A ‘hotline’-style one-on-one audio performance is showing how theatre has had to adapt and innovate in the post-Covid era in order to stay relevant, accessible and, most importantly, socially distanced.

NEW DELHI: This is not a regular phone call, you are duly informed before the performance begins. And it, in fact, isn’t, because when you dial in the number for Lifeline 99 99, you are signing up for an interactive theatre experience on the phone, the first of its kind in India, as co-director Gaurav Singh claims.

Lifeline 99 99 is Delhi-based theatre group Kaivalya Plays’ latest offering, developed with the support of youth theatre initiative Thespo, which stands out as one of the more innovative forms of theatre which have mushroomed in the post-Covid, socially distanced era. It is a live one-on-one performance which takes place over the phone, combining a pre-written script and improv theatre to create a unique experience for the audience (interestingly, taking one back to the root of the word which refers to the act of listening). However, unlike in a conventional radio drama or audio play, the audience here is not a passive one.

The use of the Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS)—usually encountered while trying to reach any customer service—is the USP of Lifeline 99 99. The audience is pulled into the process of interaction the moment they call the number provided by the team. An ‘auto-generated’ robotic voice introduces the concept, entertains the listener (even playing out ‘Happy Birthday’ using keypad tones) and asks them to dial a number in order to choose their preference of language and the story they would like to follow, and indicate how comfortable they are speaking to a stranger. Based on their responses, the listener receives a second call from one of five characters—a life insurance agent from the afterlife, a cab driver riding to infinity, a conflicted sex chat operator, an aggrieved Communist telecom agent trying to beat competition, and a fictional character selling the very book he is a part of—and the play begins. The performer sets the scene and strikes a dialogue with the listener and the yarn is spun depending on how the two interact over a call which can last anywhere between 30 to 50 minutes.

“The idea for this performance was born out of our fascination with the good old days of the telephone. There is something very intriguing about hearing the voice of another person, trying to connect with you over even the most mundane things. If you think about it, every phone call or conversation is a theatrical performance. It is interactive, immersive and personal, and that’s what we wanted to explore with Lifeline 99 99,” explains Gaurav Singh.

The significance of 99 99, as the disembodied voice informs the listener at the beginning, is to denote the feeling of always missing out on something, sensing an absence, or experiencing the anxiety of a desire remaining unfulfilled – “like a download stuck at 99%”. With such a premise in place, each of the stories set out to interrogate the absurdity of life as we know it. At this point, this may remind one of the absurdist works which rose out of the ashes of the World War II and prompt the question: was Lifeline 99 99 developed due to the Covid crisis?

Writer and co-director Akshay Raheja says, “This play was not created as a response to the pandemic, however, the consequences of it definitely inspired the format and content of the play. It made us rethink human connections in a socially distanced world.”

In fact, the directors say that the idea of bringing together interactive narratives centring on the absurdity of human life struck them back in March 2020, shortly before the world went under lockdown. “Akshay and I had initially envisaged this project as a 360º video show where audiences would wear a VR headset to interact with the stories. But then the pandemic hit. In September 2020, we began reimagining the show for a form that can be experienced and executed while we continue to remain at home,” explains Singh.

This led to research on the medium of telephone and IVRS, putting together a team of performers with a background in narrative-based storytelling and improv, devising the stories during rehearsals, and bringing the experience to life using a cloud telephony platform called Exotel. “It is a unique collaborative experience, where the flow of creative exchange goes both ways between the actors and the directors. Rehearsals were fairly open-ended, where we tried out-of-the-box ideas and techniques. If something clicked, it found its way into the script,” shares performer Nikie Bareja.

For ensuring a smooth ride between each ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, the team—which comprises seven individuals across six cities and three time zones—has a lot to tackle. Coordinating common times for rehearsals and discussions is a concern. Then come the preparations before each day’s performances, which are strictly time-bound. “For it to be a fruitful experience for both the audience and performers, we have taken certain measures like limiting our audience to five members. Before each day’s performances, we send out reminders so the audience members dial in the IVRS and make their choices on time, so that we have plenty of time to match them with an experience and coordinate with our performers. The entire process gets delayed if even one person does not call or respond on time,” says production manager Stuti Kanoongo.

Meanwhile, it is a different ball game for the performers. How do they prepare for a performance they have little control over? Raghav Seth prefers to place himself in a quiet space, while Kumar Abhimanyu hones the rhythm of his character and focuses on words which are unique to him before dialling into each call.

Things also get more interesting without the proverbial fourth wall separating the actor and spectator. “The line between performance and reality is blurred because it’s a live phone call and the audience is as much a part of it as I am, but the best part is that anything can happen. No two performances are the same because no two people are the same and that drives the experience to different places,” notes another performer Ramita Menon.

Each session also comes with its share of curveballs. “One time, the audience member found a loophole in my existing world and it was an interesting challenge for me to figure it out in real time,” says Seth.

But isn’t such theatre—where the audience is alone in their own space, with nothing to look at, and expected to be part of the performance—a hard pill to swallow for people used to more traditional forms? Gaurav Singh agrees that this might be very new for Indian audiences and does throw off many due to the overturning of conventions. “But while the audience experiences the pressure of participating, they also have the power to steer the narrative. At the heart of this (theatrical) play, there actually is an element of play, and our goal is to bring forth that playfulness in a comfortable space.”

Lifeline 99 99 is currently playing for audiences in India. You can register for the upcoming shows on 3, 4 April by visiting the link bit.ly/lifeline9999.