february 2017 | Volume 152
Photo credit: Tristan Brand
Your brain isn’t what it used to be. Well, actually it’s the same old brain, but the burgeoning field of cognitive neuroscience has demolished many old ideas about how brains work. Amber Funk Barton and Mindy Parfitt tell us about it in am a, a 75-minute confessional thatalternates between lessons in neural plasticity and stories that illustrate how it works in everyday life—their everyday lives.
Adopting a conversational manner, they employ simple metaphors to describe how habitual patterns of behaviour can create neural “superhighways” of negative reinforcement. For Barton these have taken the form of occasional desires to see professional colleagues fail (a revelation that cuts against her earnest outward demeanor), as well as struggles to overcome an eating disorder that stems from the misogynist body-image issues that are still so present in dance culture. For Parfitt it has meant overcoming not only her own fears, but trying not to pass them on to her children.
Each performer makes a demonstration of neural re-patterning by trying to learn something out of her comfort zone. Barton tries an aria. Parfitt, fulfilling a secret desire to be a ballerina, dons tights and tutu and performs a solo. It’s all very candid, brave and, well, therapeutic.
But am a mostly sticks to just telling us about neural plasticity rather than creating an experience of it. Yes, there’s a brief line-dance class for the audience, intended, I believe, to illustrate how we learn new things by neurally “simulating” one another, but for the most part the show fails to take advantage of what a theatre space can offer our sensorimotor-based perceptions. Most of the scenography gets treated in a utilitarian fashion.
For example, while two grey closets on wheels that are shoved from place to place make for functional projection screens, they provide no challenging movement obstacles to simulate, no surprising textures to encounter, no interesting tensions between themselves and the human performers—in short, no adventure of theatrical perception.
Except once: near the end of the show the theatre goes very dark. One of the closets is opened to reveal an interior bathed in pale, metallic-green light. It’s as if the open closet has carved a green window out of the darkness, revealing another world. I feel pulled into it. Barton stands in the frame with her back to us, a silhouette cutting a human-shaped negative space in the frame. She seems to be on a threshold between the theatre and the world inside the closet. My sensorimotor perceptual abilities are now fully engaged and, for the first time, on the hunt for new insights, new opportunities for in-the-moment neural re-patterning.
Too soon it’s over. The closet doors shut and we return to the rather flat, uninteresting lighting state that has dominated the show. By the end I’ve deepened my appreciation of Barton’s and Parfitt’s life experiences, if not the theatre craft of am a.
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