The Rehearsal: Can realistic simulations transform us?

by Robyn Repko Waller

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Cringy. Real. Surreal. Socially Suspect. A lot can (and has been) said about Nathan Fielder’s HBO docu-comedy The Rehearsal. Are the clients actors? Are the actors acting? Is Fielder an actor or  client? Script becomes life and life becomes script in a recursive dream (nightmare?) of which one cannot help but be an onlooker. [Season 1 spoilers ahead.]

The initial premise seems wholesome if it was not so intrusive. Help folks live out their fraught future endeavors with a host of trained actors, replica sets, and practically limitless rewinds. ‘Immersive’ doesn’t do The Rehearsal justice. Fielder, the former magician, spins realism. Fielder and HBO seem to spare little expense to engineer clients’ test scenarios — the full-scale bustling bar down to the torn chairs and spices and patrons, an Oregon farmhouse homestead with the dream garden and steady supply of child actors. Creator of worlds of possibility. Worlds of possibility for action and transformation.

But can being embedded in a rich social simulation transform us? Prepare us for a changed future self? Plenty of shows and movies exploit the intrigue of transformation to capture viewers, but few are philosophical enough to explore the conditions for transformation, for shaping the self.

Fielder himself is optimistic about the therapeutic and agency-affirming goals of the show’s elaborate rehearsal exercises, at least at the start of the series. For each goal a client has — confessing a long-held lie to a friend, confronting a close relative about a difficult subject, exploring parenthood — Fielder has the client run and re-run and re-run ad nauseam the critical moments with tangled branching paths of potential words and actions explored. In Episode 1, he counsels the client Kor and viewers that participation in his rehearsals is a comforting uncertainty reduction activity, noting that

If you plan for every variable, a happy outcome doesn’t have to be left to chance.

[You] [p]ut [your]self in uncertain environments and became really good at predicting how people would react….You’ll know what exactly to say for every possible way.

He describes the meticulous, supervised takes and re-takes as “a decision tree that would guide us toward key milestones and help us avoid pitfalls.”

Now rehearsal in and of itself is not a novel medium for anxiety-reduction and agency-enhancement. Cognitive behaviorists, such as Edna Foa, have systematized exposure to a stressor  in a safe space as productive of future change and action. If spiders or crowds induce anxiety, a well orchestrated, contained experience of your trigger may be the treatment. And, with the advent of augmented and virtual reality, clinical applications allow clients as users to virtually interact with their triggers without the actual presence of those objects and situations. Indeed, the Metaverse and other tech worlds and innovations may soon make it unnecessary to call on Nozick’s experience machine or The Matrix to entertain what it would be like to have particular experiences. (And there is ample philosophical discussion of what we should take as real and meaningful with virtual reality and whether one should “plug in.”)

Fielder’s approach, though, stretches these bounds of the imagination into a full-blooded, complex web of embodied physical and social immersion. The therapy becomes pathological. “The Fielder Method.” Actors who have met and studied in depth the lives of your loved ones take on their mannerisms, looks, and personality. Your mother’s favorite sweatshirt. Living in a replica of their apartment. All as the backdrop to a relentless “What could you have done differently?”

Here the epistemic openness of the future and the problem of other minds, two ghosts of philosophical inquiry, are meant to be in the client’s grasp. If I play out enough continuations of the unknown, I can surely manifest the one I want. If I go down the rabbit hole of deep perspective taking of multiple others, I can predict their exact response.

More importantly, in navigating the experience machines of Fielder’s creation, I can actively become who and what I want to be. An honest friend. An earnest brother. A mother. Or can I?

Part of the limitation of the social experiment that is The Rehearsal is the limits of approximating life. The details are there but are too orderly and too convenient. Life is messier and more persistent and surprising in its demands than a simulation. In this way, Angela’s failed, emotionally dynamic co-parenting relationships with Robbin and Fielder are more transformative by far than all the nights of crying robotic babies and well-schooled kid actors. Non robotic babies (at least mine) don’t go back down to sleep without an impassioned fight; they need you. The unscripted bits. That’s what transforms you.

But nevermind whether is it real. (In any case, there’s no consensus as to how much of the show or meta show is real to Fielder and the clients and actors.) Perhaps what matters for transformation is that you don’t know it’s not real. Not that you know that it is real. Experience doesn’t have to be veridical to be transformative. Perhaps we just have to be duped.

Take the six-year-old Remy from Episode 6 “Pretend Daddy”. The rehearsal ruse of playing Adam grips him, and he doesn’t want to leave Fielder. Does he, having never remembered his real dad, now know what it’s like to have a dad? Does this knowledge and valuable interpersonal connection shape his engagement with his mom and real life? Or take Skeet and the upstate trip meticulously designed by Fielder to elicit Skeet’s confidence in him. “It’s nice to have a new experience” he says, seemingly bonding with Fielder. Would Skeet confide if he were cognizant of the deceit? And what of the transformative grip of the firing squad had Dostoevsky known then that he was pardoned?

Part of the overwhelming transformative power of such experience, then, lies in our seeing through the scripted or mock nature of the moment to real engagement. In the moment we don’t know that it is not real. Known simulation can train up new knowledge and actions, but presumed reality can jump start a radical new way of being and being in the world.

Indeed, at points in The Rehearsal Fielder seems transformed by his own participation in the project — becoming a co-parent to Adam, living the life of an actor in his class. He seems startled by what he takes to be important in those moments — faith-based upbringing, pedagogical engagement. But can one intentionally shape one’s own transformation? A question of fixation for the free will debate, self-shaping agency is often proposed to be at the heart of the kind of control we’d need to be free and responsible agents. We act as we do because of who we are, and we are who we are because of our past choices and actions. Did we choose to actively become this person?

Some wager that we can and do indirectly shape our core values and commitments. Others are famously skeptical that one can — at least intentionally and rationally — shape one’s self. Consider the case of transformative experience. L.A. Paul describes such experience as

experience that is both radically new to the agent and changes her in a deep and fundamental way … such as becoming a parent, discovering a new faith, emigrating to a new country, or fighting in a war (2015, 761)

Transformative experience doesn’t just change the agent; rather, the agent, as a result of the experience gains new knowledge and new values that are both epistemically and personally transformative. Through the experience you gain “new abilities to imagine, recognize, and cognitively model possible future experiences of that kind” (2015, 761) and you yourself change fundamentally in core traits, values, and self conception.

It’s plausible that Fielder means to inspire a meaningful transformative experience in the clients and himself. It’s plausible that Fielder has produced meaningful transformation in others and himself. In this respect he has succeeded. But did he control the shift in his perspective gained from The Rehearsal? That much isn’t clear. Indeed, some, like Herdova, are skeptical we can ever have good reasons for— and so can ever control — undergoing such a radical transformation. After all, one does not have access to what it would be like, personally and epistemically speaking, to have transformed prior to the transformation. So how can one be said to choose to shape oneself to be that way?

For my part, I am more optimistic that one can choose to transform, but, if The Rehearsal is any lesson, one has to commit. Not commit in terms of material resources or pre-specified outcome, but commit in terms of reality. Accept that one cannot know what it’s like to be on the other side of the experience, yet commit. Commit to the surprising radical transformation in self that full-on engagement in reality, other humans, can yield. Life takes over script.