Arts·Stuck at Home

If you can't go to the theatre, spend a night by the phone

Stuck at Home with the Corona Variations, a play about life and love in the time of coronavirus.

Stuck at Home with the Corona Variations, a play about life and love in the time of coronavirus

Experience the Corona Variations from anywhere ... just like its mysterious stars. (That's one of the performers, doing the play from home. The cast list is a secret, but the actors' identities are revealed to the audience after the show.) (@to_convergence/Instagram)

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.

Before the dawn of call display, the sound of a ringing telephone could throw Julie Tepperman into a low-level panic. "I'm terrified of the phone!" she says. "I felt so much anxiety not knowing who was calling." 

That kind of suspense has some serious dramatic potential, and Tepperman, co-founder of Toronto's Convergence Theatre is putting it to use in the company's latest production, the Corona Variations.

The show's a series of short plays for telephone — scenes about life and love in the time of coronavirus. From the audience point of view, the whole experience is a three-hour audio adventure, as your phone lights up with six different scheduled calls, all from unknown numbers. 

On some, you're a passive listener, eavesdropping on (scandalously) private conversations. Other times, you're dragged into the intrigue (read: brace yourself for some audience participation). And, through the magic of old-school telecommunications technology, the show can be experienced solo or in a group. Play it on speakerphone for the entire self-isolating household, or patch through friends and family via conference call. Written and directed by Tepperman (who also doubles as phone operator, coordinating eight simultaneous performances from home every night) the show debuted in April. Now in its second run, it's playing to May 31.

Julie Tepperman, creator of the Corona Variations. (www.convergencetheatre.com)

There have been a few minor tweaks to the script, she says — updates to keep the material as contemporary as possible. ("April feels like a million years ago," she laughs.) But the project began during her first weekend in lockdown.

At home with her partner (Convergence Theatre's Aaron Willis) and two children under three, she started writing as a coping strategy. "My imagination, I think, is a survival mechanism," she says. "And my imagination was running wild based on the stuff that I was consuming." News, podcasts: like a lot of people, she was mainlining pandemic info, and feeling overwhelmed. 

"That first weekend I wrote a list of 20 ideas for plays that could happen in the style of a phone call between two people," she says. At the same time, she invented the play's sister project, Converge Against Corona. It's a sort of framework for connecting artists with patrons. (As part of that project, she gathered secret confessions from the public — stories about their pandemic-related anxieties. Some of those accounts helped shape the direction of the play, she says.)

"I felt inundated with people's stories from things I was reading and listening to and then from all of the confessions. And I guess I was writing the kind of thing that I would find cathartic to receive in this moment, recognizing that I also wanted to offer up some lightness and some humour."

Offering it over the phone was something she'd wanted to try for ages. As a company with an interest in immersive, site-specific fare, Convergence has done shows in parks and churches and office buildings and hotels. "Our curiosity lies in doing plays in non-traditional venues and wanting to continue to challenge notions of how and where live performance can take place, and specifically pushing the boundaries of intimacy between the performer and the audience and blurring those lines," she says. "The phone always seemed to be an extension of intimacy."

"What can people fill in when they don't actually have an image of someone on the other line? Where does your imagination go when it's really just the voice?"

Good question. We signed up for a performance, listening at the same time thanks to three-way calling. Here's how it went.

Incoming call! (@to_convergence/Instagram)

Leah Collins: So, "unknown callers." Do you usually pick up?

Lise Hosein: I do! Sometimes because I know it might be a filmmaker or artist (my personal phone is also my work phone) or because I really enjoy fake arrest calls from fake Revenue Canada. (I'm pretty sure you've witnessed this happening at least once.)

LC: See, this is why I figured this was the right show for you. My phone might as well be one of those tin-can-and-string dealies. If it rings, it's only ever fake Revenue Canada, and I don't share the same charitable attitude toward those dudes.

LH: It's really best described as glee bordering on the Satanic.

LC: Ha! Well, I was nervous before the show started. Who was going to be on the other end? Would three-way calling even work? And what if we sat on the line for 15 minutes listening to a robocall, accidentally thinking it was actually theatre. The mystery was...not so fun.

LH: A question: has isolation wrought any change in the way you feel about the phone?

LC: Yes! I've hit peak screentime. My eyes are so tired, Lise. I've become that person on video chats who turns off the camera. Give me just one hour where I don't have to hold eye contact with eight people at once.

So, yes. It has changed the way I feel about the phone.

LH: Now I just feel bad for you.

LC: I'll put it this way: the idea of theatre-by-phone doesn't seem like a whimsical novelty to me right now. It's basically my ideal format.

(OK, now you can feel bad for me.)

LH: It is exactly the ideal format! Not feeling bad for you anymore!

LC: And now that we've done a couple of these tele-theatre experiences, I know the form can be a bit unpredictable. That kind of amped up the mystery pre-show. How was this story going to play out? 

What was your reaction when our first call came through — the scene with the high school kids? 

LH: I was quite busy with the logistics of answering the call, and then honestly, I was so stoked to be "listening in" on a conversation between two teens. They were speaking about COVID in the exact same way my 30-40-year-old friends are — gossiping about who was not social distancing and how novel talking on the telephone is.

What can people fill in when they don't actually have an image of someone on the other line? Where does your imagination go when it's really just the voice?- Julie Tepperman, creator of the Corona Variations

LC: Living alone, the energy of that performance was such a jolt. Their voices were so animated, just tumbling over one another. 

I guess it's another reason why doing a show over the phone really works. Sound can be enough to really build a world and take you someplace else.

LH: It was definitely a jolt. And it was so lovely. I wanted to listen to them talk all night.

LC: Can I loop back to something you said about their conversation for a second — the bit where you said they reminded you of your not-so-young friends?

LH: Yes, sure. I mean, I think conversations about COVID include some ubiquitous themes. We look at what our neighbours and friends are doing; we wonder when it will be over or what it will be like when it is. We lament who we miss and we talk pretty longingly about who we wish we could see. 

LC: Yeah. I think it's safe to reveal that most of the six plays are about ordinary things that are happening right now. A few of the situations are a little more drama-rama than anything in my personal experience, but the content is either stuff you've probably said or heard or wondered about in the last two months. So what makes that compelling? Is it different to hear these conversations in this context?

LH: I think that what's compelling is the range of conversations.

LC: Yeah, I appreciate the variety of perspectives and the mix of tones. There's usually a touch of goofiness, even in the serious scenes, and the plays cover a range of different relationships. I doubt the show is going to make me suddenly empathize with rule-breaking Boomers, but...

LH: I mean, the stories range from two teens frenetically talking to a couple who are trapped in the same space — clearly ambivalent about whether to separate during COVID. There's a couple having an affair, forced to be separated during isolation. A genuinely deranged conversation between overly close sisters. I know these are conversations that are happening. I felt all of them.

And in that way, it brought home the sheer vastness of emotional responses people are having to being isolated and how many of these narratives are forced to play out via phone. It makes you feel less alone in the night, Leah. LESS ALONE IN THE NIGHT.

LC: Feeling this cornucopia of feelings — did it help, at all, with making your THEATRICAL DEBUT?

There is audience participation in this show. I did not think there would be audience participation in this show, at least not audience participation where you have to read a script with an actor. 

LH: OK, so listen. I say this with all love for the Corona Variations: A lot of these via-phone productions rely on audience participation, but in this case, I felt a little artificial taking on a "role," mainly because that role was scripted and not improvised. I see the value in it — putting yourself in the shoes of somebody you are not, during this panoply of telephone conversations that otherwise seemed wholly genuine. But for me, it was the most difficult part of the play because I so enjoyed the aspect of eavesdropping without participating.

LC: It WAS difficult! I found myself listening for possible cues instead of reflecting on what the actor was saying. But that's just me. I'm sure there are many people who would swoon at the chance to read with a real, live, professional.

Can I be sappy for a second? I'm always sappy in these chats, and now is the moment for me to gush that emotional goo all over the GChat window.

LH: Eagerly listening. Go!

LC: My favourite person to talk to was...you!

LH: WHAT LEAH OMG ARE WE IN LOVE?

LC: No, Lise. I am in love with the TELEPHONE.

LH: Oh. That's nice.

LC: But didn't you like how we could stay on the line between the plays? 

LH: I honestly did love our conversations between acts and after it was over. It was great post-theatre talk. NOT because I'm in love with you, Leah. It was the telephone. Just like you. Exactly like you.

LC: I can't imagine having done this without another person on the line. It just wouldn't have been the same. Julie told me that one person actually patched it through to a Zoom call. Instant audience! 

LH: Oh wow.

LC: There's no way to recreate live theatre right now, not that anyone should even be trying to. But one of my favourite things about a night out is the crackle of post-show conversation, and this was the closest thing to it. You get to react immediately after the "curtain" drops — while wondering, just a little, if your chatter's being overheard.

LH: Ha! I didn't even think about that. Oh, God.

LC: I don't think they were listening on the line. (At least, I'm pretty sure they weren't.)

The Corona Variations. Featuring a variety of mystery actors. (Their identities are revealed after the show. No spoilers!) Written and directed by Julie Tepperman. Presented by Convergence Theatre. To May 31. www.convergencetheatre.com

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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