In the spirit of my first year of college ending, I stepped out of my comfort zone: I went to the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) alone, walked into the Irving Stenn Jr. Family Gallery and sat with a total stranger for an hour.
College forces us all out of our hometown bubbles, which can provide a newfound sense of control over our social lives; I can choose who I befriend, where I go and what I do. More importantly, I can control what I say, how I act and how much I reveal about myself. This freedom to control the narrative of our social lives may not be as liberating as we believe, as holding onto judgments of ourselves and others can close us off from new experiences.
Now, sitting in the gallery, I had no idea who was coming. I couldn’t hear a rumor about them or get a vibe from social media, see who they spend time with or know their major or extracurriculars. And they knew nothing about me.
In collaboration with the UMMA, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival is currently presenting the second phase of the performance art piece “A Thousand Ways.” Produced by the revolutionary Obie-winning theater company 600 Highwaymen, “A Thousand Ways” is a traveling performance piece aimed at connecting strangers around the world. The UMMA hosted the first phase of the art installation, another scripted conversation, over the phone last July and November. This second phase, “An Encounter,” forces the performers to leave the digital world and some of its anonymity behind.
Two strangers sit across a table divided by a sheet of glass, read a series of scripted notecards and collaborate on prescribed activities. In a way, the participants become the actors in a one-hour performance of their true selves. As the strangers draw script cards, they answer questions about their lives and imagine one another’s lives.
At first, “A Thousand Ways” seemed like a manifestation of my worst nightmares. Though I was wearing a mask and no one but the stranger sitting across the table could see me, I had stage fright. As I walked into the bare and sunlit room, staying with a stranger for a whole hour seemed painfully awkward and far too vulnerable for my liking.
As we started the script, sitting in the bare room felt like a sadistic and isolating punishment. Then the cards told us to wink and it did not seem that deep anymore. I started to loosen up and relax into the strange, scripted rhythm. The cards fluctuated between silly and deep. In a series of simple yes or no questions, we told each other things we’d never told anyone else.
“Do you remember the last time you were drunk?” “Are you rich?” “Have you broken a heart?”
The questions on the cards were also purely entertaining. We made shapes with our hands. We imagined one another in a range of scenarios and stared into each other’s eyes. No one had ever stared at me for as long as the person across the glass. I desperately wanted to get to know the person better outside of the room and wondered if that was possible.
45 minutes passed and I had teared up twice, laughed for 20 minutes, and stared at the stranger’s hair, eyes and hands for so long I memorized them. The connection I had with a total stranger was more intimate than any bond I could create with someone I could judge and who could judge me. I know that this stranger reads poetry and does not know how an engine works. I do not even know this about my best college friends. I walked out of the room with a pang in my heart. I did not even get their name.
Forced into a quiet room with no preconceived notions and little but a script, two strangers truly get to know each other. “A Thousand Ways: An Encounter” made me want to stop the obsession with controlling the narrative. In the next three years of meeting new people, I hope to be true to myself in every question and answer and listen earnestly. Then and only then, strangers will turn into friends.
A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter will be at the UMMA until April 24, 2022. Reservations must be made in advance and supply is limited.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at email@example.com.