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Psychic Driving

One Page, Psychic Driving

Psychic Driving is an evening-length piece that mashes up musical sampling and physical theater to reflect on sound in the modern age of torture.  The piece was shown in parts as a work-in-progress at HERE’s Culturemart Series in March 2015, and was further developed through a Puffin grant and workshops at Bennington College. It is now a finalist for the second round of the MAP grants. HERE Arts Center describes the work:

“Psychic Driving surrounds the audience with a hallucinatory landscape of audio surveillance, hospital sonification, and clandestine broadcasts, inspired by the CIA brainwashing experiments of the 1950s, in which subjects were force-fed LSD then played looped audiotapes. Four performers chatter, sing, and nosedive from desks in an intricate physical and musical score that seamlessly combines musical samples with live performers. Brooke’s trademark musical mash-ups have been called “operatic in scope, unfolding in layers that constantly reveal new meanings” (Culturebot) and “the most exciting and innovative musical theater I’ve seen in years” (Meredith Monk)

The evening-length piece is in development. The final show will be an hour long with a non-stop physical intensity, unlike anything that the Cabinet  has done before. Simply set, the work uses a small battery of props, keeping the focus on the lock-step relation of sound, sampling, and movement. The work fits easily in most black box spaces.

Personnel (for HERE Culturemart performance 2015)

Composer/Director: Nick Brooke

Co-Director: Jenny Rohn

Music Director: Kerry Ryer-Parke

Lighting Designer: Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa

Production Stage Manager: Brídín Clements

Stage Design: Nick Brooke/The Cabinet

Sound Design: Nick Brooke/Ken Kirschner


For a great primer/review of Nick Brooke/The Cabinet’s approach, see, or see Culturebot’s review of Border Towns 


For excerpts of the work in progress, see videos below.

Section 5, Psychic Driving. Performers are Kamala Sankaram, Mariam Shah (voice, Urdu), Michael Chinworth:


Part 2, with student performers Emma Welch and Julia Crowley at Bennington College Margot Tenney Theater:



“Psychic Driving” was a technique pioneered by Dr. Ewen Cameron in the 1950s and 1960s. Borderline patients would be dosed LSD for weeks at a time while being played looped audiotapes with therapeutic messages. The goal was to start the mind anew, though the CIA quickly became interested in the technique’s use for brainwashing and torture. This production uses those MKUltra experiments as a metaphorical launching off point, exploring the sometimes thin line between therapy and torture, and looking at both the liberating and numbing aspects of sonic repetition. A touchstone of the 1960s, repeated audio stimuli intrigued other experimenters. Burroughs looped audio tape as a kind of unconscious, automatic writing, the bleeps and buzzes of hospital sonification were pioneered, and audio surveillance began its heyday. So did musical minimalism.

This production began as an audio collage of hundreds of song fragments and text, which the four performers learn to imitate, like Cameron’s looped tapes, and which virtually creates the physical score. Materials include technopop, CIA playlists, dating lingo from foreign phrasebooks, number stations, ghazals, and self-hypnosis tapes for sleep and lucid dreaming. The physical and musical score explores canons and asynchronous loops, mistranslation, and musical warhorses of minimalism. Ultimately what emerges is a sonic meditation on the unhinged relativity of communication.

These sounds  weave into complex loops, canons, and fugal structures, out of which singing emerges. The four performers surround the audience in booths reminiscent of telemarketing, mechanical fortune-tellers, radio broadcasts, and Spalding Gray’s classic monologue table. With minimal props, the choreography, developed in lock-step with the sounds, will draw attention to the intricate play between light and sound—and the multiple perspectives, from womb-like envelopment to paranoia, that surround-sound evokes. Sometimes playing out in near-darkness, the piece will explore how, in parsing dense message streams, one doesn’t always know where to look or listen.