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An intimate show spread over thousands of miles

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'Lights off'
High above the lights of downtown Minneapolis, Euan Kerr takes part in a "lights off" segment of the "Call Cutta in a Box by Rimini Protokoll, a play presented as part of the Walker Art Center's "Out There" series, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010.
MPR Photo/Laura Lynn Gill

This weekend the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis begins presenting a very intimate theatrical experience. There's just one performer - and one audience member. 

The production opens the Walker's annual cutting edge "Out There" festival. Another wrinkle on the show is the performer and the audience member are thousands of miles apart. 

The full title is "Call Cutta in a Box: an intercontinental phone play." It happens in an office high above Minneapolis, on the 40th floor of the IDS Tower. Yes, the actual IDS Tower.  The audience, that would be me, is ushered in and shown the phone.

After a short wait the phone rings.

"Hello?" I answer.

"Hello! Am I speaking to EE-vahn?" says a distant voice.

"No, it's pronounced 'YOU-in' but yes," I stumble.

She apologizes for the mistake, and then continues.

"I am just going to welcome you in by saying 'Namaste' because I am calling all the way from India. I am Alakananda and you can find my business card on the table. Can you see it?"

Talking to a call center
MPR reporter Euan Kerr talks to Alakananda Das, who is in an office at Descon, a call center in Calcutta, India, Jan. 7, 2010. Euan was the sole member of the audience for a performance of "Call Cutta in a Box," being presented by the German group Rimini Protokoll as part of the Walker Art Center's 'Out There' series. The play is being staged at the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Laura Lynn Gill

I swivel in my chair, and there it is.  

And so we begin to chat. During the next hour I learn Alakananda really does work in a call center in Calcutta. She tells me about life in India. As we talk she directs me to other things in the room where I sit, including the tea kettle. 

It turns out the room has been converted into a set and she can control some of the props from her desk thousands of miles away. She boils the kettle and I make a cup of tea, which I enjoy  during the rest of the show. She also asks me questions and announces she would like to guess my age.

"From your voice I would say you that you are around 35 years old," she says.

I thank her for her kindness, but she is wrong.

"Am I high or low?" 

She was tragically low.

Rimini Protokoll's Sebastian Bruenger works through the final arrangements behind "Call Cutta in a Box" in Minneapolis. The show has been done in Europe, Africa and now the USA.
MPR Photo/Laura Lynn Gill

She eventually coaxes my birthday out of me and tells me I share the date with India's Republic Day. 

She even sings.

It would be giving away to much to say what happens during the rest of the hour, but it was at the very least thought-provoking. Like, for instance, the sensation of a stranger singing in your ear, albeit from thousands of miles away.

"For us it is always interesting how close or how far you are from a person you don't know," said Sebastian Bruenger. 

Sebastian Bruenger is the dramaturge with Rimini Protokoll. It's the German group which developed the idea for "Call Cutta in a Box." 

Curator Philip Bither
Philip Bither is performing arts curator at the Walker Art Center.
Photo courtesty of the Walker Art Center

He says it began developing the show a few years ago when there was growing concern in Western Europe about the way call centers were being outsourced to Eastern Europe and India. Group members thought it would be good for people on both sides to talk outside the parameters of the usual call center conversation.

Rimini Protokoll worked with about a dozen call center workers in Calcutta, both women and men.  The show has now been presented in a number of countries around the world. 

Bruenger says each performance is unique, shaped by the place, and the individuals involved.

"Call Cutta in a Box" launches this year's "Out There" festival at the Walker Art Center.  While it's a solo experience, Walker Performing Arts curator Phillip Bither hopes people will sign up in pairs so they can discuss what happens, and its implications. 

No dancing for Euan
As Indian music plays from the desk drawer, Euan makes excuses about not being able to dance because of his footwear.
MPR Photo/Laura Lynn Gill

"It lets you go places that you wouldn't predict," he said. "Of course it's structured, the conversation and there are a series of questions, and there are prompts for conversation, but there's a fair amount of self-determination around what the experience will be." 

And that, says Rimini Protokoll's Sebastian Bruenger, is where things get even more interesting. 

There is what Bruenger calls the service mentality inherent in any conversation between an individual and a call center worker. But in the anonymous room, talking to someone on the other side of the world, the line between performer and audience becomes blurred.

"It remains to be seen how truthful this conversation is from both sides, how much lies and how much truth is in there," he said. "And how much are you as the audience are willing to give away. 

"What are you pretending to be? What are you telling? And what is the other side pretending to be? And it's about a comparison of the two world in a way."

In years past, "Out There" shows have only run for a few days. However, as there are only two rooms set up for "Call Cutta" the show will run for three weeks, allowing about 350 people to see it.  

Or perhaps that should be engage in it.