The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

The Breakthroughs in Storytelling Awards, Summit and Symposium honor the most innovative approaches to narrative from the past year.

Theater of the Mind

David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar
Interactive Theater
United States
September 2022-January 2023

"We began referring to the project as a Neuro Funhouse, but as we worked on it we came to realize that it was evolving to be something more than that. It has made us rethink some of our own beliefs and assumptions, to see ourselves and the world in a different way, and we hope that it might have a similar effect on our audience." —David Byrne

All production photos by Matthew DeFeo

Theater of the Mind was an immersive theatrical experience that ran for four months in a 15,000-square-foot industrial building in Denver’s York Street Yards, a World War II-era medical depot that has recently been adapted for makers and entrepreneurs. Created by the musician David Byrne and the investment manager and philanthropist Mala Gaonkar, the project built on their previous collaboration at Pace Art + Technology, The Institute Presents: Neurosociety, which contextualized contemporary brain research in an art gallery setting in Silicon Valley. With Theater of the Mind, guides led small groups of attendees through a series of sensory experiments that demonstrated how fungible our consensual reality actually is.

Directed by immersive theater director Andrew Scoville and presented by the Off-Center program at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, it took the form of a narrative and emotional journey, with eight stops along the way that presented distorted memories from Byrne's past. Each of these eight rooms was constructed to bring you on a narrative and emotional journey, but also to create the right conditions for certain neurological and perceptual phenomena to occur. One was based on a study called "Being Barbie" where you experience being inside a child-size body using 24K video patched into Unity, then networked to 16 virtual reality stations. For another, the team blasted photo lights into a light-sealed room at specific time frames to generate ghostly afterimages in the participants' retinas.

Mala Gaonkar and David Byrne. Photo: Catalina Kulczar, courtesy Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Mala Gaonkar is the chair of Surgo Ventures, a non-profit organization which uses data driven solutions to solve health and social problems, and the founder, in 2022, of SurgoCap Partners, an investment firm focused on the disruptive effects of technology. Prior to that, in 1998, she was a founding partner of Lone Pine Capital, where she acted as portfolio manager for the firm’s technology, media, internet and telecommunications exposure and as co-portfolio manager of its long-only funds. Before joining Lone Pine, Mala worked for the Boston Consulting Group and was a Kauffman Fellow, taking part in its two-year educational, networking, and leadership development program for venture capitalists. She attended Harvard University and Harvard Business School. A founding trustee of Ariadne Labs, she is also a trustee of the Tate Foundation and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. She was introduced to Byrne by Brian Eno.

David Byrne was an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s who moved to New York and started the rock band Talking Heads with his classmate Chris Frantz. Starting out at the Bowery punk club CBGB, they were introduced to Brian Eno by John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground—the beginning of a long series of collaborations between Byrne and Eno. Inspired by the innovative downtown theater scene, Byrne worked as well with such people as Robert Wilson and Twyla Tharp. More recently he has done art installations and theater work, including Here Lies Love, his song cycle about Imelda Marcos, and the hit Broadway performance American Utopia. His ongoing interest in neuroscience and its implications led him to bring those worlds together for Theater of the Mind.

The technological ecosystem that drove the show functioned on multiple levels, explains Technology Designer Heidi Boisvert (left). A custom show control system triggered sound, lights, environmental sensors and motor controls simultaneously across each of the rooms. A vast network architecture consisting of raspberry pis and more than a mile of cable enabled everything to talk to one another. A behind-the-scenes infrastructure of web panels and surveillance cameras—"our nervous system"—enabled stage managers and experience designers to seamlessly facilitate each group’s experience. Two creative technology teams, Brooklyn Research Center and the Brooklyn-based duo that go by the name slow immediate, contributed to the 5-D VR experience, one on the streaming technology and the other on the sensory aspects.

The biggest challenge, Boisvert reports, was using the technology in an unconventional way and scaling and networking it for 16 audience members at a time. Building the custom show control system and network architecture that makes everything communicate and fire behind the scenes was an innovative first for the field of immersive performance. 

"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. . . .

"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. . . . 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." —The New Yorker

“One of 'Theater of the Mind'’s main themes is how people change. The idea is peppered throughout the script and it’s a subject Byrne and Gaonkar often discuss. 'What it feels like to us is that there's a continuity and we're the same,' Byrne says. 'Oh yeah, I have maybe some different opinions now or I wouldn't do that anymore, but I used to do that. And then the more you think about it, the more you think, I may have the same physical body in some sense, but I'm a completely different person than I was however many years ago.' . . .

“'Theater of the Mind,' which runs through Dec. 18, mashes the theatrical, audience participatory experience of a Sleep No More with a narrative of a life in reverse. There are perception-bending brain games, serious moments of contemplation and bits also meant to entertain. In one room, at an AstroTurfed staging of the David Byrne character’s 10-year-old birthday party, Lynyrd Skynyrd plays on a small radio as audience members don goggles and try to toss metal washers into an oddly elusive bucket. The activity says something about perception — the goggles were developed by a scientist at M.I.T. — but is also just simple fun. Byrne breaks into laughter as he watches the newcomers in the group discover how hard it is to throw a washer into the bucket. And then, after they’ve adjusted, how difficult it is to adjust back to 'normal.'” —The Washington Post

"Some of the best parts of 'Theater of the Mind' happen after the show has ended, its long tail cracking, whip-like, as you try to eat dinner or fall asleep. That’s intentional, and one of the most successful aspects of a production that is fundamentally light and playful. Audience members leave 'Theater of the Mind' with a note encouraging them to turn it over in their minds. 'With a show like this, what it is can often be revealed when we talk about it and rewind the experience,' co-creator David Byrne writes. 'You can change the story anytime.'” —The Denver Post