Gaurav Singh and Akshay Raheja Interview
Kaivalya Plays is a performing arts and production company led by Varoon P. Anand as its Artistic Director and Gaurav Singh Nijjer as General Manager. Over the course of seven years, the group has created innovative artistic experiences with a focus on community-building.The concept of their upcoming show LIFELINE 99 99 revolves around a telephone line that interrogates a critical question that confronts us today - in the age of growing indifference and shrinking empathy, can one still create a genuine human connection?Gaurav Singh and Akshay Raheja, the Co-directors of the show gives an insight into what the show aims to convey and what has their experience been like while preparing and executing the show.

 By Parul Rana

Please tell us in brief about your upcoming show LIFELINE 99 99. What was the inspiration behind the concept?
GS: LIFELINE 99 99, is a one-of-its-kind interactive theatre show that takes place over a telephone call. Audience members dial in and choose between seven different experiences and undertake a one-on-one conversation with a living, breathing character on the other side. The show combines IVRS technology with live storytelling on the phone, for which we have partnered with Indian cloud communications company Exotel. The idea of bringing together interactive narratives that capture the absurdness of our lives came to us way back in March 2020, a little before the world went into lockdown. We had initially envisaged this project as a 360┬║ video show wherein audiences would wear a VR headset to interact with the stories. But then the pandemic hit and everything paused. In September 2020, we began reimagining the show for a format that can be experienced and executed whilst most of us remain at home. We researched the medium of telephone and Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) to introduce choices in narratives for the audience. We put together a team of performers with a background in narrative-based storytelling and improvisation and then devised the stories in rehearsals. To our knowledge, this is the first show of its kind being attempted in India. There have been other one-on-one shows elsewhere in the world, but none are structured like LIFELINE 99 99.

Theatre on phone is a very rare and unconventional experience. Why was the telephone particularly chosen over other mediums?
GS: We have been inspired by the idea of capturing and understanding 'life' in a theatrical interaction by interrogating the audience-performer relationship. The precedence for telephonic performance was ghost calls from our childhood, wherein we would dial a number and hear a recorded ghost-like voice. With the advent of technology, such as Whatsapp calling and Zoom, the good ol' telephone has been relegated to receiving only "service" calls, such as food delivery, insurance, teleservices, etc. In a time where connecting is difficult, we decided to go back to the telephonic medium as the place for this exploration. In September 2020, we tried out this idea by creating a trial account on an IVR System. We realised that our ears are so akin to listening to the computerised machine voice for providing everyday services, we never imagined it could be suitable for story-telling. The show is a distinctly different experience from Zoom theatre and pre-recorded audio plays that have emerged in the pandemic. It is live and there's something real at stake, for the audience and the performer. It is an audio-only experience that audiences can attend from the comfort of their beds.

Why is the show named LIFELINE 99 99?
GS: The idea for this performance was born out of Akshay and my fascination with the good old days of the telephone, wherein voice calling preceded text messages and video calls. Today, we only have transactional, service calls on the phone - food delivery, life insurance, customer care etc. Something is 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. That's where the 'Lifeline' comes from, an absurd telephone line where humans connect over something crucial to their lives. 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 - there is something, one thing, missing from all of our lives at the moment. It can be a person, a desire, a success, a relationship or anything else that we perceive will complete us.

Since it's an interactive theatre experience wherein most of the content in the final show would be improvisational, please share with us the process of preparing and rehearsing such a show?
AR: LIFELINE 99 99 is based on a predefined script (structure, world, and characters). It's been a unique collaborative experience, where the flow of creative exchange went both ways between the actors and the directors. Rehearsals were open-ended, using improvisation and theatre games to devise the worlds of the characters, interrogating the legibility of characters in different situations, working on rhythm and duration and negotiating levels of interaction at different stages within each narrative.

However, the final performance is comprehensive, unpredictable, and significantly dependent upon the actors to build bridges amongst appropriate extracts from the narratives.

Moving ahead when the theatres reopen, do you see this format adapting to a show conducted in a theatre hall?
AR: This play was not created as a response (of the art form) to the pandemic, however, the consequences of the pandemic definitely inspired the content of the play. It made us rethink human connections in live conversations as opposed to telephonic ones. When we set out to create this telephone line, we wanted to preserve the life of human interaction by restricting it to a one-on-one audio performance, as theatrical as it could be. We think the novelty of the idea would maintain its relevance even when performance venues open up.

GS: With this show, we can continue reaching out to audiences who may be isolating at home or even wanting access to a more visceral performance experience that places them at the center of it. We also foresee this show reaching audiences for whom in-person theatre shows would otherwise be inaccessible, such as those with limited vision or different access needs. It is also interesting to note that the telephone is a medium that everyone is familiar with, there is very little "technical adoption" that the audience has to do to receive the optimal experience, and this is an exciting opportunity for us to grow more theatre-on-telephone performances.

Anything else you would like to share about the show?
GS: Audience members dial in for a unique experience where they get to choose from seven distinct, live, and interactive 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, personified - all telling you something about the times we live in.

This is the second run of the show, which originally premiered in February 2021 and had 120 callers dial in to create over 140 hours of drama on the phone. We now have seven experiences available from the initial five. We have partnered with Exotel to make this available for audiences in the UK, US in addition to those in India, so the technical setup behind the show has a bigger scale.

There is also more focus from our end on reaching diverse audiences that may not have engaged with "Zoom theatre" or visual-heavy digital theatre due to lack of tech savviness/adoption, those with limited or impaired vision (our show is audio-only) and those suffering from screen fatigue etc.

*Parul Rana is a theatre enthusiast and movie buff.

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