“So once you go inside,” the usher instructed me at the Public Theater on Saturday, “you’re going to walk onto the stage, and you’re going to take the seat farthest from the door.”
“Farthest from the door,” I repeated calmly out loud, while my brain blared in silent alarm: “Wait, what? We’re doing this on the stage?”
There are people drawn to center stage like blossoms to the sun, and then there is me, their opposite. Participatory theater scares me — even when, as in this case, it deliberately has no audience. Doing it onstage would make it extra intimidating.
Still, I had swooned last fall for “A Phone Call,” the participatory, telephonic first part of the triptych “A Thousand Ways,” by the experimental company 600 Highwaymen. Ever since, I had been rooting for the in-person Part Two, “An Encounter,” to hurry up and get to New York so I could do it: just me and a stranger, following its script together. Now here it was. It’s just that, in my mind’s eye, it had all been much lower-key.
None of this dramatic business of returning to the Public for the first time since the shutdown to find the lobby — normally a people-watching nirvana — whisper-quiet, then going upstairs to the Martinson Theater, where for a few minutes I was totally, eerily alone. My first encounter in “An Encounter,” then, wasn’t with my partner in this two-hander but with that familiar space, seen from an unfamiliar vantage, with nearly 200 empty seats staring back at me.
As for “An Encounter” itself, my worry was unwarranted. It is a joy; even if it scares you, go. This is a work of inquisitive humanity and profound gentleness, which over the course of an hour buffs away the armor that lets us proceed through our days brusque, numb and antagonistic.
Running concurrently in several spaces at the Public, it is seemingly as simple as simple can be. Like “A Phone Call,” which brings together two strangers by telephone and prompts them with an automated voice to share stories and memories, it is a private scripted meeting between strangers, both regular people, face to face across a table, masks on, with a glass panel between them.
(While you do not need to do Part One to do Part Two, the Public is also offering “A Phone Call” through July 18. The planned third part to “A Thousand Ways,” completing the journey through the pandemic, will be a large-group, in-person show.)
In the theater, my stranger and I — I still do not know his name, or the bottom of his face — sat at the table under the stage lights and submitted to the script: a neat stack of printed notecards fitted in a small gap at the bottom of the glass. An arrow, pointing my way or his, indicated who was to take each card. On these we read our lines and stage directions.
“Hello,” one stranger begins.
“Hi,” says the other.
“It’s good to see you,” the first responds, and what is striking is that this line of dialogue turns out to be perfectly true. It also hints at what this exercise asks and allows: that we look closely at each other, but kindly; that we take turns speaking and listening; that we try to imagine the contours of each other’s humanity. In this riven culture, when compassion for the stranger can be in much shorter supply than knee-jerk antipathy, these are not small gestures.
Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, a.k.a. 600 Highwaymen, give the strangers in “An Encounter” a common goal — to get through the script together.
“In silence, look across from you and imagine what keeps them up at night,” one stage direction reads. “In silence, imagine something they’re coping with,” says another.
They have us draw pictures on the glass together with our fingertips (my stranger is a better artist than I am), tell each other scripted stories and ask and answer a laundry list of offbeat yes-or-no questions: “Have you ever broken a bone?” “Have you ever broken a heart?” When my stranger answered yes to that one, his dark eyes got so soulful that I felt his anguish and wanted to know more. But that of course is not permitted.
“An Encounter” is less about the details of our lives than “A Phone Call” and more about spending time in the physical presence of another human being. I know that my stranger has a passport, can’t drive a stick shift and likes to dance. I know he has neat handwriting. My guess is that he is an actor and that he, like me, grabbed at the chance for this experience out of eagerness for theater’s return.
But is this theater? Not really, though the script has a beautifully solid structure and the ending is both startling and powerful. Rather, this piece uses tools of theater — text, storytelling, the agreement to gather at an appointed time to have a collective experience — to achieve goals of theater, foremost the stoking of empathy and compassion. How extraordinarily “An Encounter” does this struck me only afterward.
I am not usually the sort of person who walks around with Sondheim tunes as my internal soundtrack, but I was when I left “An Encounter.” Out on the sidewalk, as I headed toward Astor Place, then down 8th Street, I couldn’t stop scanning the weekend crowds. A snatch of “Another Hundred People” played on repeat in my head: the phrase “a city of strangers,” imbued with more warmth than I’d ever heard it.
It sounds weird, and it was, but “An Encounter” left me in an altered state, keenly aware of these many people around me whom I did not know, and who seemed so alive with possibility, complexity, depth. Any one of them might have sat across from me at that table and been my stranger.
I made my way through the throngs, trying to imagine the contours of their humanity.
A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter
Through Aug. 15 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org
A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call
Through July 18; publictheater.org
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