You may not know Rebecca Kopycinski. But if you live in Greater Boston north of the Charles River, you've probably seen her signs.
Peppered among telephone poles, community outposts, and studio spaces throughout Somerville and Cambridge, the hot pink missives ask, “IS YOUR THOTBOT GLITCHED?” Detachable paper tabs depict a web address where participants can take a quiz to determine their “value” under a mysterious dystopian regime referred to only as The ULTRA.
“I really wanted it to feel like it was in-universe; like it kind of pulls you into that world,” Kopycinski says of the posters, which serve as an experiential entry point into the speculative, retro-'90s world of "Reagan Esther Myer" — Kopycinski’s independently produced one-woman show.
In the past month or so since she put them up, Kopycinski has been surprised to find many of the posters' tabs ripped away — and more than 4,000 curious visitors on her website.
“It's been really fun searching the ‘thotbot’ hashtag, and seeing just complete strangers be like, ‘What's this? This is cool,’ and me being like, ‘Oh, is your thotbot glitched?’ ” she says with a laugh.
The show feels to Kopycinski like a culmination of an artistic body of work bridging her interests filmmaking, music and live performance. After 10 years of playing in Burlington, Vermont, venues as layered pop-synth project Nuda Veritas, Kopycinski wanted something more. She connected with Boston-based theater company Liars & Believers after they began producing one-night shows inviting multi-disciplinary artists to collaborate on creating experimental original works.
“I saw it as an opportunity to add something to the music,” Kopycinski says. “I added video first, and then a year later I was cast again, and I added sort of like, theater acting stuff. I had zero theater background whatsoever.”
Through Liars & Believers, Kopycinski worked on "Talk to Strangers," an interactive theater experience that connected strangers in the audience via text before the show, during intermission, and after the performance ended. As she sat backstage and watched a feed fill with the conversations audience members were having about the show, she was inspired to create a full-length piece in a similar format, blurring the lines between audience and stage and inviting visitors into a world that went beyond the scope of a one-night performance.
Once the format of the show was decided, "Reagan Esther Myer" quickly took shape. Kopycinski explains it sometimes as: "It's like if 'Black Mirror' had a musical episode, but on stage with a choir of mannequins singing backup.' The narrative centers on its titular heroine: one of the first recipients of an experimental procedure called the ThotBot Program.
“The ‘thotbot,’ the brain implant, is like a really interesting sort of spin on how, you know, we take what is served up through the media and so forth, and that shapes our worldview, right?” Kopycinski explains. “During the 2016 presidential primaries, when we really started to see an amplification of all the s----- things in our society, and how there's so many people who are happy to perpetuate that s-----ness, or exacerbate it even, I just did a little kind of thought experiment: ‘What if Trump won?’ ”
Thus began what Kopycinski describes as a “long process” of compiling her thoughts, interests and research. The evidence of this is everywhere; her workspace is filled with journals and scraps of paper with scrawled notes. Like Kopycinski’s work, her sources of inspiration cross genres and mediums, from '70s films, to an NPR segment on the processing of electronic waste in China, to clips from the Boise, Idaho, evening news, to her independent research into neuroscience. On her desk, monitors display the video editing process of the visuals she’s creating for the show, combining found footage and images with glitch effects and music. Along one wall sits a stack of vintage analog televisions; a stoic crowd of mannequins keeps watch.
“The thotbot sort of selectively erases your memory; kind of makes you into an emotional zombie so that you're not forming relationships and connections with people. You're kind of isolated, and all of the media that you're getting is from the government broadcasts through your brain implant,” Kopycinski says of her character.
When Reagan’s ThotBot shows signs of “glitching” — beginning with her innocuously humming as she works — her isolated little world begins to break down. It’s only through owning her own agency and power that Reagan can hope to break free.
“I've always been driven by the idea that life is a state of mind,” Kopycinski says. “That's not to say that we don't have forces within us or that act upon us that can make life challenging. The idea is that, despite our circumstances, we always have the power to at the very least change our mind, change our perspective. When it comes down to it, we are the ones manufacturing our reality. Just like the choices that face Reagan in this show, sometimes we need to gather our courage and make the decisions that serve us best, even if that goes against status quo.”
"Reagan Esther Myer" is at the Center for the Arts at the Armory in Somerville from Thursday, June 27 through Sunday, June 30.