Simon Houpt previews Call Cutta In A Box, an unusual performance piece featured at the Sharjah Biennial that makes the viewer its subject and confronts us with the alienating convenience of the global call centre. It's not easy being a working actor. There's the intense competition to worry about, the difficulty remembering lines as you get older, and the other effects that ageing can have on your ability to keep a fickle public in love with you. To make matters worse, performers may soon face an unlikely threat: offshore outsourcing of their jobs.
At least that's one implication of Call Cutta In A Box, an innovative performance piece coming to the Sharjah Biennial. It features an unusual setting, a script that changes with every performance and no professional actors. Even more intriguing: if you go to a performance, you'll be the only person there. A little while ago, I caught the piece in New York during a popular four-week run at the Goethe Institute on Fifth Avenue, in the high-end neighbourhood of the Upper East Side. Checking in at the front desk, I was directed to a room at the top of a winding staircase. But once up there, I was alone, confronted only with an English-language poster for an Indian company pitching jobs at a call centre, and a closed door.
I knocked, and when there was no answer, opened the door and walked into a sun-filled room offering a view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art across the street. On my left was a computer workstation, above which hung two photographs: a peacock and a smiling Indian man. In the far corner of the room a small table next to a white couch had been set with an electric kettle, a mug, a few tea bags, some sugar packets and a cordless telephone. I sat down and a minor sense of anxiety settled in. Was I being watched?
The phone rang, and a man on the other side of the world introduced himself to me. He was in a call centre in Kolkata, he said, directing my attention to a business card on the table. His name was Subhaditya, but I could call him Shubu; he joked that even his friends have trouble with his full name. He began asking questions: was there snow on the ground? Was I seated comfortably? Might I like a cup of tea? The kettle turned on and began steaming. The table started to rattle, and Shubu explained that he could do many things like that if he wished. He could turn on the stereo above the fireplace, raise the thermostat, flip the lights on and off.
"Tell me one thing," he said. He sounded stiff, as if he was reading from a telemarketing script, and I myself braced for a sales pitch. But instead, he asked me about yoga, and reincarnation and whether I'd ever been to India. He told me he was doing a master's degree in computer studies and that he wanted to be reincarnated as a dolphin even though he'd never seen one himself. Behind him, I heard the faint sound of people applauding, and Shubu told me his co-workers were congratulating someone on a sale.
Then he asked that I close my eyes, and he sang me an Indian lullaby. He wasn't a very talented singer, but there was a sincerity to his crooning that made me feel an instant bond. He instructed me to walk to various points in the room, to stand on a makeshift stage and dance a little. No one was watching, he assured me, and besides, aren't we all performers? Don't you, he said, play many roles in life: as father, son, husband, citizen, worker?
By the time he directed me to the computer workstation, I wasn't sure any more who was playing what role: was he performing for me, or vice versa? He asked me to sing a song, anything that came to mind. Suddenly struck with stage fright, I shut my eyes and warbled a lullaby I used to sing to my infant son many years ago. When I finished, I heard applause on the other end of the line. "More sales?" I asked Shubu. "No," he said, "they're clapping for you."
On the computer screen, a Google Maps satellite image of Kolkata appeared and Shubu, remotely moving the cursor, showed me where he lived and where he worked. Suddenly, his live image appeared on the screen, with a countdown clock above his forehead working backwards from five minutes. He asked me to lift up a plant pot from the corner of the desk, which revealed a tiny black cube with a red curtain. The cloth swung aside, and a spy camera pointed at me: now, we could both see each other. Shubu panned his camera around the office, showing me some of his co-workers - he was in a real call centre, Descon Limited, complete with an Indian flag and some leftover holiday decorations. The camera caught a bank of windows, black with night, and Shubu showed me his watch: it was 1.30am. The office was abuzz with activity.
When the countdown clock hit 10 seconds, the display turned red and began flashing. Shubu gave me another couple of instructions, and told me to keep in touch, if I wished, through the email address on his business card. Then he waved goodbye. The line went dead and he disappeared from the screen. I felt that I had lost something. I couldn't even say thanks, or applaud. Developed by the genre-busting three-person German theatre collective Rimini Protokoll, Call Cutta In A Box (subtitled An Intercontinental Phone Play) follows other call centre pieces the company has done, including one in which people received a guided mobile phone tour around Berlin by someone in Kolkata. The performers are not actors, though the members of Rimini Protokoll have noted in the past that call centre operators are always actors of a sort, playing a role that, above all, masks the reality of globalisation. Apparently, people don't like to be reminded of outsourcing when they're ordering a pizza from the place around the corner or wrangling with a customer service representative.
But Call Cutta's visit to Sharjah should make for a particularly rich melding of globalisation's dynamics, given the high percentage of the local population that are expatriate Indians or Pakistanis. Rimini Protokoll is staging the piece at the Rotana Hotel, a luxury Arabian outpost in a predominantly foreign neighbourhood. Rimini Protokoll's Stefan Kaegi says he's curious to see how the piece plays in an area dominated by expats. "I'm not sure any Emirati is going to participate. Probably more the foreigners," he chuckles. "Obviously, the whole question about what globalised communities do when they get together is very relevant." He wouldn't be surprised to find many of the conversations taking place in Hindi. Homesickness will be a natural side-effect.
Maybe, he suggests, the call centre employees will tell Indians on the other end of the line that they don't need to live in the UAE to make a good salary, that they could earn the same wage in a call centre around the corner from their own families. (And of course they could always jot down the number on that recruitment poster.) Go to the theatre and come out with a job offer? An actor could get jealous.