Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne has been interested in the intersection of art and science for years. When he’s not debuting a Broadway show, launching an online magazine or creating a show about Joan of Arc or Imelda Marcos, he’s exploring how neuroscience plays with our perceptions.
“Theater of the Mind,” to have its world premiere in Denver in August 2020, picks up on themes Byrne explored in a Silicon Valley art exhibit in 2016. That exhibit, “The Institute Presents: NEUROSOCIETY,” featured a series of interactive environments created in conjunction with PACE Arts + Technology in Menlo Park, California, that questioned human perception and bias.
The goal of Byrne and writer Mala Gaonkar for “Theater of the Mind” is to blend sensory experiments with theatrical entertainment in a seamless show.
Think of it as a carny hall of mirrors 2.0 with input from neuroscientists. An intimate audience of 16 people at a time will move through specially designed environments throughout 15,000 square feet within a warehouse. Sometimes wearing VR headsets. With a storyteller guide.
The immersive show will debut here, thanks to the Off-Center branch of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which has gained national attention for its exploits in immersive theater.
Charlie Miller, Off-Center curator, heard from a friend that the “NEUROSOCIETY” show was “mind-blowing” and last year approached Byrne about a collaboration. “This is a world premiere of a project David has been developing for four to five years.” There have been earlier workshop iterations and it continues to evolve with major script revisions.
“Part of what is exciting about it for me as a producer,” Miller said, “is we’re still figuring out how the machine of it will run. Part of the reason we’re not sharing information about scheduling is that we’re still figuring out how frequently groups can move through. It’s a very high-tech undertaking in terms of the technology in the experiments and in the technology that’s used to run the show.”
Due to the small size of each audience group, the nightly or weekly total won’t be huge, Miller said, but “enough to bring in revenue to make it economically feasible. Ticket sales only cover a portion of the overall cost.” As a nonprofit, Off-Center relies on grants, SCFD funding and investment from DCPA as a whole. “The balance is better than the one-on-ones we did last year (like “Between Us”), which were very heavily grant subsidized.”
In the early version, “NEUROSOCIETY” viewers were led through several rooms. In one they saw their hand grow to giant size and observed themselves embodied in a doll’s body. In another they saw moving objects freeze, and witnessed complete darkness and some single very bright flashes of light (not strobes). The installations and the script have changed substantially since then, Miller said.
The long-term hope is that Off-Center’s name will be attached to this project when it is mounted in other cities, gaining further prominence. “DCPA will be involved if it can go on to a life in other cities which we all hope it can. Our main focus is to get this thing off the ground in Denver. If we get it right, that will open doors for the future.”
But “Theater of the Mind” will not be easy to transport elsewhere, given its specific requirements. “There are close to a dozen different environments we’re building now that the audience moves through, a whole VR experience being custom built by a series of technology companies, it requires custom software. It will be a challenge to find space of a certain size that can accommodate it,” Miller said.
He won’t hint at the Denver location of the historic warehouse where the show will be produced. In size and scale, the installation will be similar to “Sweet & Lucky,” the inventive and engaging immersive show commissioned by Off-Center and created with New York-based Third Rail Projects in 2016. (The warehouse leased for that production, behind Mission Ballroom, is no longer available.)
The five to 10 experiments included in “Theater of the Mind” are meant to demonstrate how easily our minds can be tricked. The show engages all of the senses, including taste (expect a number of disclaimers and FAQs beforehand).
“The team is passionate about being honest with the audience — the magic is in the science, it’s not in theater magic,” Miller said. “We’re not playing tricks on people. What happens in your brain is really the magic there. It’s very true to science.”
In fact, there is a position on the creative team — director of technology — helping the theater folks preserve the integrity of the science.
“We always go back to what’s going to make the science most effective. That’s the starting point. The purity of the science,” Miller said.
Expect ancillary programs to include the local scientific community once the show is up and running.
Specifics on dates, times and tickets are not yet available but signing up on the show’s website ensures those who are interested will hear more as information is released.