Neural Enhancement with Dr Leon is now in its fifth year, having made its debut at Secret Cinema’s Brazil. I spoke with director and performer Sofi Lee-Henson about what keeps this show and audiences coming back.
Neural Enhancement with Dr Leon is an immersive, theatrical, brain surgery experience, designed by Lee-Henson. The best way to describe it is getting a massage for your brain – both physically and mentally – whilst visiting a bizarre film set. Lee-Henson’s Dr Molly Leon is a neurosurgeon who has invented a way to catalyse neural growth. The Dr Leon Better Chip is a cluster of nanowires that grows wherever it finds electrical activity, encouraging users to focus their daily actions for six months on the aspects of themselves they want to achieve.
Every sense is catered for in the most ridiculous and exciting way. The overall aim is to teach people about meditation and self-awareness through science fiction. The experience takes up to an hour. In addition to the installation of the Dr Leon Better Chip, the session includes pre-care and aftercare.
The show keeps coming back to entertain audiences since its original inception at Secret Cinema Brazil in 2013; why do you think it is so popular?
Dr Leon has been so easy to bring back as it’s a concept that works. It’s still relevant, funny and entertaining thanks to the films made in collaboration with James Carney and Alexandre Do. Experiential theatre wise, there’s nothing quite like what we are doing out there right now in London. I attribute this to the high costs associated with running one on one entertainment. It is a very tricky, highly risky industry, but I believe our popularity falls to the simple fact that people are always looking to better themselves. Dr Leon is an easy answer to this problem. The chance to escape for an hour and lose yourself.
I started off Dr Leon in 2013 at Secret Cinema’s Brazil. We were located on the shopping mall floor, amongst three other surgeons, all of whom aimed to enhance physical attractiveness. My installation was a response to this, that to be truly beautiful, all you needed was a beautiful mind. We had initially intended for Dr Leon to be sarcastic. Part of the aftercare involves you aiming your hand to your head in the shape of a gun and declaring: “I am free, I am happy, I am better.”
That things were so bad before, you had to result to potentially dangerous brain surgery to make yourself happy, BUT the response was surprising… I had thought people would be fearful and dismissive of the installation, but instead received nothing but love from each patient. I realised I had a duty of care to these people. A year later, I received an email from an attendee of the Brazil surgery that they had quit the job they hated and decided to chase their dreams, thanks to what we had done at Dr Leon.
The years that followed, I vowed to do more, popping up at various arts festivals and The Balfron Tower with the artistic support of the fantastic Flavia Bertram, and Punchdrunk’s Fania Grigoriou and Miranda Macletten. Simply being present, and still functional is a testament
There’s been a lot of talk about consent in immersive experiences, how do you ensure mutual consent in this one to one experience?
When it comes to consent, there’s been a lot of issues of where the barriers of participatory theatre lie. Both sides must be protected and when you’re dealing with such intimate experiences, like Dr Leon. It’s often just one performer in the room with an audience member and the risks associated with that can have dangerous consequences.
The biggest problem to overcome is designing invisible barriers into the work that are intuitive to communicate to participants that there are limits to how far they can go: clear body language, strategically placed set pieces, hidden alarms, or simply declaring “do not touch the performers”. When the barriers are breached, performers are encouraged to use their judgement whether to address the problem, or stop the event entirely. Generally, you learn to read people, observing body language and anticipating their next moves. Touch wood, we have been very lucky to have never experienced any inappropriate behaviour. We only hire performers who are skilled in dealing with difficult people.
Immersive seems to have grown and audiences have high expectations; how do you keep the experience fresh with so much competition?
Immersive Theatre audiences have been saturated with participatory events the past 7 years. It is difficult to keep ahead of the game, especially when people are constantly comparing stuff. I try not to be influenced by trends. With my company, I try and stay true to my own core beliefs by using science fiction settings to promote mental well being and meditation. I ask myself whether attending one of my events would benefit me: for the first time, for the second time, for the eighteenth time. So long as Dr Leon is still appreciated in the form it currently takes, it will remain the same.
What do you think the future holds for immersive theatre and for yourself?
Dr Leon is going to be moving to a therapy practice in the new year. This will give us a more therapeutic direction to develop a new angle of immersive and experiential events. We are also developing group events through XNN Systems (www.xnnsystems.com) using the same mission objectives as Dr Leon, but playing with non-verbal social interactions as part of mental health and well being.
On a side note, having watched Netflix’s Maniac, I hope they hire me to join in on Season 2. So much of the stuff in that seemed to be picked directly out of my dreams. I LOVED IT.
This production is on until 17 December at a secret location in SE1 https://www.airbnb.co.uk/experiences/421843