“Theater of the Mind” Invites Audiences to Revisit—and Rethink—Their Past

On a recent Friday evening, in Denver, I joined a small gathering of mourners in an elegantly furnished funeral parlor. My name for the evening was Emma—at least according to the nametag I had selected at random from a basket in an anonymous anteroom before walking into the chapel. A bald gentleman in a yellow hoodie whose nametag read “Ophelia” nodded at me solemnly as I sat down in front of a shiny casket. But who was inside? And what, exactly, were we there to mourn?

“Theater of the Mind,” a new theatrical production—co-created by the musician, producer, and polymath artist David Byrne and the author, investment manager, and philanthropist Mala Gaonkar—opened last September, in north Denver’s York Street Yards, after a lengthy delay owing to COVID-19. It’s an ambitious addition to the crowded and increasingly popular genre of immersive art. Aimed at dissolving conventional boundaries between art work and spectator, thus indulging a through-the-looking-glass fantasy that many of us haven’t entirely outgrown, these high-concept interactive experiences can include everything from elaborate sculptural installations (e.g., Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms, Carsten Höller’s giant slides) to high-tech digital projections, augmented-reality technology, and interactive performances. Currently, in Denver, one can wander among van Gogh’s sunflowers (“Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit”), navigate a Jungian dreamscape (Spectra Art Space’s “Spookadelia: The Wakening”), or join a pilgrimage through a psychedelic-art multiverse (Meow Wolf Denver’s “Convergence Station”), all on a single Saturday. Whatever the framing device, the effect is one of disorientation, of being removed from our usual bearings in order to shift our perception of reality—or at least to take some excellent selfies.

With “Theater of the Mind,” directed by Andrew Scoville and co-produced by Denver Center for the Performing Arts Off-Center, Nate Koch, LeeAnn Rossi, and the Arbutus Foundation, that frame seems to be the Talking Heads front man’s brain. In the first scene, a character also named David pops out of the casket dressed in a white suit and bow tie. (The part is played by a rotating cast of actors of different genders, races, and body types; in the performance that I attended, Amanda Berg Wilson played the role, channelling something of Byrne’s otherworldly charm.) Bewildered to find himself conscious at his own wake, David realizes that he has unfinished business with the past. Audience members, in groups of sixteen, are invited to tour his “memory palace,” which we entered through a red-lit tunnel hidden behind a display case filled with family photographs and mementos. But can we really revisit the experiences that have made us who we are?

Byrne and Gaonkar think so. The audience progresses, in reverse chronology, through a series of elaborate sets that re-create and destabilize some of David’s most charged memories—a lost love, a soul-crushing job, a father fading into dementia. Certain themes are underlined: the idea that identity is a fungible construct, and that our memories are nonlinear and untrustworthy. The conclusion he seems to want us to reach is that we are more than the sum of our experiences and achievements, that it’s how we make meaning of them that shapes our inner landscapes. For anyone who has visited a therapist’s office, these aren’t really radical ideas, but David wants to prove to us the extent to which our subjective understanding of reality can lead us astray.

This is where “Theater of the Mind” diverges from other immersive art offerings by integrating interactive neuroscience demonstrations into each scene. Byrne—who speculated in his 2012 book, “How Music Works,” that he has a mild form of what was then called Asperger’s syndrome—is fascinated by the mind’s workings, the way that, even at the level of retinal rods and taste receptors, our perceptions trick and appease us. He and Gaonkar consulted with a group of scientists and technology experts in developing their experiments. David breaks the fourth wall to show us how, for example, a white floor tile in the funeral parlor appears to change color with only a subtle shift in light, or a lemon slice—encountered in a nineteen-eighties Mexican night club, the site of a missed romantic connection—can taste startlingly sweet following a bite of an African miracle berry. The scene manages to feel specific to David’s personal memories while evoking the relatable melancholy of a bad night out, waiting in vain for the person you went there to see.

Again and again, we are reminded that our relationship with the physical world is more fluid than we might think. A chord progression played on a piano sounds ascendant to some of us, descendant to others (the tritone paradox); objects inexplicably vanish from our field of vision. Often, we’re so focussed on what we want to see that we overlook what’s in plain sight. The unconscious mind makes assumptions about its surroundings in the same way, Byrne and Gaonkar suggest, that we often fill in gaps in our memories, which calcify into what we hold to be true.

Some of these demonstrations feel more revelatory than others. “And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?” I thought, donning sight-shifting goggles in order to toss metal washers into a pail at a facsimile of David’s tenth-birthday party. The possibility of getting a do-over in life, of rendering genuine meaning from a metafictional reënactment, has some overlap with Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal,” the discomfiting HBO show in which elaborate sets and meticulously choreographed scenarios ostensibly help people prepare for challenges ahead, but ultimately underscore the futility of attempting to mitigate life’s uncertainties. “Theater of the Mind” ’s retrospective approach is far more tender and therapeutically minded: the authors understand that one cannot control for regret. In both projects, the mechanics of spectacle can sometimes distract from the emotional truths on offer. And yet, in David’s case, there’s an endearingly earnest wonkiness to the proceedings; the effect is not unlike watching a philosophy professor perform magic tricks. (A QR code distributed after the show leads to a link supplying a reading list and more detailed information about the scientific phenomena being explored throughout the show.)

Fragments of autobiography filter through David’s monologues, most poignantly his recollection of a creatively thwarted mother who left her young son at home alone while she attended painting classes. Here the atmosphere of eerie nostalgia is heightened by Neil Patel’s excellent sets, the best of which conjures David’s childhood kitchen and features an enormous nineteen-fifties-style chrome-and-red-glitter-vinyl dining set that, like a Robert Therrien installation, reduces us to toddler-size. Things get even stranger when David opens a cabinet to find a doll who speaks in Byrne’s pre-recorded voice, and the two begin arguing about which of them is the “real” David. Even while taking an empirical lens to human nature, Byrne remains a Dadaist at heart.

This is not Byrne’s first foray into interactive theatre. In 2013, “Here Lies Love,” his disco musical inspired by the life of Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines, opened in New York at the Public Theatre. Tapping into the strangeness of navigating an American life that has, in many ways, stopped making sense, “Theater of the Mind” might best be understood as a quiet counterpart to “American Utopia,” Byrne’s visionary 2019 Broadway musical, which received a Special Tony Award in 2021. That show begins with Byrne standing alone onstage in a Hamlet-like pose and contemplating a model of the human brain, and then expands into an exuberant story of connection and collective joy in troubled times. A darker, more intimate affair than its predecessors, “Theater of the Mind” asks us to venture deep into our own history to consider the possibility that we got a few things wrong, and then prompts us to find grace and empathy for people in our past—including ourselves.

During “Theater of the Mind,” I was reminded that the pleasure of experiencing art is, for me, often not a physical act but an imaginary one: losing myself in an image or story to the degree that I forget myself entirely, as in a dream. Like so many immersive art productions, “Theater of the Mind” provokes—intentionally, I think—the opposite effect. Its opportunities for interaction and sensory disorientation kept returning me to my own mortal body, going through something singular, for seventy-five minutes, with a group of strangers I’ll never see again. But there are pleasures in this, too, especially in the odd, spontaneous disclosures that “Theater of the Mind” provokes. Early in the show, David asked if any of us had ever experienced a visual hallucination. One audience member volunteered a memory of a meditation session, during which he opened his eyes to glimpse, for a moment, his Buddha statuette laughing at him.

“But did it feel real?” David asked. “Yes and no,” the man replied. ♦

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