Touching From a Distance: “A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter” explores emotional connections between strangers


Two women touch hands with a pane of glass between them while sitting at a table in 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter

After months of isolation and “Zoom socializing,” many of us are probably feeling pretty rusty when it comes to face-to-face conversations with strangers—which seems a raison d’etre of 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter, presented by the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

This intimate, interactive theater experience positions you and a stranger across from each other at a table, with a glass partition between you, in an empty room at UMMA. You take turns reading from a stack of cards—a black arrow indicates which of you the card is for—and you read aloud from it, or follow instructions like, “Imagine what keeps this person up at night,” or “wink with each eye,” or “with your partner, make a box with your hands against the glass.”

Sometimes, the cards ask a series of “yes” or “no” questions, like “Can you drive a stick shift?” or “Have you broken a heart?” thereby providing tantalizing, drive-by insights into your partner’s life.

But because the inquiry always stops at this surface level, it never becomes quite as connective or emotionally absorbing as it could potentially be. 

With each “yes” and “no,” the impulse to dig deeper slowly becomes an ache that’s frustrated again and again; and while the instructions repeatedly ask you to imagine where your partner lives, or imagine the person being greeted by loved ones, we’re naturally prone to fill in blanks with what we know instead of having our perspective expanded by hearing precise, personal details from the stranger across the table.

This intensified longing for more connection may of course be the point—i.e., awakening our desire to talk with and know the people who are finally around us in the world once again—but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed in An Encounter after experiencing A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call (presented by A2SF) last summer. In that iteration, two ticket-holders call in at a scheduled time and have a conversation moderated by a Siri-like recording. Though participants could neither see each other nor did they learn each other’s name, by the call’s end, they’d shared enough stories and uncomfortable truths with each other that the resulting closeness was palpable.

The in-person follow-up Encounter, meanwhile, takes pains to integrate actions that are known to establish a sense of community among people, like working together to achieve a goal (hence the hand sculptures on the partition), sharing a laugh, and singing together (apologies to my partner for my failure to remember as much of “Santa Fe” from Rent as I originally thought I did).

But brief gestures like these are no match for sharing the fleshed-out stories of our lives.

For when (Part One): A Phone Call ended last summer, I spent a day or two grieving the short-lived but profound closeness to a stranger that would never go further. When (Part Two): An Encounter ended—with my partner leaving me with the remains of the card stack, so that she’d be gone when I left just moments later—I primarily felt like a rare opportunity to open myself up to another person hadn’t been fully realized.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter”  runs through April 24 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Tickets are $10 for general audiences and $5 for students.