Will Call: Exploring the dark world of ‘Bernays Academy’
If you go…
When: 7 p.m. Fri, Sat, Sun 6/10 - 6/12
Where: 695 Red Mountain Dr, Glenwood Springs
How much: $15, reservations at 970-456-3357
Last Friday, I accepted an invitation to tour Bernays Academy.
The venerable institution coincidentally occupies the same space off Midland Avenue in Glenwood Springs as Yampah Mountain High School, and some of the students and teachers looked oddly familiar as well, but there the similarities end.
Yampah is an alternative high school overseen by the Mountain Board of Cooperative Educational Services. It began as child-care-backed option for young parents and has since grown to include many other students who don’t fit the standard educational system. It is also, incidentally, among 348 semifinalists to become a “XQ Super School,” a national project co-led by Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, that would include a $10 million grant.
Bernays Academy, by contrast, is a rigid prep school named after the father of public relations. The students are eerily obedient, and the teachers seem to view them all as guinea pigs. If it had a theme song, it would probably be something off Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
It’s all part of an immersive theater project written specifically for Yampah by former actress and casting director Kether Axelrod and backed by a successful $5,500 Kickstarter campaign. The interactive dystopian narrative incorporates dance, multimedia and visual arts in simultaneous displays throughout the building.
Arriving at the door, I gave my name and was immediately presented with a lanyard identifying me as a potential donor from the oil and gas industry. Others in my group ended up as prospectives students, parents or teachers. We all sat down together for a brief introduction and a short tone setting interlude.
After that, we separated into groups for personal tours.
We were treated to an informational video about the founding of the school and real life propagandist Edward Bernays who, among other things, helped sell cigarettes to women and may have worked to overthrow the Guatemalan government on behalf of United Fruit in 1954.
We also had a chance to interview Dr. Huxley, a professor with an unusual mechanism for correcting student behavior. My attempt to take a picture was discouraged, as this was all quite top secret.
When Huxley offered to take questions from the crowd, there was a brief pause as the small audience tried to figure out if we were actually supposed to respond. Once another donor forged ahead, my journalistic instincts kicked in, and I began my own interrogation.
Deciding that my character probably wasn’t much of a reader, I decided not to ask if he was related to Aldous. Instead, I plied him on his methods and the potential benefits to my company. He had a response to everything, and I suspect if I’d asked about his childhood he’d have had a story about experimenting on small animals.
Our time with the students themselves was more limited, but the eerie fixed grin one of them shot me as we were taken away from refreshments stuck with me.
Mingling once again with the other tour groups, we quickly found that they’d had strikingly different experiences.
The prospective students seemed more enthusiastic than I would have expected, while the teachers looked rather unsettled. Before we had a chance to compare detailed notes, I was pulled aside for fancier fare and a chance to schmooze with the faculty elites. I’m confident my character would have cut a check then and there.
The second half was more action-packed and participatory. We got to tour the toddler room and even play with a hot glue gun. I’m not sure whether the stodgy big business representative I imagined for myself would actually have gone along with it all, but the real me was certainly invested.
I’ll skip the details of how things turn out in hopes that readers will be inspired to see for themselves. Suffice it to say that the students don’t remain “comfortably numb.”
I’m not in the habit of reviewing local productions, so I’ll stop short of giving “Bernays Academy” a star rating or a quotable one liner. I suspect the novel format will appeal to habitual theater goers and others alike, and I think attendees will be impressed by the sophistication of the execution by a small school, particularly if they take the time to ask questions and immerse themselves in the experience.
Most of all, when they’re through, I think they’ll be glad they’re not actually enrolling.
Or are they?
Will Grandbois don’t need no education. He can be reached at 384-9105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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