Under The Radar Festival's A THOUSAND WAYS is an Incredible Exercise in Intimacy — Review

New York
Photo: Maria Baranova
Nolan Boggess
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January 9, 2021 7:00 PM

I hung up the phone, breathless. I wondered if a full hour had actually passed.

I had just finished 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways. The production, part of The Public Theater’s 2021 Under the Radar Festival, reveals little to its two audience members before it begins. I was told to call a number at a certain time, where I would find a stranger on the other end. An automated voice would be our guide.

“Say Hello,” said our robotic leader.

These days, I rarely find myself speaking with strangers. I even struggle with picking up the phone to catch up with a friend or family member. So, when I found myself on the other end of an unknown person, I was quite nervous. They said, “Hello.” Out of care and respect for my “scene partner” with whom I shared the experience, I will keep most of my review centered on myself. I said “Hello.” 

“Where are you sitting?”

I was happy the questions started off easy. I told the stranger I was sitting on my bed… was that too much?

“Describe the room you are calling from.”

Maybe the questions weren’t as easy as I thought. I can say there is art on my walls, but should I describe it? I wondered if with every detail I gave about my room, the person on the other end would begin to construct an image of who I was based on the small bits of my life. Does one poster make up my whole identity? Certainly not. I described the room the best I could. 

“What is something fragile in your room?”

My eyes darted around and fixated on this ceramic Halloween decoration turned into a jar. I tell the stranger. 

“Describe it.”

I began to describe this small ceramic zombie jar (with a removable brain as the lid, of course). I felt my anxiety fade away. Who cares if the person on the other end knows that I didn’t pack up all my Halloween decorations?. My scene partner had to answer similar questions too. The more we both shared, the more I felt like I could imagine this person on the other end.

“Place your hand on your cheek and close your eyes.” We both did.

Partners Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, the members of 600 Highwaymen, self-describe themselves as artists interested in live performance that creates intimacy amongst strangers. Their work has been a recent staple at the Under the Radar Festival, including the all-audience physically immersive The Fever. Describing their work, they say they want audiences to never lose sight of how public events are people sharing space and time together. During a time where there are almost no public events, A Thousand Ways is the solution.

The startling A Thousand Ways is an incredible exercise in intimacy. It asks us to conjure a stranger physically in our rooms based on small details of their lives. It tells us that what we share about ourselves, however small, is how strangers construct our identity.

The entire performance felt like a masterful theatre game or icebreaker retreat-goers would complete. While the automated voice asked some easy things to get the ball rolling, both my partner and I found ourselves with a lack of words for some of the deeper questions. There were a few times where I blurted out an easy answer instead of digging deep for one. I sensed my partner understood the subtext. I understood their subtext. 

The most scripted portion of the performance is an imagination exercise of a car wreck in the desert. We imagined looking at the wreck, walking to a nearby town, and sleeping under the stars.  “This will be something we laugh about one day,” the automated guide told us. While I appreciated that these images structured the performance, I was more interested in hearing my partner talk about their life and completing various exercises. One moment that stands out is my partner counting one to five while I traced my nose, eyebrow, and forearm. 

I must commend the show for taking me… somewhere. In just an hour, I felt as if I lived an entire life. Or someone else’s life? Towards the end of the performance, we had to say what we will remember about each other. They told me they would remember how I described my sister. 

This stranger, somewhere in the world, is now holding a small piece of my life with them. For someone who loves the intimacy of theatre, I can think of few things more powerful.

A Thousand Ways will eventually be a three-part experience. I am excited to see where the next productions go and wonder if there is a way I can connect with my scene partner again. If you are reading this, thanks for an incredible evening of theatre. Your performance was exceptional. 

Until then, if then ever comes, I have a new passion for the small connections around me and knowledge that fascinating artists like 600 Highwaymen are creating work like

A Thousand Ways. A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call is playing now through January 17. For more information on this performance and others in the Under The Radar Festival, visit: www.publictheater.org

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Nolan Boggess

Nolan Boggess is a theatre director living in Boston. Originally from Iowa, Nolan’s theatre obsession began with the VHS of Cats and one too many productions of The Music Man. A graduate of Grinnell College, Nolan recently worked at the Public Theater in NYC and is currently devising theatre for a history museum. He is so thrilled to be apart of the Theatrely team - say hi to him on social media!