INTERVIEW: At “Utopian Hotline”, an audience of 12 people imagine a more perfect future

Photo: Theater Mitu’s Utopian Hotline features Isis Bruno in the foreground and Monica Sanborn in the background. Photo courtesy of Alex Hawthorn / Theater Mitu / Provided by Everyman Agency with permission.

Theater sets have changed since the start of the pandemic. Take the Mitu Theater in Brooklyn, which currently hosts their production of Utopian hotline to the Most Intimate Crowds: 12. That’s right, only a dozen people can attend a single performance, which helps keep COVID at bay and provides a much more intimate experience for this unique show.

Utopian hotline, led by Rubén Polendo, was developed in partnership with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative and Brooklyn Independent Middle School, according to press notes. The show is inspired by the “Golden Record” sent by NASA in 1977 to the outer reaches of space. This time capsule‘s communication device would hopefully be found by others in the afterlife and help them understand all there is to know about Earth. Utopian hotline consider what would happen to this “Gold Record” if NASA (or Richard Branson) sent another one to space in 2021.

So how exactly does Theater Mitu achieve this concept? The dialogue spoken in Utopian hotline is in fact inspired by the messages left on a real hotline which was set up so that people leave their anecdotes and their thoughts; these ideas now form the narrative structure of this unique Brooklyn show. The messages will be transmitted to the spectators via four actors. There’s also a 30-foot video installation, headphones, and a pink carpet.

For the public to understand better Utopian hotline, Polendo has exchanged e-mails with Hollywood soap box. Questions and answers have been edited slightly for style.

What can members of the public expect from Utopian hotline?

We have created an immersive installation at MITU580, where an audience of 12 is invited to take off their shoes, put on headphones and join us on a soft pink carpet. The experience is similar to an album listening session. When I was younger I would get together with friends and listen to these albums. We would gather around a record player and listen to the two full sides of the most recent vinyl we had obtained. We would sit down and look at the art on the album, the lyrics – it was like kind of a group meditation. We have designed a common audio and visual experience with this in mind.

The project is the result of a two-year research process collecting answers to the questions, how do you imagine a more perfect future? And what message would you send in the future? We created a hotline and collected the responses from the voicemail messages, then interposed them with messages from astronauts, scientists, futurists and college students. Their answers are transmitted and musicalized by four performers. It is a 45 minute portrait of a future filled with longings, dreams, worries, loneliness, love and hope.

How did this unique spectacle first develop? Was it a collaborative creative process?

We’ve been working on this project for over two years – our process as a company is a deeply collaborative and inclusive one. I count on the members of the company to bring their unique strength to each project. We combine our research with performance, technology and installation from the start of our process. It directs us to other research and themes that need to be unpacked.

For this project, we were fascinated by NASA’s Voyager project and the Golden Record they affixed to both probes and sent to study our solar system. We have partnered with SETI and the ASU Interplanetary Initiative and have had unprecedented access to the people who created the Golden Record and continue to work on Project Voyager. These people are actively conceptualizing and building a better future by looking beyond Earth into space.

In order to bring him home, we also knew that we had to speak with the direct heirs of the future. So we reached out to our partners at Brooklyn Independent Middle School, who we’ve been working with for two years to teach seventh-graders about creative art techniques and involved their students in conversations that added another layer to the play.

Has it been difficult to anticipate possible COVID restrictions?

The short answer is yes, but the more complicated answer is that this coin has been shaped by COVID in an expected and unexpected way. Ideas about what our future will look like have been an integral part of every conversation over the past year. In terms of best practices and strategies for restarting Covid, we have limited our audience to 12 people and society members to four artists. Our total capacity is 74, so that’s a major adjustment for us.

We are a vaccinated and masked community, and the public is required to provide proof of vaccination at the door. We hope to have a welcoming, meditative and open space – for many folx this will be our first time returning to the theater. We hope this experience relieves any worries or stress about this. We have thought through every step of the production and have remained flexible in changing restrictions so that we can provide our audience with a safe and socially distant experience. In some ways, the article talks about these restrictions – at the end of the day, the work is an examination of how we connect despite the overwhelming challenges and obstacles.

Do you think COVID, in a weird way, has caused theater directors to get even more creative?

Absolutely yes. The theater is limitless, agile and has always been able to adapt to the present moment. Things have changed culturally, socially and economically in ways we never could have imagined. One of the challenges this poses for artists is how to create and share works in new ways? How to get rid of the artistic legacies that open this moment to his greatest creativity? How do you mourn the incredible losses of the past year, while celebrating the amazing resilience of the human spirit? We have always been committed to disrupting tradition and innovating in the processes we use in theatrical creation – it is at the heart of our business. In many ways, meeting these challenges is a natural extension of our work as a company over the past 20 years.

What message do you think we should send in the future?

Over the past two years, what I have learned from researching, hotline and doing the work is that what is most important is a plurality of messages. This is an overwhelming question – so I would suggest that the answer must be just as overwhelming. I would send a message consisting of millions and millions of messages.

How is coming together in community a radical action?

Because there is strength in the community. We know that. We have known this since ancient times. It is most essential in our darkest times. But there are obstacles, obstacles, challenges. These can be simply overwhelming and debilitating. The past year has been a perfect storm of these challenges – many of which have exacerbated division and engendered fear. Whether because of the public health landscape or the socio-political climate, this fear is sometimes quite palpable. I firmly believe that despite these fears and hesitations, we must find ways to come to community – radical ways. Whether it’s creating group texts and hopping on group Zoom calls, or creating hotlines and gathering 12 people with masks in a warehouse in Brooklyn to re-imagine our common future.

By John Soltes / Editor /

Utopian Hotline, directed by Rubén Polendo, continues through September 26 at MITU580 at Theater Mitu at 580 Sackett St. in Brooklyn. Click here for more information and tickets.