Looking back on the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas

Black A-frame posterboardAlready, Freshers are upon us, the leaves (and the rain) are falling and the summer seems a long time ago. Yet it’s only two weeks since the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas ended its Edinburgh Fringe run!

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas had its fifth Edinburgh Fringe run this summer, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Fringe itself. We had 42 shows, 48 performances and over 50 researchers involved, and nearly 2,500 members of the public came along to see it all.

The Cabaret was created for the 2013 Fringe by comedian Susan Morrison, producer Fair Pley and the Beltane team (at that time, Lara Isbel, Heather Rea and me, Sarah Anderson). Billed as ‘debate, discussion and discourse’, the Cabaret events offer researchers an opportunity to speak about their work in an informal, entertaining and discursive format. The Cabaret has always been a chance to get away from the usual public lecture format and to reach a slightly different audience.

2017 was our biggest programme yet, and the first time we had tried to do two shows in a day: this year, we had both the main Cabaret event during the day, and the “Cabaret by Candlelight” offshoot in the evening. Our rationale for doing this was to give performers a chance to perform their shows more than once (they put so much work into them) but, in actuality, the number of researchers wanting to take part meant that only 8 shows were repeated.

Aside from the scale of the programme, the other major challenge we faced this year was a new venue – the New Town Theatre on George Street (a Masonic lodge the other 11 months  of the year) instead of a yurt in St Andrew Square. From our evaluation, it’s clear that our seasoned performers missed the yurt. Being in the basement of the New Town Theatre also caused us real problems with physical accessibility – 20+ steep steps down or a long back route down a cobbled street and through a garage.

Our vital statistics were:

  • Total ticket sales: 2,438 over 48 performances

  • Total attendees (i.e. actually showed up): 2,252 over 48 performances

  • Proportion of tickets sold: about 43% (40% in 2016)

  • Average tickets sold per show: 51 (52 in 2016)

Anna Ross at “Doing Drugs (Policy)”

So, our concerns that increasing the number of shows would dilute the audience were unfounded. The proportion of tickets sold sounds low, but both this year and in the yurt, the venue capacity was larger than we needed (or than necessarily worked for the show). Excitingly, 2017 was the first time the shows were financially profitable, meaning our producer can finally start to offset some of the losses the shows have accrued in the first four years!

In terms of what the audience got from the shows, we just did an informal raising of hands at the end of each show that our MC incorporated into the performance. Results were:

  • 16% had been before (to an earlier show this year, or in another year)

  • 16% heard about the shows online

  • 14% worked at a uni

  • 18% were friends, family or colleagues of the performers)

  • 39% were not from Edinburgh

  • 74% learned something new as as result of the show

  • 7% changed their mind about something as a result of the show

  • 83% would recommend the shows to a friend

Susan Morison and Craig Ramsay, “Start Skipping the Dentist!”

Researchers who perform at the Cabaret are invited to attend three ‘bootcamps’ to help them develop their show and their performance skills. We’ve found over the years that the skills required for the Fringe can be different to what researchers need for other public speaking occasions, so even experienced academics do need the bootcamp opportunity. The bootcamps are also the key means that we, as organisers, communicate with researchers and vice-versa in order to clarify mutual expectations. We asked researchers how they found their experience this year and they told us:

  • 90% would definitely take part again (10% maybe)
  • 95% of researchers felt (relatively) well-supported
  • No one rated the venue or organisation poor (hooray!); 95% found both good or excellent
  • Of those who had previously performed in the yurt, two-thirds preferred the yurt (although one person did point out the sound is better at the New Town Theatre)
  • Nearly everyone used Twitter and Facebook to promote their shows; most also involved their academic departments. Around 50% produced their own flyers, and 40% advertised via colleagues at external, non-academic organisations
  • Although the bootcamps seemed to be helpful for most researchers and their supporters, we need to revisit them again before 2018 and look more widely at the suite of support options we can (and cannot) offer researchers and their supporters

In sum, the Cabaret went well, but there is always more we can do when it comes to supporting researchers, selling tickets and making the shows accessible (in all senses of the word) to audiences. Happily, we’re now at a point that we can say with relative certainty that the Cabaret will be back next summer, so the big question is how we develop the format.

You can find out more about the 2017 shows on the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas mini-site.