Can a puppet hit man teach us something about cognitive Dissonance?

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If you ever wondered if a hit man puppet could teach you something about how your brain works, you’re in for a treat.

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Mikey. Photo from http://www.strangeface.co.uk

I entered Camden People’s Theatre on Friday, March 18th excited about seeing a performance that promised to be a puppet show combined with a perception game, but not really knowing what to expect. Marketed as “Breaking Bad meets Samuel Beckett”, Dissonance provoked my curiosity since I read the promotional blurb. Not only was it addressing two of my main interests: puppetry and cognitive science, but it was showing as part of SPRINT 2016, a guarantee that it was bound to be an odd and inventive show.

SPRINT Festival is a yearly theatre festival that brings together the newest, most adventurous theatre form the UK. This year, SPRINT runs from March 2 to 26. Its yearly call-out attracts a variety of artists doing innovative, unusual, and experimental work. It has been the launching pad of companies and artists that have become the leaders of theatre-making in contemporary London, including Coney, Made In China, Ira Brand, Fevered Sleep, and Shunt. I would say it is also CPT’s most renowned festival.

Camden People’s Theatre (CPT) is located between Warren Street and Euston Square Stations. When it was founded in 1994, its focus was on offering non-text-based theatre at affordable prices for the local community. Nowadays it focuses on supporting young and emerging theatre-makers who make unconventional pieces. They often put out call-outs in their endeavour to support early career artists, particularly those who make theatre with a social, cultural, or political approach. CPT is focused on attracting young audiences; this is done through affordable ticket prices, a wide variety of experimental performance, a number of festivals curated throughout the year on topics ranging from feminism to London housing and identity, and a quirky yet cosy bar with a couple of tables to have a drink before or after a show – I waited here to be called into the theatre, observing the wide range of people who had shown up for this show. The performance was sold out, and the small space of CPT felt crowded with the expectant audience members.

But, let’s talk about Dissonance now.
The set for the performance was very basic: three grey platforms, the size of tables – one with a crack in the middle. No puppets in sight. When the lights went down, three performers appeared and took a puppet out from under the centre platform: this is Mikey, a middle-aged hit man, who wears only a pair of white briefs.

Following conventions of film noir and mafia films, Mikey served as a narrator – equally menacing and ridiculous – telling us about a woman who had tried to kill him, until, in her final moments, she confronted Mikey with a powerful word: Dissonance. Here is where the story really started going.

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Mikey with his three puppeteers: Tommy Luther, Chand Martinez & Teele Uustani. From http://www.strangeface.co.uk

The idea of dissonance, the “state of behaving or thinking in ways that are at odds with each other”, triggers a series of reflexions in Mikey. He tells us stories from his past and from the present, like all of us, embodying different characters to enhance his storytelling; an effective device… although if a puppet is just who he is, Mikey could arguably be all of the characters in his story at once. After all, the belief the audience holds in the life of the puppet while also knowing it is not a living being is also dissonance – the show succeeds at making us very aware that we are experiencing these contradictory beliefs.

The stakes of the performance are heightened, as we see Mikey descending in a spiral of philosophic thought, fighting with his other characters. The lighting of the performance becomes dramatic, enhanced by smoke coming out of the crack in the centre platform – all very suggestive of hell – as Mikey wonders if any of his decisions has been his at all. Has he been a puppet to his beliefs all along? Have we?

After taking a bow, the performers come back and use Mikey to explain to us, in a more direct way, the ideas explored in the performance. Our brain is divided into two; the so-called “dog brain”, which responds instinctively to the world, which is used by mafia hit men to ensure their survival, and which prefers to be safe rather than sorry; and our “higher brain”, which allows us to reason and understand that what this puppet is saying has way more impact in our every day lives than anything told to us by a construct of foam and leather should have a right to. These two brains are what create the conflicting ideas that cause cognitive dissonance. This explanation was useful and fascinating, and I only wished more of it, with this level of clarity, had been a part of the show.

With all of this exploration into cognitive science, it is no surprise that Dissonance was also shown as part of the British Science Week in Kent and that it is receiving funding from the Wellcome Trust, as well as from Arts Council England. It endeavours and accomplishes not only teaching us about dissonance but making us experience it.
Strangeface, the Kent-based mask and puppet theatre company responsible for this creation, claims to make work that is influenced by cognitive theory, Chaos Theory and semiotics to make the audience aware of its imaginative participation in the performance. This is not “just” theatre – it is entertainment that encourages deeper thinking.
Strangeface is conducting further research into dissonance and how successful their show is at combining psychology and theatre. One can only hope that this information helps Dissonance be only the first in a series of new performances that push theatre into a new and unexplored territory.

 

Check out what else is on at Camden People’s Theatre here.
Find out more information about Strangeface and Dissonance clicking here

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