Margaret Chasteen was watching the news one evening when she saw a story about a Twin Cities improvisational troupe that takes calls from strangers and delights them with witty conversation, something many need given the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Curious, she dialed the phone number, expecting a 10-minute call.
“I ended up talking with a lady for about an hour,” said Chasteen, 59, who has been under lockdown at her assisted living facility attached to a nursing home.
“I have not left the town of Barrett since March 12,” she said. “This was my little escape and I have to tell you, it was really a day brightener.”
You’ve heard about retail therapy and cleaning therapy. How about improv therapy?
The idea occurred to writer and improviser Keren Gudeman during a jog around Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. Guderman works with the Theater of Public Policy, founded in 2012 by Tane Danger and Brandon Boat to tackle complex societal issues with humor and intelligence. They offer workshops, an improv cafe, virtual tours and now “a space to talk about race and being anti-racist,” in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
After her run, Gudeman contacted her operations team.
“I was thinking about how to connect people for, even in time of Facebook and social media, people are very disconnected,” Gudeman said. “And improv artists are great listeners and generally fun to talk to.”
The team applied for a small grant at Springboard for the Arts and got $500 to launch. They set up the program, “Phone a Friend,” where anyone can call in between 10 a.m. and noon every Tuesday and Thursday for free. The number is 1-833-542-T2P2. The program is scheduled through the end of June.
When Chasteen rang, she got Erin Roberts.
“All of my work went away with the pandemic,” Roberts said, “so this was an opportunity to use what I do for a living to contribute something meaningful, to make people happy and laugh. As an improviser, I’ll try anything once.”
Chasteen was curious about her host’s work in improv. So she questioned Roberts about theater, and shared her own interest in the form.
“She was really easy to talk to and a really good listener — it was just nice,” Chasteen said. “It’s something I never expected when I called the number. I told her, ‘You should be a counselor.’ ”
Chasteen even tried out a joke on her audience of one, about a time she considered trying her own hand at comedy. “In ’06, I had a ruptured aneurysm and a stroke as a result of complications, so I had to use a wheelchair,” Chasteen recalled.
“And I said I wanted to be the first sit-down comedian.”
Improvisers, including those at the legendary Brave New Workshop, are among the riskiest cohort of theater artists. They get onstage without a net. What could be so hard about talking with random strangers?
“We are all trained in the skills of being present,” Gudeman said. “We have all these skills and angles for levity and comedy. In lieu of in-person connection, what are the different ways for people to connect?
“Oh, the telephone, what a novel idea.”
The team that takes calls first listens, then goes with the caller’s flow. Roberts recently took a call from someone who was nervous before going in for a surgical procedure. She told some jokes to lighten the mood.
It’s a service, but they have a disclaimer. “We’re not therapists,” Roberts said. “We’re human beings who care about other human beings and like to listen.”
The pandemic has changed how most people listen and talk. Now, it’s all a mediated Zoom world, with a multitude of faces inside squares. Hearing a singular voice on the phone is a comforting throwback.
“Human beings crave social connection so their willingness to open up to a stranger is not shocking,” Roberts said. “But when you experience it directly, it feels like a gift.”