Arts·Stuck at Home

6 phone calls, 1 solution to the quarantine blahs

Stuck at Home with CBC Arts and The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries — theatre designed for social distance.

Stuck at Home with CBC Arts and The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries — theatre designed for social distance

It's a six-day "telephonic adventure," designed for stay-at-home audiences. What happened when CBC Arts took a call from The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries? (The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries)

Leah Collins and Lise Hosein are Stuck at Home. Different homes. And while they're holed up in their respective Toronto apartments, they'll be trying some of the most inventive arts and culture they've discovered online. The world doesn't look the same right now. Neither does art. Join them and see how COVID-19 is changing how we consume all kinds of culture. 

Don't sweat the small stuff, they say. But what if the littlest problems make for an especially useful diversion?

There's something to that in The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries, a "telephonic adventure" created by Toronto immersive theatre company Outside the March. The show's especially tailored for social distance, and the group conceived of the project last month while pondering the needs of stay-at-home audiences and out-of-work artists.

In format, it's ostensibly an improvised whodunit, one that plays over six daily phone calls. Each one is roughly 10 minutes in length, though the first is typically the longest, as an assigned "inspector" gathers the details of the case. Audience members must submit their mystery in advance — real-life puzzles too trifling to merit a 9-11 call, but just confounding enough to drive a week's worth of intrigue: unsprouted seeds, unexplained smells, missing pyjamas and cake pans and more socks than you could ever cram behind a washing machine. (Seriously, cool it with the socks.)

Certainly we're not trying to lessen the stakes of what's going on, but I think we all do need a break from it at some moments.- Co-director,

"We knew we wanted to do something that could be fun and positive and uplifting at a time when we are surrounded by so much that's bleak and hard to grapple with," says Mitchell Cushman, who co-directs the show with Griffin McInnes.

"A mundane mystery felt like a prompt that everyone would be able to answer. Like, we've all had something happen to us that's unexplainable," he says, and since launching, the Ministry's solved more than 150 of these whimsical sagas, personalized stories for all ages. They'll keep operating indefinitely, says Cushman. "We're going to keep keep doing it as long as people are interested, and as long as people are social distancing."

"Certainly we're not trying to lessen the stakes of what's going on, but I think we all do need a break from it at some moments," he says. "And the way in which we're trying to engage with the moment we're in is by recognizing that there's a deficit of human connection and conversation, and that's the part of the crisis we're trying to engage with."

"As long as we can make the experience special for that one person on the other side of the phone, then we've done our job." 

Leah Collins and Lise Hosein recruited the Ministry for some help with their own insignificant problems. Here's what happened to them last week.

(The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries)

Leah Collins: So, Lise: what was your case?

Lise Hosein: Mine was "The Mystery of the Lost Glasses."

LC: Now, I know and you know why that might be a case you'd need solving. But for those unfamiliar, what's the deal? Did you really, truly lose your glasses?

LH: Yes, Leah. How dare you doubt me. I lose them every day. They're lost now. 

LC: Mine was "The Case of the Vanishing Weekend," because I'm basic. And like anyone working from home these days, I've lost all concept of a "weekend." The same goes time in general, really, though getting a regular 1 p.m. call from the Ministry was an entertaining lifehack for keeping track of the passing days.

What happened on your first call? Who rang?

LH: It was one Detective Heins. Warm, reputedly the best, dedicated, sultry. Maybe not sultry. But like, I imagined him to be handsome.

LC: He was my inspector, too. And sorry, Lise — he's married.

LH: Who cares? It's fiction.

LC: I am, as always, invariably square. About that: on day one, I had no idea what to expect. The same is more or less true of the entire week, actually. I think I was picturing a totally passive experience, like I'd pick up the phone while eating lunch, or tapping away on an assignment, and listen to a daily monologue over the phone. Like a podcast, but personalized.

That first call, though, felt super conversational. I mean, we opened by chit-chatting about the city. Heins asked about you, by the way. But he also asked about my favourite song, my biggest fear. I found myself talking more than I imagined — more than I probably get much of an opportunity to lately, if I'm being totally honest.

I interviewed Mitchell Cushman, one of the directors of the show, and he said they made a point of hiring improvisers for the project. They're quick on their feet, but they're also excellent listeners. Did you get that feeling on your calls?

LH: He asked me a lot of the same: about you, about my relationship with you, about my favourite song. He was interested in what objects mean to me, which admittedly is not a lot unless it's my art. Or my glasses. That's a lie. Also shoes.

(The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries)

LC: How chatty were you? (I want to know whether you told a theatrical stranger all of my secrets.)

LH: Very. I told all your secrets. I told him about your hair. But honestly, I was very candid. He felt like a kindred spirit of sorts, of the detective kind.

LC: Is there something about having a phone conversation that made you feel like you could open up? How important is the phone format to the show?

LH: Definitely more comfortable over the phone. And I was definitely taking on a character. But as the week went on, I think I realized I would have been just as much that character in person.

LC: You invented a character! How were you different?

LH: I was...more? More Lise. Just bolder and, like, more talky and a bit more assertive.

LC: I might have shed the "improv" fragment of my personality sometime in Grade 10 drama class, like a vestigial tail made of dreams and original-cast-recording CDs. Or maybe it's because of all the interviews I do in this job. I'm not used to talking much on a phone call. I'm the one who asks the questions, not the other way around, so I was doing more aimless rambling than story-building. 

Still, I didn't get the impression I was supposed to be performing or anything. For any shy readers out there, I really don't think that's something you're expected to do. You're still definitely the audience. (Hey, look! It even says so in the show's FAQ: "You can definitely play along, but you're not expected to 'act.'") But the performers certainly give space for you to respond and have a conversation.

(The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries)

So, did you feel like you were actively contributing to the plot, as a result? What happened over the course of the week?

LH: Yeah. Sometimes I felt like I was driving it, actually. I did try to push past the confines of the story. I tried to push the narrative, to ask questions that didn't feel like they were part of the script. I challenged things they were asking me.

LC: You mean you didn't actually want to find your glasses?

LH: I'll give you an example: the second day, a woman called me. She was also the victim of someone who had stolen a mundane object from her. During the conversation, though, she revealed that she has a YouTube show called What's Hip Now. I thought it was about pop culture, etc. But when I asked her, she said she'd just had hip replacement surgery and so the title was "What's Hip, Now?" That was so hilarious that I needed to make a lot of the call about that show. That's a really existential question I felt must be explored.

LC: That format's too good for YouTube. I hope you forwarded her to the CBC creators fund.

How did the calls figure into the rest of your day? Did they shake up your routine a little? On a superficial level, I appreciated having a daily surprise — a 10-minute brain break, but professionally crafted by an expert team. Or did you ever take something that was happening on a given day and work it into a call?

LH: I don't think I took anything from the calls into my life, but I certainly put my life into the calls. And I felt very included. It went beyond immersive for me, like I had permission to do some improv for the first time. As a shy person, I was proud. I felt like a collaborator as much as an audience member.

LC: You know, they're expanding the cast right now.

LH: Well, count me in. I just have to check the CBC code of conduct. (But psst, Mitchell. Hire me, please.)

(The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries)

LC: Despite absolutely no help from me, the cast managed to take my adventure in a jumble of bonkers directions. I was getting calls from conspiracy theorists. For a while, it seemed the whole thing was an elaborate brainwashing plot being masterminded by Anna Wintour. Or maybe something involving a time fractal? (From my notes: "What's a time fractal?") At one point, I was completely convinced my inspector had been kidnapped. And then, at the end, I discovered what was really going on.

I'm not sure if I should bring this up, actually. It might be sensitive. But because I value our relationship as friends and co-workers, I have to be honest.

Lise, I know it was you. I know you're responsible for my vanishing weekend.

LH: Leah, I have to call you on this. Because the thing is, I know it was you who stole my glasses. I know the whole damned thing, Leah.

LC: Uh...

LH: Your obsession with me (in the kindest way) and how you couldn't deal with this work from home separation. How you built a mannequin of me in your apartment, adorned with things you'd taken from my desk. And the coup de grace? THE GLASSES, stolen by a rented drone while I slept. Like seriously, thanks for all the care, but HOW DARE YOU?

LC: Wow.

Look, it's OK, Lise. You can give up on the act. I know what's going on with you. I know it was you who called me on Tuesday, pretending to be the cousin of someone working at the Ministry. Your diversion worked, OK? But why?

Life is weird these days, and maybe it's making you feel a little desperate — like you'd do things you wouldn't normally, like lying or printing libellous rumours about a colleague in a GChat thread-slash-theatre-review.

LH: Inspector Heins and I had a talk about your memory. We're worried. I'm worried. When we get back to the office, there's a lot of therapy we probably need to do. Mostly about you.

LC: I get it. Your intentions were good. You just missed hanging out together at the office. But recruiting tech support to hack my calendar? Really, Lise? I can't believe you'd drag the entire IT department into this web of lies. I miss you, too! Why couldn't you just call me?

LH: I...have trouble talking about my feelings. But honestly, Leah, I see a next step here. I believe we may have been duped, and infiltration of the Ministry may be necessary.

LC: But they seemed so nice! There was such an element of care to the performances. They had such kind observations to share during our calls — things about you, about me. They're such lovely listeners.

LH: Yeah. I found the actors responsive, definitely thoughtful, incredible at creating believable characters and they brought details of each previous conversation into the next. 

LC: Truce? And we can both agree the show was worth momentarily jeopardizing a healthy working relationship?

LH: Like, there's been a lot of immersive theatre in my little life. This was my favourite. Also, don't ever touch my glasses again.

Case closed. (The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries)

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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