Beltane Public Engagement Network

Sharing best practice | The Cabaret in London

2017 has given the core Beltane team some great chances to share learning from the Beltane Network. We’ve been in Glasgow at the SCVO Gathering, in London with the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, and in Belgrade with the NUCLEUS project. Here’s what Beltane’s Sarah Anderson got up to in London…

Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas at The Sick of the Fringe – London (19th Feb 2017)

Charlotte Mykura (Imperial College London) and Susan Morrison (the Cabaret’s resident MC) rehearsing at Camden People’s Theatre

If you ever want to do work that doesn’t feel like work, take a trip to London with Susan Morrison and Gusset Grippers’ Elaine Miller. Believe it or not, between the raucous train stories and entirely impromptu, incredibly detailed historical walking tour of London, we managed to put on a show.

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas was invited to be part of The Sick of the Fringe – London by Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow Brian Lobel. Both the Cabaret and The Sick of the Fringe (TSOTF) have previously run at the Edinburgh Fringe, and it’s here that the two shows found out about one another.

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas is where researchers get to debate and discuss their most provocative research ideas with (paying) members of the general public. It has been running since 2013, is the idea of Susan Morrison, produced by Fair Pley, and largely programmed by the Beltane Network. As well as the final shows, all involved with the Cabaret spend considerable time supporting and developing researchers and their show ideas.

TSOTF is a curated programme of shows which celebrate the potential and problems of the human body. It features researchers and health professionals, but also professional artists (who do not require Cabaret-style training). It has run twice at the Edinburgh Fringe, and had its first London outing this February. TSOTF’s Wellcome Trust backing gives it an esteemed profile, so the Beltane core team was delighted to be asked to bring the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas on board!

The idea was that the Edinburgh crowd would bring the format (including the MC/compere, Susan Morrison), and that the TSOTF in London would provide the venue and performers/researchers. The performers would be given some intensive performance coaching by Susan and a briefing on the Cabaret format by Beltane’s Sarah, before taking to the stage the following day. Squeezing a process that normally takes seven months into two days was a big ask! But it seemed the most cost and time effective way to proceed.

Elaine Miller and interpreter Darren Townsend-Handscomb

TSOTF got us a wonderful venue – the Camden People’s Theatre. This small, friendly but consummately professional venue is exactly what you want when you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Recruiting researchers was more of a challenge: we’ve found, in Edinburgh, that this takes not inconsiderable slogging away, encouragement and repeated prodding of researchers and their support colleagues. The TSOTF team, with so many events to support, could not reasonably replicate this intensity of pursuit, and it was difficult to do it remotely from Edinburgh. The result was, in the end, we managed to snare one game London-based researcher, Charlotte Mykura, and then bring in Edinburgh-based Elaine Miller, who was already at TSOTF performing her own show.

Charlotte, an epigenetics PhD student studying at Imperial College London, is an experienced performer on the London science entertainment circuit. Nevertheless, we wanted to work with her to make sure she had all she needed for a cracking Cabaret show, and Charlotte was totally up for this. Susan, Charlotte and I spent a few hours on a Saturday in the Wellcome Collection‘s beautifully equipped Hub brainstorming a hook for the show, going over the format (e.g. no lectures), practising stagecraft, planning for challenging situations (e.g. heckling), and building the all-important rapport and shared tone between Charlotte and Susan. (Elaine, flat out with her other show, could not join us, but was already familiar with the Cabaret and had worked with Susan before.)

On the day, we had a solid, BSL-interpreted show on the topics of (i) why we should stop tampering with the genetics of embryos and (ii) why incontinence could actually be life-threatening. Both Elaine and Charlotte did us proud, as did our very hardworking interpreters, Darren and Kyra. We had a healthy-sized of audience of about 30 people, many (but not all) of whom worked or studied in universities.

Cream Victorian building

Camden People’s Theatre

We hoped that, by being part of the process, London-based researchers could take the format back to their own universities and run it on a longer-term basis. We need to do some more work with The Sick of the Fringe team and the Wellcome Trust to set this up – a train-the-trainer programme – but this is still the end goal. This format has worked well for us here in Edinburgh, and we’d love others to try it out.

So, what was in this for the Beltane partner universities, and other partners? Well, it raises the profile of the Cabaret generally, and gives it the kudos of being associated with the Wellcome Trust; this will hopefully reflect positively on researchers who are part of Edinburgh-based Cabaret events, and on the arts professionals (Fair Pley and Susan) involved with the Cabaret. It also gave me and Susan a chance to experiment with different ways of supporting researchers, as a seven-month lead time is not always possible back in Edinburgh, either!

If you’d like to stage your own Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, here’s some info:

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