“Mindlab doesn’t offer answers, but encourages people to think”

Together you create a culture, including one lacking in integrity. That is what Mindlab is about. This theatrical production by TheaterMakers Radio Kootwijk (TMRK), which will be available online for people at TU/e for the first time next Thursday, aims to open up a dialogue. Theatre is the perfect vehicle for that, writer and director Walter Supèr says: “It gets under your skin and exposes people’s inner thoughts.”

photo Bart Verhoeven

To bring about a cultural change at universities: that is what UT professor Ellen Giebels had in mind when she asked Walter Supèr to write a theatre play about the academic world. TMRK’s artistic leader and director agreed and immersed himself in the world of science. The result: Mindlab, which will be available online to TU/e students and staff members this week, followed by a series of physical performances on campus in July. The aim of the production is to encourage people at universities to engage in a “true and courageous” discussion about a range of issues, including scientific integrity, social safety and leadership, all of which emerged from conversations with University of Twente employees.

Input for the play was provided by the academic community, is that right?

“Yes, we wanted to talk to people from the broadest possible perspective, ranging from assistant professors, PhD candidates and full professors to members of the support staff. In fact, that’s where TMRK’s strength lies: we are good at interviewing people and discovering the story behind the story. What’s behind it, why do things happen? That’s what we want to know.”

What did you find out?

“That people at universities, just like in the rest of the world, suffer from cognitive dissonance reduction. I think of it as a kind of partition in the brain where you can hide things behind. People detect certain behavior that they disapprove of, but think to themselves: it’s not about me, or I’m only indirectly involved. As a result, they don’t take action. I’m a positive thinker. I believe that most people don’t deliberately set out to make a mess of things. And yet, they do. I find that fascinating.”

Isn’t it hard to stay positive when you hear stories about socially unsafe workplaces and lack of integrity?

“No, because every person I talk to wants to do the right thing. I think that individualization allows us to do stupid things as individual persons. And on top we’ve created hierarchical structures at universities with untouchable positions. Think of a secretary who has access to all kinds of expense accounts and meeting minutes. When I ask her how she feels about what she reads, she tells me: actually, I think it’s wrong. It’s a nest of vipers, but I can’t go public with it because I like my job. That’s one of the issues we address in the play. Sure, we deal with bad things, but the play is built on people who want to do the right thing. It’s mostly about bystanders who fail to act, or who hide behind processes, protocols or systems.”

You talk about bystanders, but aren’t the people in positions of power the ones who need to change their behavior?

“The play focuses on the question of what kind of leadership we want. It’s the interaction that makes the difference. The Executive Board and deans are powerless when the large majority says: that’s not how we want to do things. The person in charge isn’t always the leader.”

Did all the events in the play actually happen?

"For the most part, yes. They are based on the stories we were told. I didn’t transcribe them verbatim, because I wanted people to feel free to tell me things. That’s why I slightly changed the setting here and there. Interestingly, one rather explicit part of the play caused something of a stir at a certain university – not TU/e, by the way. They thought I had included a story in the play about something that happened there, but I wasn’t even aware of the situation. That’s why I didn’t change a thing in that story. I you feel that a situation applies to you, fine. That’s the whole point.”

Are people supposed to recognize themselves?

“Yes and no. On the one hand, you want people to get inspired and on the other hand you want them to think: oh wait, this is me and I don’t want to be that person. But being able to recognize yourself isn’t enough, they play needs to take things a step further. It needs to make people feel uncomfortable and touch them emotionally. People say: it’s probably about MeToo. But that’s not true. That’s too one-dimensional. Instead of confirming what we already know, this production needs to provide new insights. It’s about the grey area: that’s where the change is.”

What message do you want the audience to take home?

“That’s up to the audience. The play doesn’t distinguish between right and wrong, nor does it offer any answers. But it does encourage people to think. Take that cognitive dissonance reduction, for example. Mindlab is a laboratory where we can turn that off. Our main character relives a number of experiences without it and can therefore no longer hide them away behind that partition in his brain. What happens then? It’s good that we have cognitive dissonance reduction, but it would be helpful if we managed to neutralize it every now and then. That gives us a new perspective from which to look at things. You saw a great example of that in Utrecht. People there didn’t react in black and white, but started to think and talk to each other.”

It’s about the grey area: that’s where the change is

Walter Supèr
writer and director Mindlab
Why is theatre a good vehicle for a dialogue?

“Theatre is a good vehicle because it can get under your skin. A stage play isn’t a documentary. Things happen that expose people’s inner thoughts. And it’s a live experience. A shared experience does something to people. Being quiet together or laughing together says something about group dynamics. It’s a mirror that shows you that you’re not alone and that provides you with a frame of reference. That experience is not quite the same online, unfortunately, but we recorded the performance very successfully. We paid a lot of attention to it. It’s worthwhile watching it online, especially if you want to get to work with it right away. But it doesn’t end with the play, incidentally. We work closely with Aukje Nauta, professor of organizational psychology in Leiden. She helps organizations and teams at universities to actually bring about change and keep the discussion going,”

The issue of inappropriate behavior and social safety has been widely debated in the media lately, did you make any adjustments to the play based on the latest news developments?

“Every time these kinds of things make the news, Ellen Giebels and I send each other app messages and say: they should see Mindlab! It confirms that Mindlab is badly needed. We haven’t made any changes to the play. Its subject matter is still very up to date, unfortunately.”

The online performances can be seen on February 24 and 25. Sign up via the TU/e website.  The online version of the stage play is in Dutch with English subtitles, the performance on campus will also be surtitled in English.

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