Leonie Rae Gasson and Melanie Frances on HOTLINE
We may be living in the Zoom era, but some theatremakers are turning to another, oft-forgotten medium to connect with audiences. We talk to Leonie Rae Gasson and Melanie Frances about reclaiming the power of the humble telephone
Can you remember the last time you actually left a real-life voicemail for someone? Not a WhatsApp voice note or a Facebook message or a text; a real, raw, after-the-beep voicemail? Leonie Rae Gasson, Co-Artistic Director of the theatre company Produced Moon, can't. "I couldn't tell you the last time," she laughs. "I'll joke that if someone's left a voicemail, they're not our age – that person's over 50! For millennials, calling feels a bit retro. We WhatsApp, leave voice notes, have Zoom parties now... but we don't really call."
We're talking, along with Gasson's fellow Artistic Director Melanie Frances (and via Zoom, of course), about Produced Moon's upcoming show, HOTLINE. Gasson, a performance artist, and Frances, a mathematician and artist, have been creating work together as Produced Moon since 2012. They "make work for the digital age", by creating, as Frances explains, "artistic experiences, theatre pieces, adventures and interactive narratives that take place both on technology and about technology, and the way it interacts with our lives."
It's a wide-ranging, forward-thinking vision, and the company is accordingly ambitious. Since its inception, Produced Moon has created 360 VR films, theatre-video-games, 'robot cabarets', drag king flash mobs and city-wide immersive experiences. But with HOTLINE they are, in a sense, scaling it back. During what has to be the most online era in history, Gasson and Frances are logging off. Their next show will be shared with audiences via one of the earliest methods of electromechanical communication – the phone call.
Why the phone? And what is it about the idea of a theatre show over the phone that feels so, well, soothing? "We were sick of Zoom!" says Gasson, laughing. She points out the need for a different sort of escapism for many people working eight-hour days at their laptops. "We use our digital platforms for everything, and feel so connected to everything all the time," adds Frances. "Right now I'm using Zoom, but I also have my email open and I've been online all morning. Whereas on the phone, the only thing you're really connected to is the other person at the end of the line ... the simplicity of that connection in comparison to the sometimes overwhelming nature of digital platforms really appealed to us."
The idea also grew out of sessions with young people early on in the pandemic. "We'd been throwing ideas about... at first we thought, we're really miserable. Wouldn't it be nice to just ring a number and be told really nice stuff about ourselves, like 'You're great! you're wonderful!'" says Gasson. "[But] sometimes I want to go on an adventure and be out of this world, quite literally, and I want to imagine new futures and do something else. We wanted to make a show that would meet people where they're at."
The resulting piece responds to both of these classic lockdown feelings. Satisfying both a craving for comfort and a thirst for adventure, HOTLINE is an interactive outer space game wrapped in the nostalgic medium of a one-to-one call. Simulating the famous 1969 phone call to the moon, participants will be invited to dial the provided number and 'hack' the call between president Nixon and astronauts Neil and Buzz.
"It asks, do you want to listen and think and dream or do you want to press loads of buttons and solve this escape-room puzzle?" explains Gasson of the piece, that was devised alongside artists Meghan Tyler and Nima Séne, and commissioned by Tron Theatre. They're keen to clarify that it won't just be pure escapism, though. "At the time of the phone call, the Civil Rights Movement was happening, Stonewall had just happened. There's a song we use in the show, Whitey On the Moon, which explicitly says, why are we spending millions of dollars sending two white guys to the moon when look around you? We're interested in that perspective."
It's not the first time artists have explored the dramatic potential of the COVID-proof call. Back in June, Scottish artist Zoë Irvine collaborated with the Bergen National Opera to create This Evening's Performance Has Not Be Cancelled – a call centre that connected callers to 'ushers', creatives who had worked on opera productions all over Europe that had ended up being cancelled due to COVID-19. The ushers shared music and stories from their lost productions.
"I was struck by the intimacy of the experience," says Rachel Boyd, a participant. "We ended up discussing the experience of making calls, and how the technology had changed. [The usher's] generation was the time of landlines and telephone boxes, geared by loose change, whereas now I feel that the impetus to make a telephone call is so often geared by the negative – it's the reserve of communicating bad news. Even counselling and 'listening services' are adapting the short-hand of instant messaging."
For Irvine, who works primarily with sound and has created 'phone shows' before, the live, audio-only aspect was a very deliberate decision. "The phone call provides a liveness and an intimacy that Zoom is missing," she says. "By focusing on the auditory it feels less invasive – but at the same time there is nowhere to hide."
That liveness and intimacy is part of what makes the call between Nixon and the Apollo 11 astronauts so compelling. To Gasson and Frances, it also represents what we are capable of when we dream big. By throwing us into the world of such a wondrous phone call, HOTLINE may provoke audiences to reevaluate the potential of the newer technologies at our fingertips. "The sheer boldness of that vision is what we need now in our approach to anti-racism, to transphobia, to building a more fair and equal society," reflects Gasson. "We're interested in the powerful joy of a dream that big."
Call HOTLINE anytime between 26 Feb and 6 Mar; sign up at tron.co.uk/hotline-launch-registration to receive the number when lines open
Listen to extracts from This Evening's Performance Will Not Be Cancelled at thiseveningsperformance.net/listen