Sunday, 21 June 2015

Chaos and Regency Style

The week leading up to 7th June had evidently set the elegant Regency heart of Cheltenham throbbing with the annual Science Festival. I had never been before, which is hardly surprising as it falls in term-time and the timing coincides almost precisely with exam-marking deadlines. This year was different however: not only had my partial retirement freed up a couple of days in the week but I was a part of the team* presenting a modified version of the Chaos Cabaret I wrote about here. Even so, I could only be there for the day of the rehearsals and performance.
Rather than being a full-on and sober-minded science education event per se, Chaos Cabaret majors on fun and then injects some science along the way, which in no way signifies any sense of laissez-faire within the team – far from it. With the performance scheduled from 5:30, almost every minute from our midday access to the rehearsal venue had to be used to the full. Between the first performance at the 2014 Canterbury Festival (which I reflected on in the latter half of an earlier post, here) and this major showing at Cheltenham, Frank had modified and extended the script, two of our three musicians and two of the four actors had changed, and of course the ‘feel’ of the venue was completely different. On this occasion I had the privilege of sitting in on the entire process rather than only the dress rehearsal. It was fascinating to watch their creativity as script was melded with physical action and the whole was wrapped into a framework of music. The teamwork was inspiring. Having said that, the pace was such that there was almost necessarily a tension between the actors’ need for an element of spontaneity – which also helped them get through the all-too-brief time they’d had to master the new script – with the musicians’ understandable need for clear prompts. Apart from a couple of minor observations on the scientific accuracy of phrases in the script, my contributions comprised the folding of a couple of paper airplanes (at which I excel by the way) and being an obstacle. The latter required only that I sat on a chair in the middle of the rehearsal space to simulate the need for the actors to dive in and out of the audience during the performance; this was a role I considered myself born to.
Rehearsals: Frank (foreground) watching Tamsin (right, in the raincoat)
and crew working out their movements for one of the final scenes.
Lack of time or not, everyone needs to eat. Not only did this give me my first real look at all the events underway in the umpteen venues en route, but once I’d registered – as a ‘performer’ I might add – I became the proud owner of my very first Green Room pass in the form of a wrist band. This gave me a chance to stare at the stars of course, and in this context that included a couple of people one might see on TV like Jim Al-Khalili and Mark Miodownik: ‘heroes’ of science communication. The key thing, apart from eating, was to get a peek at the performance venue – the Pillar Room in the Town Hall, which was as grand as it sounds – and to chat to the lovely volunteers/helpers who’d be arranging the seating, operating the lighting and so on. Having said that, I was also keen to see what else was going on: the event is huge, and I’m now very keen to use the flexibility of my retired, or should that be ‘freelance’ status next year to pay a more extended visit. In passing, I’ll share with you the sound engineer’s excellent idea for producing something akin to the noise of a tornado: hold a microphone in front of the air conditioner’s fan and turn the amplifier up to 11.

We had almost an hour for a dress rehearsal before the performance itself. Apart from setting up a webcam on a tripod so I could attempt to record the performance on my laptop (which failed miserably I’m sorry to say as the sound quality was dreadful) I was given the role of resident artist. For anyone who knows just how poor my drawing skills are this statement ought to cause serious amusement. Thankfully, the need didn’t extend beyond drawing a few matchstick people on the sheets of a flipchart: even so, they were grotesque. I really ought to have photographed one of them properly, but there is a ghost of an image in the background of the picture below; unfortunately, this is the cartoon of someone who was quite evidently unsuccessfully ‘beamed’ through a Star Trek style transporter …

It was most gratifying, and somewhat scary, to learn from a volunteer steward that tickets had been sold to all the seats in the room. Thankfully, the performance itself seemed, to me, to go reasonably well; later feedback was positive – phew! This was an opinion not shared by everyone, sadly: one individual left after less than five minutes, telling me as he did so that he found the performance to be devoid of science. However, I discovered afterwards from my wife, who was sat next to him, that he’d been disappointed by an earlier performance as well – and in that case the speaker was one of the ‘greats’ and a truly accomplished communicator; I guess there’s no pleasing some people. As with the version we premiered at the Canterbury Festival in 2014, the performance ended with about 15 minutes of Q&A fielded by me. It was an interesting session, notably because several of the questions were not about Chaos Theory at all (such as the one on ‘Intelligent Design’ and another on parallel universes). However, the really nice thing was the fact that questions came from a wide range of people: the young and the not-so-young, people who knew a little about science and those who were there to learn, and men and women in roughly equal number.

The Q&A session; an example of the flipchart artwork sits in the background.
I’ve no idea where this will go now. Frank has been chatting to a very well-known animations studio about extending the schools work we’ve started and perhaps developing an online version of the whole thing, and he’s already busy putting together funding bids. It’s clear to me that there is a potential demand to take this concept into schools; it’s easy to see how one might use ‘Chaos Theory Workshops’ to get science and arts students working together to generate their own Chaos Cabarets. If this can be accomplished it would tick a lot of boxes as far as I am concerned. Time will tell, as is always the case.

Frank Burnet conceived the idea, with project manager Emma Weitkamp, and wrote the script; Joanna Ive wrote the highly innovative score; our lead musician, accomplished as an improviser, was Sam Bailey; the lead actor was the hugely impressive Tamsin Fessey of The Angel Exit theatre company and she had with her a talented trio of colleagues (Simon Carroll-Jones, Jennifer Jackson and Tim Bell).

No comments:

Post a Comment