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A new interactive show fuses theatrical design and neuroscience in an attempt to parse the female brain
Back in 2012, Melania Trump tweeted out a photo of a whale with the caption, "What is she thinking?" that went viral. Six years later, people are still replying to that tweet, which is fitting considering the First Lady is one of the women whose minds are analyzed in The Female Model Role Project at 3-Legged Dog. The brainchild of Transforma Theatre, Inc., this interactive, multimedia experience takes audiences on a cognitive journey inside the heads of women, some famous (Kim Kardashian, Marilyn Monroe, Melania), others ordinary citizens (a few plucked from the audience) by fusing theatre and neuroscience.
The show's four deviser-performers -- Meggan Dodd, Tjaša Ferme, Gina Simone Pemberton and Yiqing Zhao -- are equipped with Emotiv and BrainBit headsets, which measure their neural activity. As they tell stories about what it means to be female, designers translate their brainwaves into colorful projections or spontaneous music. Onstage neuroscientists then share insights about what exactly is going on in their minds. It's like a field trip through the inner workings of the female psyche.
Sound designer and composer Justin Mathews, who collaborated on the show's two previous iterations, was tasked with transforming their neural activity into music. He enlisted the help of his brother, an applied mathematician, to write an algorithm that could be read by music software, and the folks at BrainBit built a special Android app that sends data directly from the headset to the theatre's soundboard. "The BrainBit only has four electrodes, so it is highly simplified, which is great for music," Mathews says. "Instead of getting this giant mess of numbers, I really only had four numbers that I had to deal with."
Mathews' work is spotlighted during the section in which the actors portray current female "role models:" Kim Kardashian, Melania Trump, Oprah Winfrey and Chinese movie star Fan Bingbing. In the style of a game show, audience members ask these celebrity impersonators questions about beauty, marriage, motherhood and work-life balance. With each round of answers, a unique ambient soundscape emerges based on the average of the cast's brainwave measures. "It is simplistic in the sense that it is four bands, but any differences that exist in their collaborative process are reflected," Mathews says. For example, the desynchronous sound accompanying the queries about sexuality spiked in volume at the performance I attended.
Notably, theatregoers' behavior plays a big part in the aural outcome of each performance. "The actors react to the audience more than anything else," Mathews says. "If the audience isn't doing much, the activity can be very low. We've had shows where you can't hear much. We wanted to be able to capture reactions in real time, and we wanted them to be real reactions. I think we pulled it off."
And that wasn't something he was confident about at the outset. "This was a huge challenge," Mathews admits, adding that the collective brain power of neuroscientists, designers and performers made it happen. "It took a village, and everyone was willing to help."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Female Role Model Project. Go here to browse our current offers.
Allison Considine is a staff writer at American Theatre magazine. Follow her at @theatric_ally. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: The cast of The Female Role Model Project. Photos by David Nicholson.