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REVIEW / INTERVIEW FEATURE: Extinction of the Learned Response

Extinction of a Learned Response

Extinction of the Learned Response
Review and Interview by Lara Franzi

A grind of thoughts and feelings that characterise before our eyes, Emme Hoy’s Extinction of a Learned Response is a new work showing as part of the 25A Belvoir independent season, filling the stage with an eerie glimpse into a dystopian nihilistic future.

Two budding scientists, Marlow (Jennifer Rani) and Duncan (Tel Benjamin), are studying the animalistic subjects Wells (Eddie Orton) and Rachel (Sarah Meacham), while they learn about the humanity within themselves. Stretching over Belvoir’s intimate stage this performance bursts right at your feet. It redefines what it means to be human, and to resist our natural desires and instinctual responses. 

Director Carissa Licciardello challenges our understanding of physiology - analysing our need to sneeze, blink, shiver, love or to hate. She calls on our own instinctual responses by washing the audience with adrenaline and completely immersing us into the tension. Bringing together the wedged separation between the subjects and the scientists is Kelsey Lee’s lighting design pulsing on the stage. Lee draws attention to the subtle details as we are submerged inside the thoughts of the characters' distraught minds. 

Extinction of a Learned Response makes you question humanity like never before, as we understand that it is fragility and morality that moulds us into a society, yet it’s the fear of our fatality that disfigures us into individuals.

Extinction of a Learned Response

After seeing the performance, I was lucky enough to interview playwright Emme Hoy on her motivation and meanings behind Extinction of a Learned Response.

Lara: How long have you known that you wanted to be a playwright?

Emme: It’s really interesting, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But it actually took me a while to realise that playwriting was the form that I wanted to do. [...] I used to do drama when I was much young in primary school and one of the first creative pieces that I wrote was a play that I made my friends do at school at lunch. It was a really bad play. I was 10.  

You write a lot of stories - are they mainly character driven or story driven?

I like to think it is a bit of both – to be honest, I’m quite interested in genre, story and plot. I think it’s trying to find the right balance. That’s what I find interesting in my stories. Often when I write something, I think of a situation or story first, then the characters often come out of the world that I’m thinking about. Often the world comes first for me.

 Was this the same for ‘Extinction of a learned Response?’

The very beginning of Extinction of a Learned Response came from when I was in my undergraduate degree. I was studying The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells and I was obsessed with the book - a dark science horror fiction thriller. I just knew that there was something so interesting and evocative in that world that I wanted to do it for theatre.[...] It was the world and the ideas that pulled me in, then the characters started happening when I started writing the play.

What does the title ‘Extinction of a learned response’, mean to you?

It came to me a bit later and I was inspired by a lot of things I was learning at the time. I was doing a psychology subject, and it was talking about behavioural theory and the idea that humans learn behaviours over time and you can have involuntary responses that come off those learned behaviours. So like Pavlov’s dogs’, that experiment where the dogs would drool whenever the bell rings. Then over time these different actions start being made. So, it’s talking about the idea that our responses that we think are involuntary or uncontrollable can diminish or change over time. How much are we in control of our own bodies and thoughts and reactions? I think that’s a really big idea of the play. 

Extinction of a Learned Response

Do you feel that this relates to our current social situation?

I think it deeply is, especially in quite a contemporary Australian play. A lot of the ideas in it are about not being able to articulate yourself and being unable to express yourself which I think is a really big thing in Australian culture. I think we’re uncomfortable with our emotions, we like to have a divide between our minds and our bodies, and our thinking’s and our feeling selves. It’s also talking about history, and the histories we make up and the histories we believe. Australia is a country with an unacknowledged history, the play isn’t speaking directly to that but I think it’s the preoccupation inside the play that is something I’m interested in as a writer. It is contemporary in terms of the themes and ideas, that I think are quite relevant to Australia now.  

Do you feel that Wells and Rachel have a history that they are ignoring or being forced to forget? 

Definitely, they have things inside them that they can’t get rid of. As Wells says at the end, “What’s in me that you can’t scrub out.” These feelings of love and hate - where did they come from? If your history is gone and you’re a blank slate how can you still be feeling these things. I think they do, they’re shaped. The play thinks about what else is there, are we just a collection of memories or are we more? It’s an existential question I think. But if you take away your memories, who are you?    

Was there a rhythm in the black outs and in these moments where we got insight into the subject’s thoughts?

Carissa and the whole design team were really intentional with that, and it shifted from those pitch-black transitions into the red throbbing light and the in between states. Carissa had this wonderful vision and I’m so happy that this is the premiere of the work. 

Extinction of a Learned Response

You’ve presented some really interesting characters with Marlow and Duncan who are such a mystery, they are really isolated and it felt that the audience was almost a part of the test.

In a much earlier draft there was a fifth character, a journalist, who was kind of leading the audience through the play and acted as the audience’s eyes. We decided to take her out, because we wanted the audience to be complacent in an experiment. It’s refreshing to be able to do that in a play and let there be silences and mysteries where you can fill in the gaps.

What are Marlow and Duncan? Why do they believe that they’re so different?

I understand why you have that sense of 'what are they?'. Because a lot of the play is questioning, is it human to have a voice, or is it human to speak? It’s confusing to see two people who look human for Rachel and Wells and then to be told that they are not. In a way, humanity is a mask in the play. And the person that gets to say they are human is the one that’s powerful. So maybe human is whoever is in power. You see that throughout history and you see that throughout oppression. The very first way to have power over someone -  you see it through colonisation, through sexism, - all of these terrible things is started with dehumanisation, it’s a tool of power. There’s an instability of who’s human and who’s not human, because the play is saying ‘what is human, but a construct’.

Belvoir St Theatre
9 - 15 May

Photography: Jasmine Simmons

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