What’s My Motivation?

The dazzlingly clever UK troupe Improbable Theatre unpacks the work and legacy of a pioneering behaviorist in “Opening Skinner’s Box.”

Photo courtesy of Topher McGrillis

You know what a Skinner box is, even if you don’t know its name. You’ve seen them in movies—white mice navigating mazes or learning that hitting the left button delivers food, as scientists in white lab coats record data on clipboards. The apparatus gets its name from B.F. Skinner (1904–90), the pioneering American psychologist, behaviorist, and social philosopher. Skinner believed that free will was nonsense; human behavior is entirely conditioned by positive or negative stimuli. We are slaves to reward and act kindly only through fear. Kind of grim, right? That’s a question the ever-curious talents behind Improbable Theatre aim to answer in their thought-provoking new show, Opening Skinner’s Box, which is having its North American premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival.

Photo courtesy of Topher McGrillis

In the piece, devised by the ensemble and codirected by Phelim McDermot and Lee Simpson and based on Lauren Slater’s book of the same name, six actors in professorial tweeds explore 10 groundbreaking experiments of the 20th century in and around a large cube demarcated by white lines. One such is Stanley Milgram’s infamous “obedience to authority” tests, in which subjects were encouraged to administer lethal (and fake) shocks to actors. Another is the “bystander effect,” in which witnesses to violence or crime are rendered apathetic by the presence of others (as with the Kitty Genovese murder). In typical Improbable fashion, ideas and stories are illustrated through movement and group dynamics rather than historical re-enactment.

Fans of Improbable will be thrilled by the return of this beguiling English troupe, which visits New York too rarely. In the past, it has had short runs at the New Victory Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, and BAM, but this engagement lasts three days only. That should be enough negative reinforcement for you to get tickets now.

Photo courtesy of Topher McGrillis

Why You Should Go: Improbable Theatre returns to illustrate major psychological experiments of the 20th century. Why do we obey? What does it mean to love? Is violence innate or learned? If you miss this, you ought to have your head examined.

Opening Skinner’s Box
Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
524 West 59th Street (between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues), Hell’s Kitchen
Monday, July 10–Wednesday, July 12

When should you do before and after the show? We’ve got you.