"I believe you're expecting a call?" the performer asks over the phone, and the show begins.
The entire performance takes place on a one-on-one call. There is no curtain raiser, or curtsies at the end. During any given time slot in the show, no more than five people can attend, and no two acts are alike.
If the description doesn't sound like anything you've heard or seen before, you're right. Kaivalya Plays' Lifeline 99 99 is a first-of-its-kind theatrical experience in India. It is an innovative take on storytelling as it takes into account the individual responses of the audience members 'attending' the show, making it an immersive experience.
Each performance precedes an interactive voice response (IVR) that records the choice the viewer makes via the 'hotline service' that features in the play. You can choose between a conflicted phone sex line operator or a dead human being, or a piece of art personified. Subsequently, a performer " a service provider, in the context of the play " is allotted to each audience member. Minutes later, you receive a call from your choice of service provider, and the show begins in the form of a conversation.
Through tonality, gestures, sound effects, and words, both the performer and the audience member together play out the choice that is opted for, ensuring an element of improvisation. Lifeline 99 99 commands as much participation from the audience as it does from the actors, as each actor attempts to engage with the conscience of the audience member through the lenses of greed and loneliness, leaving one with unsettling questions about life, death, emotional intimacy and missed connections.
In each show, the conversation becomes a theatrical act that is performed by the actor in episodes. With the involved engagement from the audience, the performer is able to highlight the subject of the play. While the stories you hear in these episodes are fictional, they seek to bring out the absurdities of our lives in a post-"new normal" world. "The play is not a response (of the art form) to the global pandemic, but the consequences of the pandemic definitely inspired the content of the play. It made us rethink human connections in live conversations as against telephonic ones," writer and co-director Akshay Raheja says.
Gaurav Singh, Raheja's partner in direction and one of the actors in the play, says that this 'distanced' composition style allows them to reach out to audiences "who may be isolating at home or even wanting access to a more visceral performance experience that places them at the centre of it."
This stylistic approach to the art form ensures that the play will be relevant even when live venues open their doors to the audience in full swing, as is the case almost a year after the nationwide lockdown imposed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Singh explains that a similar approach has been undertaken by other production companies and groups before COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns were put in place; Kaivalya Plays has taken inspiration from them to push boundaries in the same way. "Globally, there are companies like ZU-UK from the United Kingdom, whose Project Perfect Stranger facilitated a five-day conversation with a stranger over WhatsApp, and Rimini Protokoll from Germany, who have been creating interactive performances for over two decades."
Of note is the sheer work the actors and crew need to put each time. Raheja directs five parallel performances of the play in each slot, taking the total run time to 15 hours on a single day. Of the actors' contributions, he says, "The actor is cognisant of the duration of the piece, the comfort of audience interaction, delivery of narrative, creating an emotional experience with live sounds " and is able to repeat that six times every week. No film actor can do that!" he claims.
A testament to Raheja's confidence is the opening weekend response; they sold out all 30 performances, each of which was unique and took place without any technical glitch. "Talking to a stranger over the phone isn't what is unique, but what is at stake is the difference. Every episode asks the audience member to change something in each narrative," Singh adds. With a special focus on attention to detail on the audience experience, the performers are able to make the viewers comfortable and relaxed while engaging in the performance, making sure each strain of discussion is consensual.
Even as other online theatre practices and productions continue to struggle with an inability to connect with the audience virtually, Lifeline 99 99 has been able to nurture connections. It taps into the power of the art of conversation by riding in on the popularity of audio interactions as a means of communication and performance art. Take for example the interest people are taking in Clubhouse, the freshly discovered audio chat-based social media platform, or the newly-introduced Twitter Spaces, as well as the popularity of audiobooks and podcasts.
The performance features an ensemble cast that includes Nikie Bareja, Raghav Seth, Kumar Abhimanyu and Ramita Menon, and is supported by Thespo's Audio-Torium, a youth theatre movement which encourages audio performances by emerging theatre-makers under the age of 25. In an age of Zoom fatigue, the show and its auditory experience have a lasting impact on its audience. Lifeline 99 99 shines as an experimental art practice among the evolving theatre explorations in the Indian sub-continent. This is one phone call you definitely do not want to miss.
Lifeline 99 99 will run fortnightly in March (6-7, 20-21) through April (3-4). The tickets are available on the PayTM-Insider website for all Indian residents, and the play can be attended from any city and venue as long as you have an active cellphone connection.