Experimental theater group lets audience interact with strangers at Israel Fest

Patrons become performers in ‘A Thousand Ways,’ with structured phone calls and meetings that form three-part work

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

In 'A Thousand Ways,' strangers meet and interact, in a triptych of theater created by the audience, coming to the Israel Festival, September 15-22, 2022. (Courtesy: Maria Baranova)
In 'A Thousand Ways,' strangers meet and interact, in a triptych of theater created by the audience, coming to the Israel Festival, September 15-22, 2022. (Courtesy: Maria Baranova)

If you ever find it hard to make conversation with a stranger, this Israel Festival event could be for you. Maybe.

“A Thousand Ways” is a work by US experimental theater duo 600 Highwaymen — Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone — in which members of the audience meet one another as strangers, onstage, conducting a conversation of sorts in three parts.

“With this piece, the audience is telling the story,” said Maya Buenos, a local actor and director who adapted “A Thousand Ways” for the local audience attending the Israel Festival. “Usually we try to figure out the story in a theater piece, but here the story is written by the audience.”

Browde and Silverstone created the piece during the initial lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic, when they sat at home screening online performances, and were struck by what was missing in their living room experience.

The lack of personal interaction between audiences and performers led them to think about people, interaction and chemistry, and how it all works, particularly when strangers are placed together in restricted circumstances.

“What Abby and Michael understand is that this piece has the power to be relevant in terms of other issues we’re dealing with, whether climate change or politics,” said Buenos. “It’s about how we consider the person across from us, how we handle the stranger in our midst.”

The first third of the triptych is “Part One — A Phone Call,” in which two audience members are guided by an automated voice through a structured phone conversation.

In “Part Two — An Encounter,” audience members go to the theater — in this case, the Jerusalem Theater — and are guided onstage, where they sit at a table with another audience member, another stranger, once again conversing, again with the guidance of prompts listed on cards.

The third and final piece is “Part Three — An Assembly” in which a group of strangers comes together, again at the Jerusalem Theater, where their one-hour meeting is guided by a series of instructions, allowing the participants to explore the possibility of creating intimacy between people who were complete strangers at the start of the evening.

Maya Buenos, the Israeli dramatist who adapted 600 Highwaymen’s ‘A Thousand Ways’ for the current Israel Festival, taking place in September 2022 (Courtesy: Maya Buenos)

Buenos was charged with fitting this experience to the Israeli zeitgeist.

“It needed a localization for the Israeli audience,” said Buenos. “You can’t just translate it. If the audience becomes the theater experience, it has to be the cultural language of the audience.”

During the Israel Festival team’s first conversation with 600 Highwaymen, they attempted to describe Israeli culture as well as the small town nature of Israel, where it’s hard to go anywhere without seeing someone that you know.

“We want to avoid having people who know each other, and it could also happen that audience members would end up seeing this former stranger later on,” said Buenos. “That’s the magic of Israel.”

The point of “A Thousand Ways” is having two strangers meet while creating the circumstances that cause people to listen and think differently. The questions and prompts used in each of the three pieces aren’t the usual types of get-to-know-one-another conversational gambits. Participants may find out intimate details about one another without ever learning the other person’s name.

“It allows you to really dive into the experience,” said Buenos. “You experience a person who is also in it, but it’s very structured. You follow clear instructions, and you really listen to the conversation, because it demands your focus and attention.”

“A Thousand Ways” will take place September 15-22, and each audience member can only buy one ticket.

As for the Israel Festival team, they’ll be waiting outside the auditorium following each event to hear the audience’s reactions.

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