Visiting Edinburgh from the USA, The Female Role Model Project is certainly built around an intriguing concept. Four female actors take to the stage wearing high-tech brain scanners – then talk about the women who’ve influenced their lives, while the electrical pulses triggered by those thoughts are projected onto a screen. It could be, should be an intriguing insight into the deeply-ingrained thought patterns planted by society. But it doesn’t really come off that way.
The potential’s most apparent in a witty chat-show parody, where the four actors play four potential role models: Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian West, Melania Trump, and Chinese celebrity Bingbing Fan. The actors’ brainwaves are projected onto the screen behind them, and I was struck by how different they looked when they were speaking rehearsed lines versus improvising responses to questions from the floor. But there’s the thing: I was seeing an actor’s brain, responding to actorly challenges. I’m not sure how much that helps me understand the everyday.
A couple of times we witness more elaborate scans, where dancing pictures of electrical pulses are interpreted by a genuine neuroscientist sitting at the side of the stage. The discussion is informative – but also unrelated to the show’s promised theme. We learn that this part of the brain lights up when you use language, that part shines when you think about love. It’s cool to look at, but what does it tell us about female role models? Is there anything on that topic that I couldn’t glean just by listening to what was said?
Because what’s being said is the important part. The most powerful, affecting parts of the show come when the four women put the brain-scanners down, and tell their own stories directly to the audience: the moment that one first understood the joy of sexuality, the way that another chose a family over a career. There’s honesty here, and palpable vulnerability, as though they’ve made the choice to treat the stage and auditorium as a kind of secular confessional.
But it isn’t a safe space for the audience. The cast begin by highlighting their own diversity – yet a few moments later insistently demand that ‘every single person’ gets up on the stage, without any obvious regard for the very real possibility that some of their audience would rather die. Later they talk about body-shaming, yet they don’t seem to see a problem with press-ganging us all into an impromptu aerobics class. You might remark that they’re simply reflecting back the pressures women receive from society, but if so, they’re doing it indiscriminately – and do two wrongs really make a right?
I don’t believe there’s anything malicious or uncaring here, but I do think there’s quite a lot that hasn’t been thought through. The concept is enticing and the tech is very cool, but the outcome is a scattergun show that’s too beholden to its gimmickry. Yet still, I’m glad that I heard their real-life stories: there are moments there of searing truth which danced across my brain.