Q & A with 600 Highwaymen
Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, the duo behind the innovative theater group 600 HIGHWAYMEN, discuss their new project, A Thousand Ways. The first installment of this year-long triptych wraps up at Stanford Live on December 6, 2020.
How did A Thousand Ways originate, and how was your creative process altered in the unique circumstances of the pandemic?
The project started sometime after the 2016 presidential election with the idea of creating an experience that was about views that are not our own. We wondered if we could give people an opportunity to begin to really see each other, understand one another, where we come from, what we care about, how our hearts beat. Then, when the pandemic struck, all of our projects were put on hold. We were in Upstate New York and just being very still. But we were also talking on the phone a lot—to friends and family all over the world. We suddenly understood that A Thousand Ways could begin with A Phone Call; we could bring strangers together over the telephone. It seemed like this was the kind of theater for the moment we live in, because there’s something about just hearing someone’s voice and being able to close your eyes and hear their vibrations, to hear the crack in their voice. Figuring out how to turn A Phone Call into a building block for subsequent A Thousand Ways installments seemed like a great project for us to sink our teeth into.
Technology is important to communication during the pandemic when families and friends are distanced across the country and world. It’s also significant to recognize that technology often poses as a double-edged sword that both improves and threatens human interactions. How did you decide on the simple phone call rather than a video call as the initial form of communication in Part One?
There’s something totally analog about the telephone, and the more we played around with the form, the more we fell in love with the innate mystery and strangeness of being unable to see who you are talking to. It seemed to inspire each caller to see the other in a deep way, to imagine who is on the other end of the line, what they come from, what they believe in. While Part Two of A Thousand Ways is all about what we see when we look at each other across a table, Part One connects us to our innate ability to create one another in our minds.
The pandemic has conditioned us to fear strangers, to avoid contact and interaction. It worries many people that we’re entering a sort of amnesia of interacting with strangers. A Thousand Ways seems like an opportunity to recall those chance encounters—on a subway platform, at the grocery checkout line, at the random party you almost didn’t attend but did on a whim. How do you think A Thousand Ways can rebuild connection and intimacy in this isolated and divided moment?
The thing that the two of us miss during these times are the incidental encounters with strangers. Those interactions are actually not marginal at all, but are fairly monumental moments. A Thousand Ways is a series of performances that put us, safely, in arrangements where we are navigating and practicing ways of being together. Furthermore, the project offers the opportunity to have these encounters in an anonymous way, especially in Part One, over the telephone. The other person on the line can’t see you and doesn’t ever learn your name. All they have are some small details about you. We’ve found that anonymity to be exciting. The ways we construct identity these days—at least in the United States—is happening in a very specific way and in a very politicized context. You are in this box or that box. We make assumptions about one another based on tiny fragments. 600 HIGHWAYMEN’s A Thousand Ways offers everyone a chance to take a break from those overused muscles of categorization that we use when we’re looking at each other, when we’re listening to each other, when we’re talking to each other. Each piece of this triptych offers some way to chew on or wrestle with that human habit.