Take a Trip Through David Byrne’s Mind

‘Theater of the Mind’ is an immersive play that unfolds in a 15,000-square-foot square-foot warehouse

David Byrne on the set of Theater of the Mind
David Byrne on the set of Theater of the Mind Photo by Stephen Speranza for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Fake grass, funerals, drunk goggles and virtual reality headsets are a few of the things theater-goers can expect to see when they step into David Byrne’s new immersive production.

Best known as the frontman of the Talking Heads, Byrne debuted Theater of the Mind this week at Denver’s Center for the Performing Arts’ Off Center. During the 75-minute play, which he co-created with writer Mala Gaonkar, audiences embark on a journey through seven rooms inside a 15,000-square-foot industrial space. Each room represents a stage of Byrne’s life.

The artist hopes the production “will make you contemplate not his life but the ideas that drive it,” writes the Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers.

Theater of the Mind has everything and nothing to do with Byrne. Sure, it’s his production, but he won’t be involved in the day-to-day performances. Guides—all of whom go by the name David Byrne—take groups of 16 audience members through rooms created to represent events like Byrne’s tenth birthday party or his funeral. But the rooms aren’t strictly autobiographical, and the character details aren’t true to life, either. For example: “The guide’s mother, we learn, dabbles in painting and the prop department has provided a few of her wildly sexualized canvases,” writes the Washington Post. “But it is actually Tom Byrne, the real Byrne’s late father, who painted as a hobby.”

Audience members play brain games with goggles developed by a scientist at MIT, the Denver Post’s John Wenzel reports, and they wear VR headsets for immersive pieces.

The Washington Post calls it “part installation, part performance piece,” but it’s also part science experiment. Per 5280’s Spencer Campbell, Byrne spent about a year visiting labs to prepare for the production. The result: “a system that imperceptibly distorts reality with lights, sounds and other effects.”

Annie Barbour, a guide in Theater of the Mind
Annie Barbour, a guide in Theater of the Mind Photo by Matthew DeFeo

“I’ve always been interested in how to use science as source material,” director Andrew Scoville tells the Denver Post. “However, this project really challenged me to work [scientifically] because of the rigorous requirements that must be met in order for the phenomenon to occur.”

Why Denver? As Byrne told Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow in 2019, the Center for the Performing Arts’ Off Center has already cultivated an audience interested in immersive art. And perhaps, as the magazine put it, the Colorado attendees will “warm to some of the production’s trippier elements.”

Theater of the Mind predates American Utopia, Byrne’s Broadway production that closed earlier this year. It is at least five years in the making, a pre-pandemic project that was given more imaginative room once Covid-19 halted its production.

“For me, it meant there was time to think about the story and the script,” Byrne tells the Denver Post. “We worked on the guide’s journey, and the journey that the audience takes with the guide. The audience assumes the role of old friends, so we had more time to think about those aspects. It was a luxury.”

Lisa Hori-Garcia, a guide in Theater of the Mind
Lisa Hori-Garcia, a guide in Theater of the Mind Photo by Matthew DeFeo

To produce his own immersive experience, the artist tried out VR experiences like director Alejandro G Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Carne y Arena, which puts viewers into the shoes of undocumented migrants crossing the border, per the Denver Post.

Byrne is getting used to a more unconventional approach to performance. Unlike a Broadway show or a concert, an immersive theater production won’t welcome the screams and claps a raging performance of “Burning Down the House” would.

“It’s not like [audiences will] walk out of the last room and there’s a standing ovation,” Byrne tells the Denver Post. “It’s 16 people. They’re already standing.”