Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014 interview: theatremakers Rachel Chavkin and Chris Thorpe on Confirmation
‘The last thing that I want this piece to be is a narrative retelling of my adventures with a Nazi'
This article is from 2014.
Yasmin Sulaiman chats to Fringe First-winners Rachel Chavkin and Chris Thorpe about their first collaboration, a provocative examination of confirmation bias
Separately, Rachel Chavkin and Chris Thorpe have been behind some of the most exciting Fringe shows of the past decade. As artistic director of New York’s the TEAM, Chavkin’s impressed audiences and critics alike with genre-bending triumphs like Architecting (2008) and Mission Drift (2011). Thorpe’s The Oh Fuck Moment (co-written with Hannah-Jane Walker) won a Fringe First in 2011, and last year’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident received plaudits too. But this year, they’re teaming up for the first time on Confirmation – a complex show that’s the result of rigorous research on confirmation bias.
For the uninitiated, confirmation bias is the impulse that human beings have towards favouring information that confirms the beliefs they already hold. Thorpe, who writes and performs the solo show, was inspired by ‘a fascination with the psychological processes that we use to receive information,’ and in Confirmation, he hopes to ignite a conversation with the audience about his findings.
Thorpe and Chavkin – who became friends through their involvement in the National Student Drama Festival – embarked on a wide research process. Thorpe spent time working with academics at the University of Warwick and both were strongly influenced by Daniel Kahneman's bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt's acclaimed book The Righteous Mind. But Thorpe also spent part of the research period with a white supremacist, in order to test his own liberal confirmation bias.
'Part of it was trying to interact with what I would consider to be extreme viewpoints,’ he explains, ‘an attempt to have a specific conversation with a person who held views that I absolutely disagreed with but was actually quite similar to me in a lot of respects. Socially, economically – on the surface there wouldn’t appear to be so much between us given our experiences and our background, yet we’ve ended up so far apart. So it was necessary to have what I’m characterising as “honourable dialogue” with someone, an open series of conversations.'
However, both Thorpe and Chavkin are well aware of the dangers of giving an extreme viewpoint a platform. ‘We talked a lot about the responsibilities of doing this,’ says Chavkin, who directs the piece. ‘I think Chris was even more sensitive to it than I was, because America has slid so far in terms of really heinous viewpoints being given not just airspace but often equal airspace.’
‘So it was something I pushed on because I wasn’t sure whether it was, as a liberal, about seeking to have your own bias about the right confirmed. Finding someone who’s going to say the worst things possible – now, that is almost a line in the show. Talking about how to approach these ideas ended up really shaping the dialectic that Chris has in the piece as he argues with himself about what he's doing and unpacks it.'
The experience has helped Thorpe escape the knee-jerk reaction of ‘“Everyone would think like me if they were as well informed as I am” – and that’s bullshit actually,' he says. ‘You quickly realise that strength of conviction is the common thread of personal viewpoint. Everybody thinks they’re right to the same extent. There isn’t some kind of magical middle ground which is based on a series of absolute truths that if we all accepted we would somehow get along. It’s destabilising for me, as this guy who essentially wants us all to get along because there isn’t any place for us to get along from.’
But, he says, that doesn’t make the outlook bleak: ‘If everyone’s facing those dilemmas then all you can do is make what you consider to be the right choices and fight the ones that you consider to be wrong.’
That’s also been what Chavkin’s taken from the process. She says: ‘I think it ultimately offers a rallying cry for rigorous liberalism – it demands a sense of rigour that I think is often lacking.’
Co-presented by Warwick Arts Centre and China Plate, audiences have reacted to Confirmation's pre-Edinburgh previews 'very positively and complicatedly' says Chavkin. And, coincidentally, one of the previews was held on the same night as this year's controversial European elections.
'I’m not going to pretend that didn’t give it an extra kind of boost in terms of how urgent it felt,' says Thorpe. 'But this isn’t necessarily about UKIP [and] it’s not about religious fundamentalism of any kind. If it’s relevant to something that’s going on now, that’s great. But it will always be relevant to think about these things, because these are the constant processes that we live within, and we can only work against their negative effects if we put the effort in and recognise that they exist.'
It's this recognition of confirmation bias that is the piece's central aim. 'It actually achieves what is a really hard thing,' explains Chavkin, 'which is not just to talk about confirmation bias but to actually make you aware of the phenomenon working in yourself over the course of the piece on multiple levels.'
‘The last thing that I want this piece to be is a narrative retelling of my adventures with a Nazi,' Thorpe adds. 'Fuck that. It’s not about me wowing an audience with the brilliance of my insight because I’m really not into that. It’s about us all turning up on that day, at that specific time, up for having a conversation.'
Confirmation, Northern Stage at King’s Hall, 477 6630, 4–23 Aug (not 1, 3, 10, 17), 4.35pm, £14 (£11). Previews 31 Jul & 2 Aug, £11.