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Drama down the line: now, speak with a character in theatre over the phone

31 July 2021

Drama down the line: now, speak with a character in theatre over the phone


Reema Gowalla

A review of the theatre production 'Lifeline 99 99' in The TheatreRoom.

Striking up a conversation in times of isolation, Kaivalya Plays’ IVR-powered phone theatre performance ‘Lifeline 99 99’ is an immersive experience you can be part of from home

‘Lifeline 99 99' recaptures the rigour of a physical space on the digital medium
By Reema Gowalla

Heard of phone theatre yet? No, it’s not like the one we call a radio play, nor it is a pre-recorded streaming. Here, you dial a number and indulge in a conversation with a real character about life and the times we live in. In a physically-distanced world, where empathy is scarce and we crave connection more than ever, Delhi-based Kaivalya Plays has come up with an immersive storytelling fix that’s both high-tech and nostalgic of sorts.

Lifeline 99 99 promises a unique, interactive theatrical experience for every participating audience member who picks up the phone to speak to one of the seven live characters — a conflicted sex chat operator, an aggrieved idealist, a dude alien, a morbid insurance agent, a memory alteration researcher, an ethical scammer or art itself. Premiered in February this year, this improv is set for its second run in August, spanning four weekends.

“It was originally planned as a Virtual Reality (VR) performance at a physical space. But given the pandemic situation, we instead resorted to the Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) technology, which is mostly used in an aesthetic manner to allocate different episodes to the audience members,” says Akshay Raheja, writer and co-director of the show.

Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Adding to that, Gaurav Singh Nijjer, General Manager at Kaivalya Plays and co-director of the performance, says, “During the first leg of the show, when seven of us were working from five different cities — Delhi, Bengaluru, Bhopal, London and Madrid — this separation of time and space were factored in to craft the distinct experiences. The focus remains on interaction — we ask a lot of questions, play different games. The idea is to leverage this distance, constantly prodding the audience member to engage and communicate.”

While the global health crisis compelled theatre-makers and artistes to reimagine the art form within a data-driven, digital construct, this project brings to you a live, in-the-moment performance punctuated by gestures of empathy and compassion, albeit over the phone. “Based on one’s comfort level, willingness and sense of safety, the audience-participant can choose from three stages of interaction — low, average and high. They are allowed to disengage or drop the call at any moment,” says Gaurav, who is also performing in the show and handling the technical part of it. It’s presented in partnership with Exotel.

Nikie Bareja
Describing being part of the project as extremely thrilling, actor Nikie Bareja says, “I am a big lover of devised work, and Lifeline 99 99 has been a particularly liberating experience. During rehearsals, the flow of creative exchange went both ways between the actors and the directors. Even though we have preempted a few questions, every one-on-one call takes a unique turn making it an exclusive and intriguing experience both for the performer and the audience member. Many a time, you just go with your gut, pushing the boundaries of storytelling and rediscovering yourself along the way.”

The auditory form encourages one to drop their guard, listen and react to notions almost instantaneously, making room for a collaboration that can only happen in improv. “It’s a sound bath of sorts, as the performer also gets to explore his/her voice in a live interaction,” Nikie adds. Among the other performers are Kumar Abhimanyu, Rochan Mathur, Ramita Menon, Raghav Seth and Vanshika Verma. The upcoming show is managed by Saumya Upadhyay.

Akshay Raheja
The first edition had as many as 120 callers dialling in to create more than 140 hours of drama on the phone. “People have reached out to us with their feedback days after the performance was over, which meant that the experience did not fizzle out right after the show ended. Memorability aside, audience members have a say in the content and the direction it takes during each episode, which typically lasts for 30 minutes or more,” explains Akshay.

“At a time when ‘Zoom burnout’ is taxing the brain, a show that dispenses audio-only acts and allows you to immerse in a performance while sitting in your pyjamas at home is oddly welcome. Shrugging off their fear and anxiety, participants are indulging in conversations about human crisis with quirky strangers and finding it therapeutic too,” Gaurav sums up.

Lifeline 99 99 is scheduled to take place on August 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 28 and 29 (at 6 pm, 7 pm and 10 pm IST). To be presented in English and Hindi, the interactive, one-on-one theatre experience on the phone will be open to audiences in India, the UK and the US. You can book your tickets here.

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