Opening Skinner's Box

Based on the book by Lauren Slater

Improbable with Northern Stage and West Yorkshire Playhouse

Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

From 05 May 2016 to 14 May 2016

Review by Ray Brown

Let me declare an interest. I studied psychology in the Sixties then did psychological research for fourteen years. There are aspects of psychology and its methodology that I still find endlessly fascinating.

Those years of study and research left me with some knowledge but, more particularly and more usefully, a way of thinking, an approach to problem solving. This production stimulated all three.

Opening Skinner’s Box is a theatrical production which takes a number of signal psychological studies and makes them accessible to the intelligent layperson. It has an underlying, unstated but ever-present theme that the work a psychologist does is related to her or his personal experience of life. And few psychologists would disagree with that.

The production is based on the American psychologist Lauren Slater’s book of the same title, which is informatively subtitled "Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century". Her descriptions of these experiments include interviews with the experimenters and their human subjects. In some cases, Slater has an experiential involvement in the experiment: seeing how easy it is to pass oneself off as a potential psychiatric patient, how difficult to overcome an addiction, and so on.

And so one of a cast of six (three women, three men) consistently plays Lauren Slater (convincingly and winningly); the other five play assorted psychologists, assistants, human and animal subjects of a selection of studies. The set and props are minimal: several small rigid outlines of boxes, a colander, a baby's feed bottle. Most impressive is an outline representation of a cube which can be flipped around and distorted by the actors as and when required.

On this setting, we hear about Skinner’s formulation of operant condition, which emphasises the importance of reinforcement for learning. We also learn that Slater attempted to incorporate some of Skinner’s procedures and findings into the rearing of her own daughter (as had Skinner with his own daughter).

It is clear that Slater was, to say the least, ambivalent at the consequences, as she is about most of the work she outlines. Hers is a journey of discovery and—perhaps this is autobiographically accurate—the journey is neither temporally nor intellectually linear.

The programme says, "why do we love? When would we kill? How do we learn? Why do we believe in the unbelievable? What is memory? Why do we keep doing things that hurt us?"

Broadsheet readers will be familiar with some of the featured studies. Of course the answers are, as they must always be in science, theoretical. Science cannot answer "why" questions; "why" questions lead to an infinite regression. Science, at its, best answers "how" or "when" questions and provides theories for understanding the answers. Some kinds of theatre can make the same claim.

I was familiar with most of the experiments, but interested to revise them, and very interested to see this 21st-century take on them. But is this a play? I think not. What potential narrative structure is available, in terms of the development of knowledge or the development of Slater’s understanding, is confused, as is Lauren Slater.

There are attempts to make the production "theatrical". The distortion of the cube, sound effects of animals in panic or pain and so on. Over-arching all of this is the dress and behaviour of the cast. Dark suits and bow ties for all of them. In the days when I attended psychological conferences I remember just one bow tie wearer out of hundreds if not thousands of psychologists. Perhaps wardrobe was a wink at satire!

The most ‘theatrical’ elaboration is sequences when the cast move in slow motion, often making symbolic gestures. The overall effect is one of a school drama workshop: walk like a goose, talk like a duck, be a tree, be the sea.

Occasionally a line of script takes a cheap poke at the psychologist under study at the time. The audience responds with uncertain laughter. In fact the evening was characterised by uncertain laughter.

I have no problem with uncertain laughter, it suggests that the laugher might be stimulated to thought, which is never a bad thing. And some of the well-acted vignettes were genuinely funny as well as being informative.

But overall, although I found the evening interesting and satisfying—this was in spite of the "‘theatrical" aspects. I suspect the book is not only more informative, but also more enjoyable.