Arts

This intimate immersive theatre project happens right inside your house — all you need is a phone

Daniele Bartolini and DopoLavoro Teatrale are making social isolation a little less lonesome with Theatre On-Call.

Daniele Bartolini and Theatre On-Call are making social isolation a little less lonesome

Theatre On-Call. (DopoLavoro Teatrale)

When I went into the Google Hangout this Saturday night for "Mystery Guest," the new audio-based performance by DopoLavoro Teatrale, I'll admit I was slightly anxious. The company has become known for its audience-specific immersive experiences that ask for not just audience participation, but a wholehearted jump into the plot; their performances are physical and tend to span blocks of a city space. I've done three of them and shouldn't have been nervous, but somehow, distilling the geography of the piece into a single multi-person conversation carried an intimacy I wasn't sure I was ready for.

DopoLavoro Teatrale has had to make some pretty dramatic moves to make this happen — all of their programming for the next couple of months is on hold, including "The Curious Voyage," a two-day immersive piece that takes audiences from Toronto to Barrie (two years ago, it took them from Barrie to London, U.K.). DLT's founder, Daniele Bartolini, says he feels very connected to our collective predicament that's put theatre across the country in jeopardy: in addition to losing his upcoming programming, his parents are here from Florence, Italy (his original home) and are currently stranded in Toronto, watching their country take a tragic hit from afar.

Bartolini is similarly concerned about performers in Italy and the abrupt truncation of their seasons (and their income). So in a massive pivot, DLT has decided to collaborate with performers from other countries, including Italy, to create audio-based experiences — and they've done it quickly. Their current lineup, called Theatre On-Call, includes "The Invisible City," inspired by Italo Calvino and connecting six strangers on the phone per performance; "Bed Time Stories," where you can be lulled by the voice of one narrator; and "The Decameron," inspired by the 14th-century work by Bocaccio and made up of a variety of stories told by guest performers.

The theatrical performance of Decameron Today. (DopoLavoro Teatrale)

"Mystery Guest," the project I sat in on this weekend, is part of "The Decameron"; in each episode of the series, an unknown guest appears to tell a story. There were a handful of people in the call that began with a meandering discussion about the sea and what it means to people, generally and right now. That opened into a performance of a play called "Make Thee an Ark," presented by Logan Gabriel Schulman and writer Raychel Ceciro. The piece was originally intended as a site-specific work set in a future 300 years away. After global warming has had a decisive and merciless impact, the last of humanity huddles together in the vessel attached to an oil rig.

The play was meant to run in Florida next month, and its writer Ceciro contacted DLT when they saw a post about Theatre On-Call. During our call, cast members did a live reading of the play — a strange experience, with no set or reference points to visualize. But as it went on, I imagined the state of mind of a cast left without any sense of where they would eventually land; it's not a difficult mood to conjure at the moment.

After the play was done, all members of the call weighed in on what the performance evoked for them. The metaphor of water and drowning was acute for some — and emotional. It's close to impossible to look at (or hear) any art right now without squarely placing it in the context of isolation, confusion and anxiety. But it also created a very intimate sense that we had been part of a performance happening only once, in the night, in living rooms or, in my case, my bed.

Daniele Bartolini and his son working from home. (Daniele Bartolini)

Obviously right now, there are a ton of projects grabbing onto the antiquated space of the telephone party line (read: Google Hangout). We're reverting to dated methods of communication. But the attempts to connect are...well, connecting. And DLT is nimble, using its various projects to latch onto the relationships we can create through the lowest production value devices.

Follow them to see what they're up to next — it's easy to sign up, and if you're isolating alone, you'll likely feel less so, at least for a moment. Follow Theatre On-Call here. In the next instalment, called "Decameron Tomorrow," Italian actor Anna Amadori is performing, with a piece that comments on how things are going in Italy and what the value of the 14th-century Decameron holds in thinking about community-based work. You can reserve a spot by writing to dlt.rsvp@gmail.com.

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

Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.