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Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s curiosity has carried him beyond the world of new wave rock into art, theater, and science. This month, he’s combining all three in Theater of the Mind (August 31 through December 18). The immersive theater piece, which he is co-producing with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), will use high-tech illusions and cognitive neuroscience to make audiences question reality. How does the artist intend to turn that magic trick? We step into Byrne’s brain to find out.
Of Two Minds
Byrne read about researchers in Sweden who in 2011 used video headsets to connect people to artificial bodies either one foot or 13 feet tall. Subjects in the smaller forms consistently overestimated the size and distance of objects, while the giant avatars experienced the opposite effect. In other words, their brains were tricked into believing they’d truly changed size. This inspired Byrne’s “The Institute Presents: Neurosociety,” a 2016 show in which attendees took part in that experiment and three other illusions.
After the success of the 2016 show, Byrne decided binding similar reality-altering experiences together with an immersive narrative would create a deeper connection to the science and began working on a larger theatrical project with the DCPA. Theater of the Mind, during which hosts lead groups of 16 through a former medical supply warehouse in Clayton, unfolds backward, Benjamin Button–style. Hosts are paid actors who also infuse the story with their own personalities. “It’s part of the puzzle of bringing [the show] from a purely scientific experience into one that is more emotional,” says Andrew Scoville, Theater’s director.
Byrne spent about a year touring labs and doing research for the production. Then, he envisioned new mind-warping experiences and recruited Heidi Boisvert, now an assistant professor of artificial intelligence and the arts at the University of Florida, to design a system that imperceptibly distorts reality with lights, sounds, and other effects. The DCPA won’t reveal more specifics, but Theater’s website teases, “You will see things you know aren’t there, not see things you know are there—and watch your friends disappear!”