Meet the Brains Behind ‘The Female Role Model Project’

Science and theater merge in a daring experiment around gender, empowerment and music.

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Tjaša Fermé performs with Gina Pemberton, Yiqing Zhao and Meggan Dodd in "The Female Role Model Project." Photo: David Nicholson.

What’s a female role model? If a theater artist and a scientist, say, aimed both to ask and answer this question, surely they’d want creative elements within their research as well as scientific ones. Transforma Theatre’s debut productionThe Female Role Model Project, running Nov. 7 through Dec. 2 at 3-Legged Dog (80 Greenwich St.) in NYC, aims to do just that.

Created by two NYC-based women — Slovenian producer-performer Tjaša Fermé and Romanian “immersive theater” director Ana Margineanu — The Female Role Model Project features four diverse, female-identified performers of various ethnicities, ages and sexual identities. On stage, they portray well-known, iconic women, such as Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Obama, Melania Trump and Kim Kardashian. As they perform, the electrical activity in their brains is monitored. In addition, the performers also engage the audience members — some outfitted with the same equipment — in “playback games.” In real time, the brain-computer interface transmits 3D projections and music streams of the resulting neural functions. Led by a real-life scientist, the audience is asked to ponder its own thoughts and experiences relative to the performances, and the performers.

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The Female Role Model Project is a tech-heavy enterprise but also a rigorous one in terms of its scientific credibility. Very significant, for example, is the involvement of Dr. Natalie Kacinik, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychology professor from Brooklyn College, who provides science text and insights into the live neural activity observed. There’s also John Jannone, a video designer who was the founder and former director of Brooklyn College MFA program in Performance and Media Arts; and composer and music producer Justin Mathews, who generates a unique score at each performance by converting all the brain waves into sound. There’s additionally Phoebe Chen, who communicates the real-time scientific interpretations of the performers, which include Fermé, Meggan Dodd, Gina Pemberton and Yiqing Zhao.

For tickets to The Female Role Model Project — which bills itself as an “interactive multi-media theater piece exploring the neuro-epigenetic basis and transformative potential of female identity in a radically changing world” — put on your smart face and click here.

And now, 5 questions Tjaša Fermé and Dr. Natalie Kacinik have never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

TF: A Russian critic from St. Petersburg, when I was on my tour in Russia, had incredible insights into my one-woman show Wild Child In the City. She asked a question in her review that had me stunned: “Is it possible to unite our own freedom, internal and external with an absolute personal inviolability?” On a conscious level, I wasn’t so much aware of this core problem until it was sublimely pointed out that my stance on freedom and boundaries was an inside as well as an outside job — the world’s treatment of me as a woman. And it hit home: “…I’m free on the inside but that creates an illusion of no boundaries for others, seemingly allowing them to treat/violate me as they feel appropriate. They see my freedom as an invitation.” It was interesting that I had to go all the way to Russia to get to this insight from a Russian critic, whose English is only her third language.

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Cognitive neuroscientist Natalie Kacinik. Photo: Prof. David Owens.

NK: I’ve been unable to remember any good specific ones, even though I’m sure I’ve gotten some great questions. However, when I’m telling someone about a particular study or line of research, they’ll occasionally ask how it applies or why it’s relevant to the “real world” or everyday life. Sometimes this is easy to answer, while other times it’s quite challenging and makes me really think. It’s an important question because the scientific value of our work is obvious in terms of increasing our understanding of how we behave, or how our mind and brain appears to function. But often, it’s not clear if and how something we’re investigating, and the results we find, matter in a more practical sense. It’s a question I always appreciate because it’s not something that always occurs to me, but challenges me to think about the actual significance of the work.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

TF: Often, when I meet people who see me in my one-woman shows, they look at me and with a straight face ask “So where did you get that story? Did it really happen, or did you just make it up?” The question is baffling to me. Why is it so hard to assume that a “wild story” performed on stage is not a figment of your imagination or something that happened to somebody that you read about in the National Enquirer? Isn’t theater the place to bring bizarre human stories from real life, to share the absurdity and to be stunned by deafening universality? Always, reality is way stranger than fiction.

After seeing my shows, some people still don’t get that I am confessing exactly what happened to me. Well, about 90% of it is true without exaggeration! Yes, it is bizarre but welcome to my life. I think the confusing thing for a lot of people is the idea of an actor’s authorship. Nothing actually, of course, comes entirely from us. First, as artists, we don’t create in a void; and second, I believe we are channels. The idea of the dumb actor not actively participating in a creation is the most silly assumption I encounter regularly.

NK: Again, no major doozy really comes to mind, but when I tell people I’m a psychology professor, I commonly get the “Uh-oh, then I should be careful about what I say so you don’t analyze me,” or “Are you psychoanalyzing me right now?,” and I have to clarify that I’m not a clinical psychologist, but a research psychologist who studies how the mind processes language. Most people don’t realize the scope of psychology is as broad as it is, or that the research we conduct is as scientific as it is. Running a close second to that is the question about whether it’s true that we’re only using about 10% of our brain. I’m not going to take the time to discuss and dispel that myth here.

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What is a common misconception about how we develop our sexual identities, both individually and as part of a society?

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Co-creator Tjaša Fermé. Photo: Jaka Vinsek.

TF: Maybe it’s not so much of a misconception as it is not realizing how susceptible we are as children and young adults to external influences; how truly influential role models are (including people that we see and hear about in mass media) and how sticky our parents’ behaviors are. As children, we are like little sponges. Later in life it’s not impossible to change, but it takes practice and tapping into our subconscious “programs” to reroute and rewire. Sexual identities are formed from replicating the patterns within the family and it’s one of the deepest imprints and points of identification one can experience.

NK: Since I study language comprehension, that’s really outside of my expertise and not something I know much about or have discussed with others. However, considerable research indicates that early childhood experiences can have powerful influences on later development into adolescence and adulthood with respect to our sense of self, our social and sexual identity, and our relationships. My sense is that most people probably don’t realize how much many of the things they experienced when they were really young and no longer remember affected who they became as adults. It would be very interesting if we could somehow take our adult selves back into our childhood minds and re-live certain experiences, to see how we processed them as children and what we know about ourselves now. Similarly, research has shown that many of the things we experience and perceive in our environment, often without conscious awareness, influence our cognition and behavior. For example, in my lab we showed that giving participants an unpleasant beverage — versus a neutral or pleasant-tasting one — affected the harshness of moral judgments. So I wonder how much of our identity has really been shaped by seemingly minor, innocuous things that we have experienced and continue to experience in our environment and society every day. I think many people probably believe that who they are is due to the decisions they’ve made and how they’ve lived their lives. But at least some aspects of our identity could reflect the influence of seemingly subtle perceptual experiences.

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If you could break down the show into its pieces — since it combines human and technical elements — how would you describe it?

TF: It’s a scientifically enhanced, deeply interactive theater piece with real-life stories mixed with neuro-scientific experiments. I know that technically they’re not experiments, but I think that, colloquially, this term is the best for painting a picture of what the show looks like. I think we could work on this show for 20 years and, scientifically, we couldn’t really get to what I hope for.

NK: Although the show contains human and technical elements, I’m not sure how to answer this question: what we’re trying to achieve is the opposite of what the question asks. Our aim is to effectively blend science and technology with the personal artistic performances of the cast and audience interactions to create a holistic experience for the audience. Time will tell whether this will be successfully accomplished, but we want the technological, scientific and theatrical components to work together and complement each other, rather than have any one aspect stand out or detract from one of the others.

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For female role models, just use your brain?

What is your show’s “ensemble modality”? Why is it unique?

TF: Mixing theater and science is an immense delight, privilege and challenge. In theater, 70% happens in rehearsal and 30% happens at home — thinking, conceiving, rehearsing lines, doing research. For science it’s more like 90% researching, trying, experimenting, mostly working by elimination of what doesn’t work and, when you find something that does work, you bring it on stage or to the light, which is about 10%. In workshop, we spent numerous hours playing around with headsets, trying different things and mostly learning what doesn’t work. Technology can be so frustrating and finicky! In theater, the trash folder is much smaller.

NK: The creator, director, cast members, scientists, video, music, lighting designers and technical assistants are all contributing their expertise, while also raising questions and issues for others to consider, with the final creative product going beyond the sum of its parts. It’s unique because although other artists have used similar EEG devices to convert brain activity into various kinds of auditory and visual displays, these are typically presented with little to no explanation of what they mean. We have tried to make our show scientifically informative while maintaining the quality of the theatrical experience. The interactive aspect with the audience also seems quite unique. I know many other artists and shows involve audience participation, but I think both the extent and manner in which it’s done in our production is unique.

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Who’s brain is it, anyway?

Bonus question: What’s your definition of a “Female Role Model”?

TF: I think a true role model today embraces her femininity and masculinity equally. I feel we can learn a lot from the queer community. I strive for more gender fluidity in personal traits and self-acceptance and, of course, then that translates to the “other.” The more we are accepting of ourselves, the more we’re accepting of others. One thing revealed to me during this process is my own experience of female denial that I experienced starting in puberty through my teenage years until a photographer proclaimed me beautiful. The myth of a “hero saving a stuck princess” and an “ugly duckling turning into a swan,” both at the same time, became completely apparent. I felt like I wasn’t a woman because I wasn’t fulfilling the expectation of what a woman should be like: gentle, princess-like, quiet, shy, uncompetitive. I was too masculine to fit that description and whereas I didn’t identify as a male, I also didn’t want to accept that I was a woman. We’re moving into a more non-binary society, where one can accept one’s biological gender and not only be at peace with it but thrive, embracing the psychological intricacy of masculinity and femininity coexisting and complimenting each other, regardless of one’s gender.

NK: I don’t think it makes sense to try and define a “female role model in 2018.” I would like to think that our production shows, and current times are such, that we can see and appreciate the full range and variety of individuals or characters that could be role models for someone depending on what they value or admire. It’s important to recognize, also, that role models can be a double-edged sword. They can represent something to strive for and potentially achieve more than we could otherwise, but they can also lead to unrealistic expectations or possibilities, resulting in disappointment and other negative consequences if someone feels like they can’t or don’t measure up.

With respect to women in particular, there definitely seems to be more awareness and discussion about gender, from how we treat girls and boys in childhood to what women and men experience at home, work, and in society more broadly, due the sociopolitical climate. Whether this increased awareness, and efforts like the #MeToo movement will lead to actual lasting change remains to be seen, but I sincerely hope so. It’s encouraging to see programs developed to increase the likelihood of women entering and succeeding in STEM fields, more serious consideration of unwanted sexual advances and the issue of consent, and the identification and discussion of the many double standards applied to women and men. I’ve recently begun watching Mad Men. Although it’s only TV, the show’s been praised for the accuracy with which they portray 1960s life. Seeing it has reminded me of how far we’ve come, but there are still many things to improve. When I tell people I’m a professor or I see my female friends or other women tell someone they’re a neuroscientist, surgeon, attorney, business owner or in many other careers, both men and women often seem surprised or taken aback. It makes me wonder whether their reaction is simply due to the considerable amount of education those professions require, and whether they’d react similarly of they heard it from a man. I hope someday it will no longer matter.