Mayfest – Opening Skinner’s Box at Bristol Old Vic

I’ve been reviewing theatre now for a couple of years, and rarely do I ever take notes during the performance. I prefer to take in the whole show, discuss it with my companion for the night, sleep on it and then write it when all of this has sunk in. Last night at the Bristol Old Vic as I took my seat for Opening Skinner’s Box, I instinctively reached for my pen before the show began, almost as if I knew that tonight I would have a very different head on that I normally have when I go to the theatre. I made copious notes on a scrap of paper throughout the performance, even though I could not see if my scribbles were making sense as I was writing in the dark! The last time I made such frantic notes in an large auditorium of people would have been nearly 20 years ago when I was studying for my degree in Art Therapy, and my brain was being filled with theories of psychotherapy, the workings of the human mind and what makes us tick. I guess it is no surprise then that a show which examines the scientific quest to make sense of who we are and what makes us human would inspire this learnt response in me.

Opening Skinner’s Box is presented by theatre company Improbable as part of the Mayfest season, which brings new, interesting and edgy theatre to venues all over Bristol during the month of May. Based on the book by Lauren Slater, we are taken on a whistle-stop tour of ten great psychological experiments and the implications of these for our understanding of human nature. The stage was simply dressed with a large white box made with elastic stretched taught which the actors moved in and out of as the stories were explained and fleshed out. Most of the experiments I had heard of because of my studies and most people will be familiar with some of them, particularly Milgrim and his experiment into obedience. Subjects believe they are giving more and more dangerous electric shocks to ‘learners’. 62% of subjects ended up giving the maximum 450-volt shocks to the stooges they believed to be real participants, just because somebody in a position of responsibility told them to. Its unsetting; we would all like to believe we would fit into the 38% that didn’t, but could we really be sure that under the same conditions we too would not take things to far?

I found this show challenging and immensely interesting as it gave me a different perspective into these experiments that I was so familiar with. I would have hypothesized that most of the subjects from Milgrim’s experiment would have been left psychologically scarred, but it turns out that many turned their lives around as they vowed to question authority more and not try to fit in with societies pressures when they had been previously impacting on their lives negatively. I questioned many of my own world views throughout the show. What is the true nature of addiction? Why is it so difficult to give up people and situations that cause us pain? What is love anyway?! However, this was one show where I REALLY wished I had been accompanied by a plus one in order to dissect it all afterwards. I really enjoyed the show, but felt a little like I had been at a university lecture, albeit a very entertaining and enlightening one. But I knew about the subject; it is one I have been interested in for many years as I love finding out what makes us tick. But what about a layman, someone who had not studied psychology and who would have been purely approaching it from the perspective of wanting to be entertained? I certainly felt that the show at 2 hours with a short interval was a little long, and because my mind brain was working so hard to make sense of it all I will admit that I began to switch off a little towards the end. In the interval, I overheard a woman with a degree in psychology say that she felt the show was ‘OK’, but that she knew all of this already so was left wanting more detail and something a little more challenging.

My hypothesis is this. For those with a deep understanding of the subject this was probably lacking a little in content. For those with no formal psychology training, more could have been made of the stories of the real people behind the experiments, so that the show had more of a sense of narrative rather than a lecture. For me though? I enjoyed it immensely, and it left me with a thirst to re-engage with my studies in psychotherapy, which is a most unexpected outcome of a theatre show! Question everything though, if you want to make up your own mind, the show is on for one more night at the Bristol Old Vic.

Review by Karen Blake

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