Confirmation is a show about confirmation bias. A one man show by writer/performer Chris Thorpe and directed by Rachel Chavkin. A show about how our brains favour or interpret information in ways that reinforce our existing beliefs. Except, to be honest, it is far more exciting than that makes it sound. It’s come from conversations with a white supremacist, rigorous research, and is the first collaboration between two old friends who are exciting artists in their own right.
The thought Thorpe had that started the process was a simple observation. “I quite often find myself confronting myself with opinions that I strongly disagree with, and I wondered what I was getting out of that, what that challenged in me, and actually I realised that because we have this deep-seated, constantly evolving need to strengthen our own beliefs. I was using my exposure to other points of view in order to strengthen the thing I believed already.”
After they first spoke about the idea, way back in August 2012, Chavkin went running to a huge bookshop in her native New York. They exchanged books, talked to academics, went to conferences, and spent hours on extremist blogs on both the left and right, and watched videos of people walking around Auschwitz denying the Holocaust. But at a point they moved beyond passive research, and had what Thorpe terms, “an honourable dialogue” with an extremist. In this case, Glenn – a white supremacist, who, as Chavkin puts with supreme distaste, “also happens to be a Holocaust denier”.
They had no interest in giving him a platform but a keen interest in how he and Thorpe came to have their (very different) political views. Glenn was from the US but a similar socio-economic and ethnic background to Thorpe – “so we could talk about why we believe what we believe without putting it down to externalising factors, which people do too easily”. Throughout the different, dissociative strands of the show, Chavkin says the audience should expect “to be made increasingly aware of their own bias working – there are moments where you feel the ground shifting under your feet, which is not a comfortable moment necessarily, but audiences don’t feel put on the spot – but well taken care of on the journey.”
I speak to Thorpe and Chavkin separately, on the phone, as Thorpe gets a train south which is permanently in or around a tunnel, and after an abortive Skype call to Chavkin. But the problems with communication are technological only – these are two people who know exactly what they want to say. Thorpe is “very honest about the views I came up against and how they changed me sense of my self, the sense of my own rightness. One of the things I found out about my own so-called liberalism that I found out during the show is that it’s lazy. It’s easy to fall into a relativistic area where you mistake a belief that grey areas are important with an attitude that says anything is all right to believe and I think that’s a very important distinction to make. It’s certainly one I don’t make enough and that I should make more.”
So, is the show about making people think differently? Sort of. The processes are unconscious, and necessarily so. Thorpe thinks for a moment and says, “maybe what it’s about is, for a little while afterwards, the next time they come up against something they disagree with, just thinking about what are the questions they are not asking of that interaction that maybe they could be.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for two fringe stalwarts, they wax lyrical about the benefits of Edinburgh. For Chavkin, it’s important as “so much of the world comes together there – it’s truly international. It’s also valuable on a marketplace level,” for producers and for exposure – you can video work but “nothing can take the place of seeing it live”. For Thorpe “audiences in Edinburgh are out to engage with as much as they can – and can have a really learning conversation about it.”
It’s for similar reasons Thorpe loves the National Student Drama Festival, where he and Chavkin met as workshop leaders – both work to “foster links between people who might not ever have met otherwise, or people making work they couldn’t even have conceived of. It’s great to hang out with people who aren’t cynical – who haven’t had the shit kicked out of them yet – they think it’s all possible.” And with people who don’t think in terms of career path, Thorpe adds. “It’s great to have ambition, but don’t get sucked into this idea there’s one way to do that.”
Chavkin’s advice for those young /emerging performance-makers? “There are a couple of key things. Simultaneously make and see as many artists as possible – see what a seven-year-old kid artist does and compare with what you as a 21-year-old artist are doing. Constantly be absolutely declarative with your own taste.”
Declarative? “See stuff and go “I love that! or “I hate that” and ask yourself – why?” She sounds inspired, imagining a new generation of artists – “make work that conforms with your taste – and let your taste change. And don’t be afraid of copying artists you love – because you’ll learn something, and it will almost always be something different, something with the stamp of you.”
As a true collaboration, Confirmation bears that stamp, too. For Thorpe, who writes/performs a lot of solo shows, “it’s been an incredible experience – it was the most painstaking experience I’ve ever been through with a director. She made me realise that normally when I’m on my own how slapdash I am – and she is the entire opposite of that. I’m always very careful with language, but the language has always been the priority, but for her it’s not. She absolutely brought that attention to every single element of what’s on stage.” He slows down and speaks with relish, “she is on it”.
For Chavkin, “collaborating with a writer of Chris’s calibre – and in such a personal way – has a special place in my heart.” Whilst each word of the text was Thorpe’s, she had a heavy hand – “I hope not overly heavy” – in the shape of it. Hopefully, Confirmation will fit her description of her love for theatre/live art – as “a space for the extraordinary”, in more ways than one.
Confirmation is at the Edinburgh Fringe from 31 July to 23 August. For more information and tickets, visit the EdFringe website.