by Madeline Smith
For many of us, Wintersession is an opportunity to catch up on sleep and catch up with friends. Avery Leonard ’14 and Eric Brewster ’14 may not have done the former, but they most certainly did the latter. Pending confirmation from Guinness, the two have potentially broken the world record for the longest recorded phone call.
I admired this effort from the start, as one who avoids all things phone. I squirm when I see a call come in from a mysterious number, have chronic "phone voice," and place most phone calls with the hopes that they’ll go straight to voicemail. But as I stopped by the Adams Pool Theatre to see the feat underway, it immediately became clear that awkward silence was the least of the callers’ worries. The phone call clocked in at 46 hours and 12 minutes, becoming a test of physical endurance, an exploration of what communication really is and, perhaps most of all, a venue for performers to connect with an audience and for audience members to connect with each other.
"This is performance art that explores what defines conversation and how one ‘successfully’ has a conversation," said Mariel Pettee ’14, the director of the production. Guinness World Records presents one definition of conversation via several rules for record-breaking hopefuls, including: "If there is silence for more than 10 seconds the attempt is disqualified," "Single word answers like ‘yes’ or ‘no’ do not count as meaningful contributions," and perhaps most dauntingly, "No two topics of conversation are to be repeated during the attempt."
The performers abided by all of these rules with finesse. They discussed almost 700 topics, which will be submitted to Guinness in an official list. Topics included "hills vs. plateaus," "if sand could go stale," and the lives of the performers in the context of "important pens" they’ve used, just to name very few.
One important consideration for the team was the role of the "audience" in all this, defined as anyone who entered the space, whether for just a minute or several hours. "When we were in the planning phases, I felt like I was winding up a toy, like we were putting all the gears in place, but we didn’t want it to stay at that level; we wanted the audience to be involved in a very real way. It’s very rare for the audience to have that kind of power," said Pettee. "Audience participation went beyond my wildest expectations in the best way."
This participation was elicited in part by what the team did with the space itself—the Pool and surrounding areas were decorated with sheets, pillows, cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, board games, and so on. Pettee envisioned it as a "playground for art."
"I just rifled through my room and found anything that I found interesting," said Danny Erickson ‘14. "A natural conversation isn’t just two people in some kind of vacuum. It’s two people in an environment." During the phone call, Leonard and Brewster referred to the friends who had come to support them as their "visual environment," creating what Pettee notes as interesting dual reciprocity: "You’d think that they’d be dependent on us, but we were dependent on them to keep going. We were reliant on each other."
Pettee and Erickson agree that the experiment was the ultimate bonding experience. A wide array of members of the Harvard community came to watch, including those outside of artistic circles and even the Quincy House Dining Hall staff. Hundreds of others watched a live stream that played online for the duration of the call. But being present in the theater had an impact on Erickson. "It was a totally different world," he said. "It was soothing. I think that’s why people stayed for long periods of time. It was nice to forget everything outside. It was incredibly playful."
Erickson noticed a very social aspect of being in the theater as well. "It was one of the easiest situations I’ve been in to talk to people," he said. "I had some great conversations with people I didn’t know." Pettee agreed, recalling how some audience members brought pillows and stayed the night. "It was a slumber party for all of my friends that I could conceivably want in one place," she said.
The phone call may not be a traditional piece of theater, but it reminds what a theater can do—unite all kinds of people to watch, listen and play.