Deadinburgh was an NCCPE Engage Competition award winner in 2014, winning the STEM category. Lewis Hou, neuroscience researcher at the University of Edinburgh & science communicator, shares his thoughts on his award-winning work and progress over the last two years.
In February 2014, Edinburgh was taken over by a zombie epidemic. Survivors assembled at the city’s old Vet School, Summerhall, the last stronghold housing the military and a few scientists, and they alone had to decide the fate of Edinburgh: do we invest in a cure? Do we have to cull the infected? Or, if there is no hope, do we shoot for an all-out destruction of the city to contain the disease?
To assist their decision, survivors had to avoid the occasional attack from the infected and consult the remaining scientists on what little they could glean on the disease. Was the disease bacterial, viral or prionic? Could certain people be carriers? Was there any help of any cure or management using stem-cell therapy? Could we even train them not to attack us using cognitive behavioural therapy? What was the public health response and what could disease modeling tell us about the transmission rate? As the last surviving neuroscientist, I offered what I had learnt about the infected brain anatomy by putting an infected patient into an MRI scanner (at great cost to my colleague), before this was all debated between our survivors and experts, a choice was made, and Edinburgh’s fate was sealed.
Immersive science-theatre show
Deadinburgh was an immersive science-theatre show produced by the LASTheatre company with director Barra Collins and creative producer Andy Franzkowiak, and collaborating with scientists from a wide range of backgrounds, including the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology, London School of Tropical Hygiene, Manchester Metropolitan Maths Engage, Eating Disorders Scotland, Heriott-Watt University and my own center, the Clinical Research Imaging Centre at the University of Edinburgh.
It was a sell-out show, winning multiple awards, including the NCCPE Engage STEM category in 2014, and demonstrated some of the strong benefits of integrating science engagement with immersive theatre. This was a rare opportunity for the immersed audiences to engage directly with scientists, who with a little training and thoughtful costume/character work, can play a version of their knowledgeable selves within a narrative which offers a reason for audiences to not just receive information passively but actually actively motived to find our more. The narrative provided a platform to frame complex portrayal of science, not just showing interdisciplinary collaboration (often a rarity in science communication) but disagreement, debate and ethical discussions between the science fields. Finally, by using a playful, hypothetical, “zombie” theme, the show had the chance to reach and engage audiences who may not usually go to science events, an important goalpost if you are interested in not just preaching to the choir.
NCCPE Engage Award
It was wonderful to be receive the NCCPE award and we were keen to use the prize money to continue our collaboration and explore science-immersive theatre more thoroughly using different contexts.
We used some of the funding to help support a similar event in the National Museum of Scotland working with the Scotland Creates youth programme in Zombies in the Museum to make an evening version led-by and targeted at a teenage age range.
The rest of the funding was used to support the following science-theatre piece New Atlantis in January 2015, which turned its attention to space science, engineering and climate change. Sending attendees to a London in 2050 where resources are low and climate is wrecking havoc, the three overriding polito-philosophical systems needed to be voted for: will leaving it all to industry innovation and markets solve it all? Or should control be co-ordinated by a single unified body? Or should the focus be completely on changing people’s consumption and behaviours?
Working with engineers, space scientists and environmental bodies, I was involved as the Scientist Liaison, sharing my experience from Deadinburgh through providing training for involved researchers as well as running a more in-depth evaluation of the audiences to understand the full scope of immersive theatre in engaging new audiences on issues like climate change.
Our key findings based on 309 surveys suggested the piece attracted a significant proportion of audiences who either never or rarely go to science events (40.4% of audiences compared to 6.9% to arts events) and even more new to climate change (76.6%). Both qualitative and qualitative reports suggest that the show succeeded in engaging our audience (50.8% under 30, 60.7% female) in both space science and climate change issues. The self-reported factor which correlated most highly to increasing support for research into conservation & climate change issues was not how much the person enjoyed it, but how thought-provoking they found the show (with only 6.9% of surveyed audiences neutral or disagreeing with this. The most commonly discussed strongest aspect of the show was the opportunity to interact directly with scientists, followed by the science-art and immersive elements of the show, confirming the strengths of the format. See the full report here.
However, one challenge is that immersive-theatre, especially in large-scale productions such as Deadinburgh and New Atlantis, are costly and difficult to scale and produce sustainably to avoid one-off engagement. We are currently exploring ways to distil some of the advantages of immersive theatre into smaller, more regular pieces, and aspects that we would encourage other people to think about in their own work:
Arts and science collaborations can be a powerful, both in conveying often complex messages and attracting new audiences, but require investment and quality (they should be able to stand on their two feet as both a piece of art and piece of science communication).
Aspects of theatre, including narrative, immersion and agency/ownership (a sense of control and “stake” in the action) can be incorporated into other public engagement projects.
Science is rarely black and white on issues, and communicating the ambiguity of science over the “right answer” should be done more often - engagement should leave with more questions than answers
I am still working in neuroscience research at the University of Edinburgh, but now only part-time, having had increased confidence from my NCCPE award to devote more of my time to exploring other ways of using the arts in science engagement to engage new communities. This includes using Scottish music and dance as a vehicle to explain science concepts with the Science Ceilidh project and band, visiting folk festivals and working closely with dance communities and schools all around Scotland and beyond.
From October, I will also become the Science Ambassador of the Fun Palaces campaign, a national celebration of “Everyone an Artist, Everyone a Scientist” manifest on the first weekend of October. If you are also interested in sharing culture, arts and sciences, with your communities, this would be a great place to start. Feel free to get in touch with me @fiddlebrain.
The NCCPE Engage Competition 2016 is open for entries until July 18th. Find out more and apply.