Inside Music Icon David Byrne’s Mesmerising New Production ‘Theater Of The Mind’
Chatting with David Byrne is one of life’s greatest delights. Having initially found success in the 1970s with his band Talking Heads, the 70-year-old polymath has since used his creative capital to explore as many different interests and mediums as possible: albums, books, and even a web magazine called Reasons To Be Cheerful. “If you have these parallel interests, at some point, they’re going to come together,” he says. “You don’t have to plan it too much… you’ll stumble on it.”
This means, today, he’s up for discussing anything, including a playlist of Iranian protest music he’s in the process of curating for one of his monthly playlists on his website. “I listened to it as I was biking somewhere the other day, and [I thought], Oh, this is making me feel pretty good. The music is really innovative… has a great vibe to it. And it’s just incredibly passionate and very meaningful at this moment,” says Byrne.
That drive to explore led Byrne to his most recent project, Theater Of The Mind, a co-creation with writer Mala Gaonkar that runs until January at the York Street Yards in Denver, Colorado. Over the 75-minute production, a guide named ‘David’ – dressed in grey suits similar to the one the musician wore during the Broadway run of his acclaimed show American Utopia – escorts viewers through a series of otherworldly sets, representing the mind of a man revisiting memories, determined to “make things right”. (While Byrne doesn’t appear in person, he does make an unexpected cameo.) It’s an experience meant to destabilise your sense of self, as evident by the first stop – an anonymous office building where visitors are asked to pick up a nametag and adopt a new identity. If being called a name other than your own feels odd, just wait, the experience of ‘seeing’ in the dark, tasting lemons in a whole new way, and the sensation of shrinking thanks to a room’s enormous proportions make the production feel even more surreal. But while the sets are impressive (like a childhood party with aesthetics that feel plucked from the Squid Game universe), they’re backdrops for the real action: a series of experiments designed to make your mind work in very different ways.
Byrne admits that while he’s always keen to stretch his creativity, the science behind those experiments is what initially caught his eye. “My first thought was to bring the work of one of the neuroscience labs into an art gallery, so someone can come in and have this perceptual experience,” he says. “That never happened, but in the meantime, I kept finding more things we wanted to try.”
The production’s current form didn’t come together until rehearsals when an actor playing a guide offered to take a group through the experience from start to finish. An eager collaborator, Byrne was immediately certain they’d found the missing puzzle piece. “I thought, OK, there’s the structure of our storyline,” he says. “That was a big revelation.”
While the experience of visiting Theater Of The Mind reveals just how little we can trust our perception of reality, Byrne hopes the experience won’t simply highlight humanity as unreliable narrators. (“We’re probably much less rational than we think we are,” he says with a laugh.) If we can understand how we’ve been affected by our past, that means we can control how we shape our futures. “You realise how unreliable our memories are and our perception is [such] that we only see part of what’s out there,” he says. “All these things that could be taken to be really bad news [but] by the end, it gets turned around. As the character says, ‘unreliability is a kind of possibility’. It means that we have the possibility to change and rewrite our stories.”
Theater Of The Mind runs until 22 January 2023
Laura Studarus is a Los Angeles-based travel journalist who has written for BBC, Thrillist, Shondaland and Marie Claire