The Enlightenment Cafe: Deadinburgh

Deadinburgh project

University of Edinburgh

An unknown pathogen ravages Scotland’s capital, turning the unlucky souls into bloodthirsty ambling beasts. You are one of the last uninfected citizens in a city under martial law, cut off from the rest of the UK. Now, with help from real scientists, you have only hours to decide how to save Edinburgh, and perhaps the world. The Enlightenment Café: Deadinburgh, produced by LAStheatre, introduces the audience to the worlds of epidemiology and biomedical science through a night of immersive theatre. In a theatrical world, with actors playing the infected hordes and besieged soldiers, the audience meet genuine scientists using real science to solve a fictitious disease. In the end the audience must decide whether to destroy the city, cull the infected, or search for a cure; the fate of the city is in their hands. Through the outbreak of a zombie epidemic Deadinburgh asks ‘what does it really mean to be human’ whilst offering parallels with real life science and procedures for managing disease outbreaks.

Deadinburgh is a creative partnership between LAStheatre (an award-winning theatre company) and some of the UKs finest researchers across public health and the biomedical sciences. It has engaged an audience of over 1,000 people, helped by a creative PR campaign, which included spine tingling promotional videos and flash mobs style stunts on the Royal Mile. The first show of its kind: a unique mix of immersive theatre and science communication. The show was awarded a total budget of £23,500 from a mixture of arts, science and private funders. There have been many spin offs from the project, for example a partnership between the BBSRC and LAStheatre was formed to create an Science and Maths educational resource based on Deadinburgh.

Deadinburgh won the STEM category award in the NCCPE's Engage Competition 2014.

For a more in-depth look at this case study, click on the headings below.

  • Project aims
    • The project aimed to create a quality experiential piece of theatre to engage new audiences with biomedical sciences and a range of other research disciplines. Through theatre and play, it sought to further audiences understanding of the world around them; whether by learning about modern day advancements in psychiatry or discovering the work of epidemiologists by living through a zombie apocalypse. 
  • Target audience
    • Adults who enjoy interactive theatre, particularly those within the18-35 age range. School children in state schools key stage 3 and 4. 
  • Project overview
    • Deadinburgh was designed to be mutually beneficial for participating audiences, researchers and performers. Six research teams from across the UK were involved including: The Roslin Institute, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Heriot Watt University, Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology, Manchester Metropolitan’s School of Healthcare Science, University College London and University of Edinburgh. Each research team was given the overall parameters of the project, and asked to develop an interactive session based on their research, which would form part of the overall production. For example, one team looked at the anatomy of the zombie brain based on the symptoms, another team explored ethical issues surrounding control of infectious diseases.

    • Research teams were provided with information about the fictitious pathogen, which had consistent symptoms and affected the body in a way that each team’s research became applicable. A number of online conference calls took place between all the scientists in the run up to the production, however the project was purposefully designed so that no one team had all the information they needed to deduce what the pathogen was and how best to control it. This was done to ensure that both the scientists and audiences were introduced to the challenge of understanding complexity in science and decision-making. The research teams and performers were invited to Edinburgh two days prior to the event to set up the performance and work through rehearsals. Each of the six research teams then hosted small workshops as part of the overall production, with each workshop introducing audiences to further information about the disease and different strategies for containing it. At the end of the performance, after a final public debate and discussion, the audience used this information to vote on whether to destroy the city, cull the infected or search for a cure.
  • Outcomes
    • Researchers involved in the project describe how the process gave valuable insights into the motivations and priorities of the public and the challenges that arise when decision makers are presented with conflicting scientific opinion. Each collaborating institution gained national exposure for their work and a ready-made piece of science communication that communicates their specialism. As a result of the show a partnership between the BBSRC and LAStheatre was formed to create a Science and Maths educational resource based on Deadinburgh. Teachers who have used the resource have described it as an outstanding multidisciplinary resource, incorporating a number of subject areas into an integrated whole. The project also benefited its audiences by exposing them to science. Before the show 57% of the audience had previously engaged with science communication or publications. A month after the show 69% had gone on to engage further in educational activities relating to science. Deadinburgh was presented The Chairman’s Award at The Scottish Event Awards along with Best Experiential Event 2013. 
  • Partnerships, publicity and marketing
    • Using the popular culture hook of zombies, Deadinburgh engaged with over 1,000 people. An external PR company called ‘the gate’ was used to produce a website, develop PR stunts and gain media coverage. The website combined zombie imagery with the look of an official government project. Spine tingling promotional videos were created and shared via social media. Before the show had opened Scotland On Sunday and Edinburgh Evening News had run full page spreads on Deadinburgh. In addition to this we staged a PR stunt on the royal mile, which was picked up by most of the main stream media in Scotland including. A fashion shoot based on the show also ran as part of an additional feature in Scotland on Sunday. Once at the event materials became more ‘official’ with a Summerhall Safe Zone theatre programme featuring in depth information about each of the collaborating institutions. 
  • Evaluation
    • The evaluation developed in-house by the project team. Each of the respective research groups was asked to input into the design of an audience survey, which was distributed via email following the event. The survey looked into the demographics of the participants, motivations for attending the show, whether they had attended other science communication events, what did think about the show, and what facts (research) did they retain. The project team also developed a survey, which was distributed amongst research groups. This explored their thoughts on the project, what worked or could have been done differently, and what they learnt from the process. 
  • Key to making it work
    • Theatre has a very different way of approaching science communication than scientists may have. Theatre groups can work with shorter and more focused preparation times and will tend to move onto the next project very quickly. It’s important to support the collaboration between performers, producers and researchers, particularly providing support for researchers who might be less familiar with the expectations of theatrical performances. Where possible use a liaison officer to work between research groups and a theatre group to project manage and facilitate the process.