“It was almost like the universe said, ‘In case a pandemic occurs, be working with this company to make something for the telephone,’ ” Maria Manuela Goyanes, Woolly’s artistic director, says with a laugh. Launching her company’s “Woolly on Demand” programming, “Human Resources” is open for dialing Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 1.
“Human Resources” is the brainchild of Sarah Lunnie, Stowe Nelson and Yuvika Tolani, the New York-based thespians who make up Telephonic Literary Union (TLU). Incorporating commissioned work by playwrights Brittany K. Allen, Christopher Chen and Hansol Jung and musical storyteller Zeniba Now, “Human Resources” is a maze of choices — selected by the numbers on your phone — that muse on existential and timely quandaries, from death to loneliness to how to keep your glasses from fogging when you’re wearing a mask. Listeners select from quirky options (“To file a claim for unhappiness, press one. For the Department of Conscious Rearrangement, press two. . . .”) and encounter human and robotic voices.
There’s no “right or wrong way to navigate it,” Lunnie notes, speaking alongside her TLU colleagues in a Google Meet interview. “We built it for people to follow their curiosity.”
Lunnie, a new-works dramaturge, and Nelson, a theatrical sound designer, formed TLU over a decade ago, after meeting at Actors Theatre of Louisville. They were interested in audio drama and yearned to shape their own projects, especially because “as a sound designer and a dramaturge, you’re so often working in someone else’s process,” Nelson notes.
The friends devised small-scale whimsies, like customized bedtime-story calls and, on Lunnie’s porch, a horror-tale-dispensing phone. Then the venture sat on the back burner while Lunnie helped develop new plays (including Heidi Schreck’s acclaimed “What the Constitution Means to Me”) and Nelson racked up theater credits and became production manager at the radio show “This American Life.”
TLU rekindled after Lunnie found herself working on “Shipwreck,” the Anne Washburn play that opened at Woolly in February in a coproduction with New York’s Public Theater. During the process, she hit it off with Tolani, who was promoted last month to director of producing at the Public. Tolani joined TLU.
Lunnie’s work on “Shipwreck” also brought TLU to the attention of Goyanes, who thought a telephone play aligned with Woolly’s adventurous and progressive approach to theater. At Woolly’s invitation, the TLU team pitched an early version of “Human Resources” that involved physical sites in the District. Then the pandemic hit, and the piece was reconceived as phone-only.
Over the summer, TLU reached out to writers who seemed likely to give the phone tree a range of aesthetics and tones. The resulting material brims with dark and deadpan humor, tantalizing images and wry poetry: a seductive itinerary for an escapist vacation, with an intimidating liability waiver; a mysterious conversation, overheard thanks to an ostensible glitch on a line; performer Zeniba Now’s upbeat yet unsettling hold music.
Jung, whose plays have been widely produced in the United States (including at D.C.’s Spooky Action Theater), says her “Claims of Unhappiness” script for “Human Resources” is “my most favorite piece I have written in years — years.” Emailing from Seoul, where she was quarantining, she said that given the aggravating nature of phone trees, “It was so fun to mirror that frustrating process, and give some humor and life to the robot voice we’ve all come to detest.”
The commissioned artists produced their material for TLU over the summer, and then actors — including such big names as Mia Katigbak and David Greenspan — recorded their lines on cellphones or via Google Meet.
However, one of the principal “Human Resources” voices is not an actor but the aforementioned robot: part of the commercially available telephony system TLU incorporated into the piece. The speech-bot’s mechanical diction sets off the scripts’ wit, while hints of quasi-humanity generate what Tolani calls “sneak attacks” of intimacy.
During development, the collaborators strove for relevancy. An option in the “Claims of Unhappiness” section addresses race relations in America, for instance.
“We put a lot of thought into the moment — into how to interact with it in a way that acknowledges it and never makes light of it, and recognizes the weight of it without getting stuck in the weight of it,” says Tolani.
There’s a “spectrum on the hotline, from the deeply internal and introspective and private to the very public and political,” Lunnie says.
The piece arrives at a time when theaters have scrambled to provide remote fare, often via streaming performance. (Woolly’s 2020-2021 season — indefinitely scheduled to take place between this fall and next summer — includes planned in-person shows, too.) The TLU creators, and Goyanes, think the phone mode of “Human Resources” sets it apart, creating a distinctive kind of connection.
“There’s an immediacy and directness” to a phone call, Lunnie says, that “actually does have the feeling of collapsing the sense of distance.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.
Dates: Thursdays-Sundays through Nov. 1.
Admission: $7. Each ticket comes with a code, good for a four-day window, allowing access to the play via a toll-free number.