Mary Kay Zeeb and Ryan McNamara’s collaborative performance piece Sussudio grew out of what McNamara describes as “hundreds of hours” of long-distance phone conversations on the theme of friends and strangers: How do you talk to strangers? How is that different from talking to your best friend? And in an age of instant communication, what is a stranger, anyway?

It’s a subject they’ve explored independently in the past. When Zeeb, a former DePaul grad student who now lives in Phoenix, visited McNamara in New York in September, she left 15 unsealed, self-addressed, stamped envelopes containing photocopies of snapshots of herself in random locations around the city. Each one also included a request that the stranger finding it draw on the picture, and then return it to her; she exhibited the results under the title Droppings. The same month McNamara created a piece called Excuse Me While I Bump Your Holster With My Illegal Dancing. As a challenge to the prohibition against dancing in most New York bars, he took paper targets to bars and–again with the help of strangers–placed them on the floor, and danced on them. The resulting smudged bull’s-eyes were exhibited as a visual record of the protest.

“Mary Kay is actually one of my favorite strangers,” explains McNamara, an Arizona native. “We’ve lived apart geographically longer than we did in the same place. But when I’m talking to her on the phone, it’s almost more present for me than if she were actually there, because there’s not the stuff of the physical world. We’re not waiting for a table at a restaurant while we’re talking, for instance. The conversations I have with her are always so overwhelming, and I leave them thinking, ‘I wish I had recorded that.'”

Sussudio, an hour of interwoven monologues and dialogues, was inspired by the idea that it can be a cop-out to only interact with strangers, says Zeeb. “Why is it we can feel a more authentic sense of intimacy with a stranger?” she asks. Because, says McNamara, “without the preconceived notions or expectations there’s a possibility of being purely in the moment and truly connecting.”

The piece, which takes its title from the Phil Collins song about a girl who “don’t even know my name,” touches on multiple aspects of anonymity and isolation: from sex with strangers and celibacy to abstract notions of hiding and seeking. At one point the two invite the audience to interact with them in nonverbal ways. In Phoenix one person washed them with water from a bottle; another wrapped them in yarn. “It works as a conversation would,” says McNamara. “It’s a conversation between ourselves and the audience. It’s not like we accost the audience, but they are involved.”

McNamara and Zeeb created Sussudio almost entirely over the phone, coming together just a few days before it premiered at a Phoenix gallery in December. There, it caught the eye of Chicagoan Cat Solen, an Arizona native who founded the cavernous south-side performance space called Texas Ballroom. Over the past year and a half Texas has become a haven for experimental performance, film, and music, and Solen invited the pair to put on the show there.

The audience in Phoenix was full of friends and acquaintances, but Zeeb and McNamara are excited about the Chicago performance in part because it’s their first chance to do the show in front of some honest-to-God strangers.

“One of the reasons we wanted to take it on the road is that the audience is so much a part of the piece,” says Zeeb. But, she adds, “I have relatives in Chicago, so I think I’m going to have some aunts and uncles and cousins there, which is almost weirder.”

Sussudio will be presented on Saturday, February 21, at 8 PM at Texas Ballroom, 3012 S. Archer. There’s a suggested donation of $5. For information and reservations call 773-307-0039.