Only 300 people will get to experience German experimental theater troupe Rimini Protokoll’s Call Cutta in a Box: an International Phone Play , the first installment of the Walker Art Center’s 2010 Out There series—so spoiler alert if you’ve already got a ticket: the following may contain details you would rather learn by surprise, because you paid for them, rather than read about them here for free.
Call Cutta in a Box is less an avante-garde theater piece than it is a clever, amusing concept for creating a unique type of experience—one that only a person living at this moment in history could possibly have. That’s because there’s a lot of technology involved, but more on that later. There are 300 performances of Call Cutta in a Box , all for an audience of one: the ticket holder. Essentially, it’s just a phone conversation with a call-center operator in India, but as the conversation unfolds, and certain secrets and surprises are revealed, it becomes more of a lightly choreographed dance of the mind between two people who weren’t aware of the each other’s existence, but now share a connection, however tenuous, that wasn’t there before the conversation started.
The conversations take place at night, on the 40th floor of the IDS building, in an office of the law firm Lindquist & Vennum (the latter is a great name for a lawyer, but unnecessarily threatening for what you’re about to experience.) You are ushered up by someone from the Walker and, when it’s your turn, you take a seat in an office that has a spectacular view of the city. When the phone rings, you answer it, and from there—depending on how truthful you choose to be with the call operator on the other end (there are 14 of them, 7 men and 7 women), and how much personal information you decide to divulge over the course of the hour (the calls are not monitored or recorded)—an odd but compelling form of interaction occurs, one that is enhanced and oddened by the growing realization that each seemingly innocuous object in the office (the pictures, a plant, a computer, a tea kettle, a waste recycling box) is not there by accident, nor is it quite what it seems.
The experience is further enhanced by the revelation, early on, that the call operator has complete control over every piece of electronic equipment in the room—from the other side of the world. He or she can make the lights dim, turn on the tea kettle, and perform various other feats of cross-continental magic. When my tea kettle started to boil, my operator— Harmeet Singh Rajpal (“Harry” for short)—asked me if I was nervous. “Of course I am,” I said. “This room is obviously wired and you’ve got the switch in your hands. I’m not sure I can trust you.”
Fortunately, a weird sort of trust did develop between me and my operator. The privacy and anonymity of the conversation make it possible to say whatever you want, so you can treat it like a confessional, therapy, or a joke. I decided to make the most of it, and soon found myself telling him things about myself that I have never told another human being. When he asked me, “Tad, are you satisfied with your life,” I hedged: “No,” I said, “I am an American; we Americans are not allowed to be happy. We’re only allowed to pursue happiness. Perpetual dissatisfaction keeps our economy humming.” But when he asked me, “What is the biggest mistake you ever made in your life?” I actually told him the truth. And, much to my surprise, he replied with a wise, philosophically insightful observation about my “mistake” that I had never considered. Maybe it’s an Indian Hindu Buddha thing, but the kid was right—maybe it wasn’t a mistake after all.
I learned a few things about him too: that it was 6:00 a.m. when I talked to him; that he was only 25; that he spends most of his time selling vacation packages to Australians, and that if it weren’t for the call-center business, his professional prospects would be severely limited. The hour flew by, and when it was over I was glad I’d invested some of my true self into the proceedings. Call Cutta in a Box wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but then again I had no idea what to expect, which is part of the event’s charm and genius. There are plenty of less productive ways to spend an hour. As of last night there were still more than a hundred slots still available. If you’re one of the lucky 300, and you talk to my man Harmeet, tell him I said hi—and thanks.
Call Cutta in a Box runs Jan. 8-31, at the IDS Tower, and is sponsored by the Walker Art Center.