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British theater ensemble Improbable to land on Wexner Center stage this weekend

Improbable cast performs “Opening Skinner’s Box.” Credit: Courtesy of Topher McGrillis

The Wexner Center for the Arts is bringing a little bit of the United Kingdom to campus this weekend with the British theater ensemble Improbable.

The Wexner Center will be hosting a performance titled “Opening Skinner’s Box” this weekend. The performance will be put on by Improbable, who has worked on this production since 2015 when they received The Wexner Center Artist Residency Award.

The performance is derived from the book “Opening Skinner’s Box,” written by Lauren Slater, and delves into 10 psychological experiments of the 20th century done by American psychologists such as B.F. Skinner, Stanley Milgram, Harry Harlow and more.

“I think a lot of what we present appeals to a variety of people, but I think this performance is something that a lot of people can relate to because it deals so directly with what it means to be human,” said Sarah Swinford, the program manager in the performing arts department at the Wexner Center.

This production is unlike many performances because the directors and the cast of Improbable worked together to unpack the book by Slater and turn it into something that can be performed to an audience.

Alan Cox, a cast member who who plays Milgram and Harlow, said the process of taking what was in the book and creating a performance was unconventional. He said actors would be split into pairs and were assigned chapters for a script. They would then record the dialogue so that they could incorporate the physicality of the scene before actually having to memorize the lines.

Cox said the process was adapted by one of the artistic directors, Phelim McDermott, called Jeremy Whelan’s Instant Acting technique. Cox described it as the actors being mute puppets; they wouldn’t move their mouths as the recording played, but they would move around the space they had.

Improbable actor Stephen Harper during a performance of Opening Skinner’s Box. Credit: Courtesy of Topher McGrillis

“When you physicalize it, you start to take it into your bones but then you would notice bits of writing that were superb or little rabbit holes that you wanted to jump down,” Cox said. “And then [British actor] Lee Simpson, he was literally sitting behind a curtain and then he would rewrite these scenes.”

Cox said he has enjoyed this production because of the close relationship between him and the other cast members. The personal relationships between the castmates helped them develop a chemistry they use on stage to help unlock the complexities within the experiments they act out.

“There’s something about the depth and the wisdom of these experiments we couldn’t possibly get our heads around and so we tried to be open to discoveries and trusting each other as an ensemble,” Cox said.

Improbable has a long history with the Wexner Center and its Residency Award Program. This is the troupe’s third time winning the award and the Wexner Center also supported development of its productions “The Hanging Man” in 2003and “Panic” in 2009.

Improbable will perform “Opening Skinner’s Box” at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 for students and $22 for adults.

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