labyrinth · sensory · theatre

Yesterday I turned off a brain in a Vat. I’d told myself I wouldn’t do it. I did. It was just Theatre. But what does it say about me?

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This was the final performance giving the cast the opportunity to experience Cerebellium for themselves, following a week long run of performances to the public.

We’d heard the feedback ourselves each night, hearing how deeply affected people were by the performance. This was the second year of Cerebellium and the script had evolved as had the size of the cast. Last year’s participants, perhaps thinking they would have a grasp on what they were about to go through, would be surprised.

The story line continued that, a year on, the ethics committee had decided to go against the opinion of last year’s public, who, by a narrow majority, had opted to keep Kevin (Project K, the conscious born brain in a vat), alive and without knowledge of his status. Participants heard that, the committee felt that as Kevin had no freewill he could not be treated as an equal to humans and should, therefore, be terminated. The actors self consciously told audience’s that this was theatre. Audience’s signed consent forms acknowledging this. I myself as actor within the performance knew this. And yet. And yet night after night people felt an emotional connection to a plastic brain in a piece of theatre, refusing or feeling guilt for switching off a non-entity. I felt it.

As I said, I went in confident that I would only act as witness to the ethics committee’s actions. That I would stoutly refuse to touch the switch. With the pressure of two actors in white coats, it took perhaps a minute, maybe a little more for them to coerce me into doing so. I was obedient to their will. I welled up, I wasn’t sure how I had arrived at doing something I had so resolutely set out not to do. Then, being ushered into another room, I met with another character of this piece: Professor Kurtz. He tells me he is pleased to see my remorse, he recognises it. He asks if I can keep a secret. One I will not utter hear. It left me feeling some relief and yet. And yet I had still made a decision I had seen as terrible. I had acted in a way I thought I could not.

Whilst this powerful piece of theatre finished on a note of kindness (reading a poem to a bilndfolded audience member, and recognising this as ourselves 20 short minutes before), I could not help but come back to the action I had taken. We were told that this was theatre, it was all illusion. The performance itself strove to point out the unreliability of our own perception of the world. But I feel as though something has shifted. We would all like to be the resistor but I can now understand a little more why people sometimes do things which seem utterly cruel. The person in the white coat can be very persuasive.

I know that some people resisted. I have spoken with audience members since last week’s  performances who told me they didn’t press the button. I placate myself saying that perhaps they were harder with us, knowing we were not a ‘true audience’. As performer they could push us further than perhaps they might have otherwise. I am also aware of a falsehood lingering behind this statement.

I ask you not to judge this honest account. After all, it was only theatre. But I will ask you: if you think you could be so certain of your actions? Would you remain resolute? And if you didn’t, would you be comforted to know it was not real?

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