By SIMON HOUPT
26.01.2009 / globeandmail.com
There's some more bad news for struggling stage actors who were hoping they might be spared the wrenching structural shifts that have upended manufacturing and service industries. Things were already grim enough: Graduates of some of the finest theatre schools across North America have watched as their part-time telemarketing jobs disappeared to India. Now, it appears their theatre work is being outsourced to the subcontinent, too.
The other day I made my way across Central Park to the Goethe Institute opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I was waved up to the second floor. I'd been told that's where Call Cutta in a Box, a popular show at the Under the Radar Festival of alternative theatre, would play out.
At the top of the stairs was a recruiting poster for an Indian company touting "Call Center" jobs. To the right, a door. I knocked and, when nobody answered, entered a sunny, high-ceilinged white room overlooking Fifth Avenue. There was a computer workstation to my left.
In the far corner, next to a white couch, a table was set up with a cordless Skype phone, an electric kettle, some tea bags, sugar packets and a mug.
As I took a seat on the couch, the phone rang, and a man on the other side of the world introduced himself. He was in a call centre in Calcutta, he said, directing my attention to his business card on the table. His name was Subhaditya, but I could call him Shubu. Even his friends have trouble with his full name.
He began asking questions: Was there snow on the ground outside? (He'd never seen snow fall, he said.) Was I seated comfortably? Might I like a cup of tea? The kettle on the table suddenly switched on and, after a minute, began boiling away. Shubu said he could do many things like that if I wished. He could turn on the stereo, raise the thermostat, flip the lights on and off.
"Tell me one thing," he began. He sounded stiff, like he was reading from a telemarketing script, and I braced instinctively for a sales pitch. But instead, he asked me questions about yoga, and reincarnation, and whether I'd ever been to India. He told me he was a master's student in computer studies. He related interesting details about an Indian word I mentioned to him, told me he wanted to be reincarnated as a dolphin even though he'd never seen one for himself, and offered a painterly description of the Darjeeling area of India - the source of the tea in my mug - which he insisted I must visit some time. "Just do it," he said, echoing Nike. In the background, I heard people applauding, and he told me that his co-workers were congratulating someone who'd sold something.
Then he asked me to close my eyes, and he sang me an Indian lullaby.
He wasn't a very talented singer, but there was a genuine, open quality 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 in our lives? Don't you, he said, play various roles as father, son, husband, citizen, worker?
By the time he told me to sit down at the computer workstation, I wasn't sure any more who was playing what role. He asked me if I had an idea of what he looked like, and to draw a picture of him. Then he asked me to sing. I froze. But he insisted, and finally I closed my eyes and warbled a made-up lullaby I used to sing to my son when he was an infant. When I finished, I heard applause in the call centre. More sales? I asked. No, said Shubu, they're clapping for you.
On the computer screen, a Google Image satellite map of Calcutta appeared and Shubu, moving the cursor remotely, showed me where he lived and where he worked. Then, suddenly, he appeared on the computer screen. A countdown clock overlaid on his forehead worked backward from 5 minutes. On his prompting, I lifted up a planter box from the corner of the desk, revealing a tiny black box with a red curtain, which swung aside to reveal a spy camera pointed at me. On the screen, Shubu panned his camera around the office, showing me some of his co-workers - he was in a real call centre, Descon Limited in Calcutta - an Indian flag, and the decorations still left up from the holidays. The camera caught a bank of windows, black from the night, and Shubu showed me his watch: It was 1:30 a.m. The office was abuzz with activity.
As 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: His e-mail was on his business card. Then he waved goodbye, the line died, and he disappeared from the screen.
I felt at a loss. I couldn't even say thanks, or applaud.
Call Cutta in a Box, which carries the subtitle An Intercontinental Phone Play, was first mounted last spring, and has played in various European centres. Developed by Rimini Protokoll, a genre-busting three-man German theatre collective, it follows other call-centre pieces of theirs, including one in which people received a guided tour around Berlin by someone in Calcutta. In my case, about half of what Shubu said was scripted, the rest genuine.
The performers are not actors, though as Rimini Protokoll's Daniel Wetzel noted in an interview, call-centre operators are always actors of a sort, trained to play a role. He spoke of his amusement in watching the employees of one Calcutta company mask their location and identities when they handle the telephone orders for a New York pizza-delivery joint.
"For the sake of both the outsourcing company and their customers, the Indian performer first of all has to make sure that his theatre of service hides the reality of globalization." Wetzel said. It might be nice, he suggested, if customers took a moment to appreciate the benefits of their free long-distance phone call and actually talked to the Indian on the line. Which brings to mind E.M. Forster and his exhortation to "only connect." What might he make of this era and its manifold effortless ways of making a passage to India?