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Cross connection: To join this play, dial 1

30 April 2021

Cross connection: To join this play, dial 1


Melissa D’Costa

A review of the theatre production 'Lifeline 99 99' in the Hindustan Times

It’s a format born of the pandemic. A new kind of theatrical experience invites listeners to dial in and listen to a story as it unfolds live. If they choose, the listener can also engage with the action, helping to shape the play as it unfolds.

Lifeline 99 99 blends Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) technology with live storytelling, using a cast and crew of seven — co-directors Akshay Raheja and Gaurav Singh, who double as playwright and performer respectively; performers Ramita Menon, Raghav Seth, Nikie Bareja and Kumar Abhimanyu, and production manager Stuti Kanoongo. The show is produced by Kaivalya Plays, led by Singh and Kanoongo.

Callers can expect to enter the lives of one of five key characters — a conflicted sex-chat operator, a shifty telecom representative, an insurance salesman speaking from the afterlife, a cab driver in outer space and an artist talking about art.

Each enactment is a one-on-one experience. At the start of the show, an automated voice asks multiple-choice questions to help the listener choose which character and tale to engage with. The audience can also influence the narrative by asking questions that can take it in a different direction altogether.

“Today, we only have transactional, service calls on the phone — food delivery, life insurance, customer care, etc,” Singh says. “There is something fascinating about hearing the voice of a stranger, trying to connect with you over something utterly mundane like a parcel delivery, and we wanted to explore how that conversation could be theatrical. The ‘99 99’ comes from the social, cultural and economic significance of the number in our lives, from the psychological trick of having prices end in 99 instead of whole numbers to the 99% loading on our computer screens.”

The Lifeline 99 99 experience lasts between 35 and 60 minutes, depending on the options chosen and the listener’s level of interactivity.

The play was initially meant to be a look at the absurdity of life and, before the lockdown, was planned as a virtual-reality video show with the audience in VR headsets. In September, Raheja and Singh began reimagining it as something that could be experienced by people at home. In November, they put together their team of performers, all with a background in narrative-based storytelling and improv.

Riya, a 19-year-old student and theatre enthusiast from Delhi who goes by only one name, is among those who have dialled in. She was initially nervous, she says. “But the experience was both surprising and liberating. A bot or computerised voice gave detailed instructions 30 minutes before the performance, so it was fairly easy to navigate.”

For the performers, it’s hard not being in the same physical space as the other performers, and not being able to see or hear them a lot of the time either, Menon says. The creative team isn’t just not in the same space, they’ve been spread across six cities in three different time zones (Singh is in the UK and Menon in Spain). “Coordinating common times for rehearsals and discussions has been quite a task,” Singh says.

Lifeline 99 99 opened to audiences in February and in its first phase, had 120 people dial in. For the second phase, planned in June, there are plans to expand the project to seven experiences available to audiences in the UK and US too. “We are hoping to receive additional funding through grants and crowdfunding to expand,” Singh says.

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