-shifting in the wind. I can’t see the stranger at the other end of the line, but I can sense her presence as I describe memories from my childhood. 

Why am I confiding in a total stranger?

I don’t even know her name. But I know other things: That she’s never been to a football game. That she has one sibling, a brother. I’ve learned the color of her eyes (brown) and that she's good in emergencies. I can picture the worn-out socks of a beloved dance teacher from her youth, and the yellow pants she’s wearing right now.   

We’ve revealed all of this to each other because the third party on the line, the automated voice on the phone, told us to. 

And because we were both willing participants in the U.S. premiere of A Thousand Ways, a theater experiment by New York-based duo 600 Highwaymen, staged by Seattle performance venue On the Boards. The phone call — an hourlong part-questionnaire, part-acting session (we were also instructed to read lines) — was the first act of a three-part “performance” that will play out across Seattle over the next year or so. In late November, during Act 2: "An Encounter," I will meet another stranger in person, at the other end of a table, separated by a pane of glass. The project will culminate in a group performance with all the participants who have had their own mysterious phone conversations and table meet-ups. 

When exactly that will happen (likely after a coronavirus vaccine is developed) remains a big question mark, as does the immediate future of live theater. In the meantime, On the Boards has found an innovative way to keep theater alive: shrinking the audience down to two or three people. For this fall’s lineup, that means strangers meeting under scripted conditions at a safe distance. 

“We come from that kind of DIY, artist-driven spirit and that is where we are returning to with these [COVID-19] constraints,” says On the Boards’ Artistic Director Rachel Cook. “Whether that's over the phone in this intimate one-on-one conversation or transforming our parking lot into a drive-in movie theater. We are really interested in the different forms that performance can happen in.” 

In its 42 years of existence, On the Boards has often broken through the fourth wall to build its reputation for artistic experimentation. Now, in coronavirus times, the small and inventive Seattle organization is again paving a way forward by taking artistic risks few other theaters in the region are attempting. 

Pedestrians walk by as a volunteer performs in a doorway, speaking into a prop phone on Sept. 23, 2020 during filming for 'Acting Stranger,' an experimental theater experience that enlists the audience to become actors. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

On the Boards has also enlisted the audience to act out scripted scenes for Acting Stranger, another somewhat-hard-to-explain theater hybrid on deck this fall. The brainchild of New York-based interdisciplinary artist Andrew Schneider, Acting Stranger has audience members sign up to show up at a public place and act out part of a script with a stranger (or, if it’s a maskless or close scene, someone from their “social pod”). Each scene is filmed, but there is one take only, no rehearsal and no do-overs, no direction. The results of these fleeting encounters, which were filmed in late September, will be screened during On the Boards’ four-day drive-in theater event (Oct. 1-4) and will be available online later this month. 

Both A Thousand Ways and Acting Stranger were created or envisioned in slightly different form (in 2016 and 2006, respectively) before the pandemic, but were tailored for the times, says Cook, to emphasize the sense of intimacy so many of us are missing right now, but still allowing for social distancing. “Both works are really trying to figure out how to connect with people,” Cook says. “These kinds of intimate exchanges really force you to be present.” 

They also allow for the kind of chance encounters that coronavirus precautions have all but eliminated from our lives. 

A not-so hidden camera during the filming for 'Acting Stranger,' a project put on by Seattle theater venue On the Boards, in which strangers sign up to perform in scenes in public spaces. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The rain is hammering down when I arrive to observe the taping of Acting Stranger’s Scene 56 on the corner of 11th Avenue on Capitol Hill. It’s one of those days where the Seattle sky seems to want to prove it’s capable of more than a drizzle.

“I don’t know if this is what reporters use these days,” Schneider, the project's progenitor, says cheerfully. He hands me a clipboard holding a legal pad, which immediately gets bloated with raindrops. “I’ll just use my phone,” I tell him.

Schneider gives me a puzzled look. 

“I’m the reporter,” I assure him; I’d texted the project's producer to say I was coming. 

He nods. Yes. The reporter. 

We go back and forth like this a few more times before On the Board’s associate producer comes to the rescue, freeing us from the Kafkaesque skit we seem stuck in: I’m an actual reporter, not the volunteer who has signed up to play one today. 

Soon enough, the real stranger-actor arrives, walks up to a lectern in front of a dormant hotdog stand and delivers his lines. Less than three minutes later, he is gone, on his way into the rainy day. 

It’s this kind of social peculiarity that a “play” like Acting Stranger allows for. “It’s a collection of moments, these scenes that kind of have space for strangeness and strangers and improvisation,” says Seattle-based performer Fox Whitney, who wrote for and performed in this iteration of Acting Stranger along with writer/performer Minna Lee. 

The show’s bare bones — a pared-down script, some rules and a small camera crew — are just containers, says Whitney. It’s the presence of strangers that truly gives it meaning, particularly now that we can’t really be together in the ways we could before. It reminds us of the things we took for granted: the brushing up against somebody, the handshakes, the proximity. 

“A lot of the project moved me in that way, where really small moments became so charged, and highlighted how different things are now,” Whitney says. 

Just last week, he was moved to tears by one of the project’s scripted scenes in which the handing over of a small bottle of hand sanitizer turns into a hand-holding session between two strangers. Whitney helped write it, but the moment still floored him. 

“It was really emotional to watch that careful interaction between two people ... their willingness to take those precautions and engage in kind of an intimacy,” Whitney says. “It speaks to that loneliness, but it also speaks to the intense care people still have for people they don't know in the midst of all this.”

For Whitney, bringing such scenes to life is proof that there’s possibility in experimentation. “Even these darkest moments can encourage us to really press against our comfort zone and how we think things should go,” he says.

In 'Acting Stranger', two strangers, Natalie Miller and Kara Beadle, perform a scripted scene in which the handing over of a small bottle of hand sanitizer turns into a hand-holding session. The filmed scenes will be screened during On the Boards' drive-in theater festival on Oct 3rd. (Andrew Schneider) 

The makers of A Thousand Ways, celebrated theater duo Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone of 600 Highwaymen, also imagined things would go differently. They envisioned the piece after the 2016 election as a citywide performance in which strangers met for intimate tête-à-têtes in each other’s living rooms. They reimagined the show for the pandemic this spring, inspired by the intimate phone calls they were now having with their families and friends. 

“Something about the facelessness or the fact that you're just a voice through a machine, just putting your ear to the box and hearing your mother's voice or your friend's voice — or in this case, the stranger's voice — is actually incredibly intimate. It felt in a way more present than ... when you're on Zoom,” Browde says. “On FaceTime, there's a simulation that is actually very false. Like a simulated togetherness.” 

Without the screen, there are more avenues for closeness, the duo says. Without visuals, the theater takes place entirely in your mind. 

“I think we really feel it’s our responsibility to not let audiences lose sight of the power of theater,” Silverstone says. “If we just wait around for things to reopen, audiences are going to lose their interest.” 

Cook, On the Boards’ artistic director, is working to make sure that doesn’t happen. Ever since she realized in April that “back to normal” would be a ways away, she’s been brainstorming: What about a postcard exchange? A record? An installation? What about commissioning more artists to do phone performances? 

For this winter and spring, Cook is facilitating new takes on performance. With Seattle-based experimental playwright Kristin Kosmas, Cook is working on a series of postcards in what could be a one-on-one art project. With Tim Smith-Stewart and Jeffrey Azevedo, Cook is rethinking how to bring Salvage Rituals, a performance that was originally scheduled to happen in December, to the public in a new way, including as an installation that the audience could visit one person at a time. In all cases: the audience will shrink, the theater experience will get more intimate.   

As for my intimate experience, after about 40 minutes, I felt oddly close to this not-quite-stranger, as she hummed a song for me, as I pictured her hand in mine (as requested by the robot voice). For an hour, I forgot the world around me as I pieced together a blurry picture of a stranger from the clues in her voice and the breadcrumbs of her backstory. Sitting in the dark, I came as close to a theater experience as I’ve had in a long time. 

My voice cracked slightly when, near the end, we recited a few lines dictated by the robot voice: Can you see me out there in the world? Have I come into focus? 

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