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This immersive play was engineered for ‘creepy lizards’ and ‘devious couch potatoes’

Ellie DiBerardino, left, and Jonathan Schoonhoven, right, are the co-creators of “Change Your Mind,” a new immersive theater piece. | Courtesy Change Your Mind

At the beginning of her new theatrical production, Change Your Mind, Ellie DiBerardino said she’s the first to point out that the psychological journey her audience will undergo is not licensed therapy. 

“Yes, it’s our biggest disclaimer,” she said. “In all caps: We are not a mental health facility.”

Still, DiBerardino said that the new immersive play, which she co-created with writer Jonathan Schoonhoven and software engineer Alex Howard, is designed to facilitate introspection and potentially, a sense of the collective unconscious—to borrow a term from pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung. 

At the center of the project is a question that the crew poses to each participant: “If you could delete the worst parts of your personality, would you?”

Jonathan Schoonhoven displays the fictional "personality improvement" capsules used as props in "Change Your Mind." | Courtesy Change Your Mind

To help the audience answer for themselves, she and her counterparts have designed a complex audiovisual installation and therapeutic simulation. First, each participant determines their diagnosis—the aspect of their personality they wish to modify—which DiBerardino said can come with a playful moniker. She said several early beta testers are identified as “creepy lizards,” while DiBerardino herself grapples with the pitfalls of being a “devious couch potato.”

Next, the performers usher the participants into individual treatment booths, where they can express why they landed on their specific personality labels. From there, the procedure simulation begins, leading to an extended meditation that guides the audience to that final question of whether they would like the change. Finally, there’s a debrief to help people process what they just experienced. 

The production has gone through several iterations over the past year, and DiBerardino said she’s pleased to report that this version bears no resemblance to Ken Kesey’s influential 1962 psychological novel set in an abusive mental institution. “It’s much more like Inside Out than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” she said, laughing. 

Alyssa Larson participates in the immersive theater piece "Change Your Mind." | Courtesy Change Your Mind

DiBerardino told The Standard that the production was inspired in part by a TED Talk from brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, who studied her own left-sided stroke as it was occurring and found that some stroke victims reportedly lose a sense of individual self and, in turn, feel a connection to everything. “Which is beautiful, in a way,” DiBerardino said. 

Although the crew goes to great lengths to emphasize that Change Your Mind is immersive theater, not psychotherapy, DiBerardino said she’s optimistic that it could bring about legitimate personal revelations.

“I feel very passionately about the power of this kind of immersive experience,” she said. “The whole immersive experience genre gets a vague treatment these days, but I think this self-directed introspection makes it much more powerful.” 

Change Your Mind

🗓️ April 7-29
📍 Wave Collective, 440 Haight St.
🎟️ $49