Deconstructing the Conscious Mind, Theatrically

The Deconstructive Theatre Project presents The Orpheus Variations
A scene from The Orpheus Variations

Early on in The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s recent staging of The Orpheus Variations, there’s a delightful unveiling of the unfamiliar storytelling mechanism that will guide us through this story, familiar as it is. The piece opens with projections on a large screen at the rear of the stage that suggest travel: landscapes passing by, left to right, set to the sounds of a train. Then, in a moment of pure deconstructive bliss, lights fade up on the stage to reveal an actor sitting in a chair, head pressed against a square of plexiglass covered in beads of water. A camera operator stands in full visibility to the audience; another crew member holds a light just-so. The resulting image that is transmitted from the videocamera, via a live feed to the rear screen, is a frame of just the actor’s head, pressed against the plexiglass, that slips in seamlessly with the travel-themed prologue: he’s in the train we heard, watching the rain-soaked landscape whizzing by outside his window. And so the Variations unfold, each moment constructed in full view as it’s simultaneously beamed to the rear screen, one vignette cutting seamlessly to the next, giving us access to layers of representation usually hidden from cinematic and theatrical view.

In the grand tradition of McLuhan’s concept of medium-as-message, The Orpheus Variations was perhaps most remarkable for its development of this inventive mode of narrative presentation that ended up feeling emotionally resonant not only for the familiar pains and longings of the Orpheus myth as expressed by the text and the actors, but also for the feaures of the presentation itself: the ephemeral nature of each vignette’s delicate staging, suggestion, and then ultimate vanishing, as lights, chairs and props were hustled away for their reuse in a completely new setting. It was like watching Gerald Edelman’s concept of Neural Darwinism embodied in a cinematic and theatrical language: using just the bare essentials, the building blocks of theater– an actor, a light, two or three props, well-timed foley effects– a whole universe was created from the nimble adaptation of its existing elements into new and sometimes surprising uses. In this way, the system of presentation created by Orpheus director Adam Thompson and his collaborative company– most of whom wore multiple hats during the production– is a brilliant reflection of the constant stitching-together of human consciousness.

More images from The Orpheus Variations:






Some cognitive scientists, such as Robert Stickgold of Harvard, have used the relationship between the seen and unseen in theater as a good metaphor for the relationship between the conscious and non-conscious activity in our brains when we sleep. The metaphor goes something like this: One leading theory about sleep, called the activation-synthesis hypothesis, posits that sleep is a time for the brain to sift through all the experiences and thoughts we’ve kept in our short-term buffer throughout the day, decide what’s worth keeping, and then weave those survivors into the complex web of memory we already have within us, for us to carry along until tomorrow, at least. That process happens quite unconsciously– in the “backstage” regions of the mind, as we sleep. This process of sifting– of activation, then synthesis– generates waves of activation throughout the brain, probing neurons that store information not only from what happened that day, but also activating those that deal with longer-term memories that may be of associative use as we try to relate the new stuff to the older stuff, and see how the new memories might be of use in preparing for the future, a constant pursuit of the mind.

Those waves of activation end up seeding our dream consciousness– the theory goes– by creating a stream of objects, people, feelings, places, and everything else, that sort of “bubbles up” from that non-conscious background memory-sorting process, and surfaces in our conscious, dream-state. In this sense, it’s that raw material that bubbles up from the backstage process that is seized upon by our conscious minds– the fully-lit, gazed-upon stage of the theater– which then weaves it all together, onstage, into our dream narrative, imposing meaning, as we do, in the strangest–or sometimes most poignant– of places.

In following with this metaphor, watching The Orpheus Variations felt like being given an all-access pass to the theater of the conscious mind. And here, instead of the standard routine of months of secret preparations, then presentation to the public on one illuminated stage, with a fury of even more secret activity happening just out of sight in the orchestra pit, backstage chambers, and managerial booths above, in Orpheus we were given several worlds to view all at once, each world relating to the next one, the viewer free to climb up and down the ladder from pure construction to complete deconstruction. We saw a coherent, well-constructed film playing at the rear; then, onstage, the collection of actors, crew members, videographers, props and lights that were sufficient and necessary for generating each image in the film; and then there was the dim glow cast upon the rest of the exposed stage, were we could see a foley artist adding a layer of sensory experience, other crew members pulling aside a precarious cable or preparing props for the next scene, a videographer, once in place, giving a thumbs-up to the live video-switcher, who would cut from one camera’s live feed to the next, stitching the film together, one shot at a time. This variation on the familiar Orpheus was a thrilling reminder of just how illusory the sum is when we get to see all the parts.


About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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