What happens when you put a man next to a random rural phone box, and then tell the world?

Rob Cavazos is an actor, and he’s up for a bit of fun. Not an actor in the 19th century, ‘politer word for a prostitute’ sense, you understand, but a genuine, stage-front, inspiring-speech, standing ovation kind of actor, who’s every day life is about learning lines, perfecting accents and wowing audiences. Every creative profession, of course, has its odder moments in the early stages. For musicians, there’s that awkward early gig in front of a crowd of leaky post-menopausal pensioners at a pub in a far off town. For writer’s, there are the awkward grammar errors that creep into print and somehow stick out next to your name on Google search for the next six months. And for actors – good actors, of course, but ones who are yet to get their Hollywood debut – there are forgotten lines, appearances as the back end of a horse in the Eastbourne City Hall community theatre production of Alice In Wonderland, and becoming the depressingly recognizable face of an unfeasibly humanized product on a local billboard campaign. It’s not the easiest of lifestyles, but occasionally – just occasionally – something comes along that makes it all worthwhile.

For Rob, a typical gig might involve playing the Fool in King Lear, shining as a fascist in a BBC Radio production with a title about making people smile (the natural reaction of the public to fascism, of course), or hopping across the stage at the Old Vic in a play produced in just 24 hours. One day, though, Rob decided to apply for a new position, a role as ‘Wilderness Man’. It certainly wasn’t his first casting session, but while Rob usually auditions for a role, being Wilderness Man is more of a calling. Rob’s recruitment came through a lucky glance at a campaign to find somebody to participate in a viral advertising campaign, with his fluency in three languages and outgoing personality helping him nail down the job. On paper, the role was simple: to sit next to a phone box for as long as possible, and answer the phone to whoever happened to call. Rob had become the newest and perhaps most short-term employee of Skype, and – in line with his exotic new title – would be spending the best part of advent sat in backcountry Spain and living in a tent.

Of course, you don’t get money for nothing these days, and there was always going to be a few less enticing twists to the demands placed on the Wilderness Man. Firstly, the number for the phone box he camped next to was to be placed prominently online, and become the heart of a clever advertising campaign for Skype’s online telephone service. Secondly, the website would be running a live feed of Rob twenty four hours a day, transmitting whatever he happened to be up to (or whoever he happened to be talking too, more often than not), and preventing our intrepid explorer from ever escaping the overbearing eye of ‘big brother’ in the form of a 24-hour international selection of bored web surfers. Thirdly, while Rob was inevitably going to miss the occasional call due to being, well, on a call, he had to answer every dialling tone that came through, a feat that made his chances of sustained sleep fairly similar to those of an agitated troubadour the night before the running of the bulls. No doubt he still hears that funky Spanish ring in his sleep.

The idea – fronted by online marketing stars ‘The Viral Factory’ – was inspired by the once notorious Mojave Phone, a booth that stood fifteen miles from the nearest road in a Californian national park before being removed in 2000. The Mojave Phone was once the temporary home of an international traveller, who believed he was instructed by the Holy Spirit to answer the calls of anyone who might choose – after a few beers, no doubt – to dial it up. He spent just over a month camping next to the booth and answering calls from international mystery men, including odd repeat calls from a man who identified himself as Sergeant Zeno from the Pentagon, and talked only about ‘national security’. When the anonymous, connection-obsessed traveller finally moved on, the phone became a quirky tourist attraction, with people from all over the world dialing up just to see if anyone might answer, and playful hikers making their way to Mojave to take photos and make an outgoing call as proof. In a BBC report in the late 90s, the Mojave Phone was described by a roaming reporter as ‘seemingly arbitrary in existence, and overshadowed by risking life and limb to travel to the middle of the desert and answer it. The thing rang non-stop with people calling from all over earth. I answered a few calls, and the callers were genuinely delighted someone was there to pick up the phone’. In 2006 director John Putch even wrote the movie ‘Mojave Phone Box’, a film about mysterious strangers crossing paths in front of the quirky desert ‘attraction’.

The Mojave Phone itself, though, has been gone a decade now, and instead Rob was instructed to bed down in a remote spot in south Spain. We can’t tell you exactly where it is, mainly because Rob’s most specific idea of the location was ‘up in the hills about two hours North of Malaga’ (The Viral Factory escorted him to the site under cover of darkness). For those with an equally odd an adventurous bent, though, Cavazos does suggest it might be possible to track down his secret location: ‘Very few people (not including myself) actually know where that phone is. Maybe someone will go seek it out and start a new sort of experiment – the quest for Rob’s phone has a nice ring to it’. If you’re so inclined, on arrival you will find a long list of countries, each accompanied by a tally, and a lone phone box branded in indelible pen: ‘The Wilderness Phone’. It marks the small corner of Spain this particular actor knows like the back of his hand.

Once he got into the experiment, and the calls started flooding in, Rob’s callers included a whole host of bizarre pranksters. In amongst pizza orders from Germany and ‘the police’ from elsewhere in Spain, Rob fielded a call from himself: ‘These guys teamed up, recorded four of their conversations with me and made up a soundboard from all of my responses. When I answered, I had a really surreal conversation with myself. It’s the single strangest, most flattering thing anyone has ever done for me’. Most of the conversations were more run of the mill, but did include callers from 82 countries (Iraq, Zimbabwe and Pakistan all popped up along the way, as did a French Territory, while Germany, Spain and the UK provided most of the callers). Ironically, Rob hates talking on the phone, telling us that ‘the only time I spend any length of time on the phone is when talking to my parents. I usually keep phone calls brief, I run out of things to say’.

It wasn’t the phone calls, though, that proved the most stressful aspect of the experiment. Even an average of 18 hours a day spent talking to random strangers can’t compare to the stress caused by spending your entire life in front of a camera. Rob’s already appeared in productions by Channel 4, but brief stints in front a lens playing someone else is an entirely different proposition to 240 hours of live solo webcasting, during which you can only be yourself. On the ground, Rob described himself as ‘oscillating between completely forgetting about the camera and shamelessly playing to it. Half the time I would ignore it, then I’d suddenly remember there were unfathomable amounts of people out there watching me at any given moment, and so I’d overcompensate by jumping on the couch or something. I felt they might get bored, otherwise.’

As an actor, Rob was arguably better prepared for the on-camera experience than most, and certainly didn’t capitulate into Big Brother style ‘look at me’ behaviour under the limelight, but he does admit that preparation for this kind of life is all but impossible. With The Viral Factory taking care of the technical side of things – the webcam, secret location and hefty set up fees – Rob’s preparation was more mundane. ‘You undergo all the practical preparation you might do for any old camping trip: provisions, first aid, lots of clean socks, but I was completely unprepared for that kind of response. There’s no way I could have planned for that’.

The Phone Box Experiment’s website was a quirky and brief web phenomenon, featuring a TV trailer style clip of Rob’s more bizarre moments on the road phone, before feeding through to a live stream, usually featuring Rob leaning against the phone box and rambling away in either English, German or Spanish. In the trailer, his tramp-style cardboard box signs told readers from different countries of his intentions, and invited callers to harass him at any time of the day or night, while a graphic of a phone box – Skype’s clever viral advert – invited people from anywhere in the world to contact Rob in the cheapest possible way through their service. It was a sponsored, corporate trick that worked a treat: most visitors to the site believed the experiment was entirely of Rob’s making, and the Skype connection simply a method to encourage callers of getting in touch. Rob performed to the crowd, bloggers and social media spread the word, and Wilderness Man just kept on answering his anonymous phone calls.

When you’re doing something as patently bizarre as living life next to a phone box, you may as well collect some facts about it all along the way. While the obvious ones about phone calls (1,040 in total), time on the phone (120 and a half hours in total) and international attention during the stunt (radio interviews in four different countries, for example) make for impressive reading, it’s the odder stats that really stand out. Rob’s calculated, for example, that he ate a total of around 16,000 beans over the ten days (which makes you wonder why he bothered to bring a cool box), while – in a twist to bring in more callers (as if they were needed) – many of the assorted belongings that surrounded him on the live video feed were boxed up and posted around the world towards the end of his challenge stint.

On spotting a hidden sign in amongst Rob’s belongings on the live web feed, callers were invited to call and ask for any item on the screen as a gift, with Rob’s random assortment including a ten pin bowling set, oversized lounge lamp, leather couch, guitar, fairy lights that kept the phone glowing all night long, and even a football (we can only assume Rob’s supremely talented, as had he kicked the ball out of the frame at any stage, game over…). Amazingly, Rob’s post-challenge review video shows him walking away from the scene and returning to London with at least one entire set of clothes still intact.

With eighteen hours of phone calls to field a day – and the inevitable onslaught of online viewers determined to interrupt Rob the moment he chose to sit down for a meal, eying the live stream to log their call straight after the last caller or checking in with the Wilderness Man in the early hours after a swift few down the pub – it was exhaustion that eventually signaled the end of the project. Six hours sleep a day is not enough at the best of times, but when that’s the absolute maximum, and interruptions are unpredictable and constant, Rob found himself at the point of no return after ten days camped out. ‘It was physical exhaustion,’ Rob tells us, ‘it really takes it out of you’.

With his time playing to the camera and living by the call of a rural pay phone over, Rob is still haunted by his unusual experience: ‘after I left, I’d find myself having waking dreams in the middle of the night, where everything I did was still in the eye of an imaginary camera watching me. Sure, I could have kept going, but there’s no way I could have sustained my good mood indefinitely, and I felt it was best I left while people still had a good impression of me. I can be quite grumpy when I’m knackered!’ The Wilderness Man eventually – now a phone-a-phobe – recovered by retreating to his native Mexico for some downtime over Christmas, pretending the Internet doesn’t exist, and eating anything that isn’t beans.

In honour of Rob’s ten-day stay in the wilderness, AU writer James Hendicott will be undertaking a mini ‘Wilderness Man’ experience: ten hours camped next to a phone box in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on the 21st of February, fielding calls from AU reader, (or anyone else who happens to get in touch). Keep an eye on the AU forum for info, and pick up next month’s issue for a full report.

As published in AU Magazine, February 2010


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