51 days – storytelling with science workshop

participants work in pairs at the storytelling with science workshops by Hannah Nicklin at ARC Stockton

I am returned to the rehearsal room! Back with Alex, and this time at the incredibly hospitable ARC in Stockton-on-Tees. An update soon on the process we’ve been taking the show through in these weeks 3 and 4, but first I thought I’d do a short post on a lovely Storytelling with Science workshop I ran (well, it was lovely for me) in the first week of the 2-week residency.

This is how it was pitched:

How do you go about telling stories with science in, or finding the stories at the heart of interesting science? If you want to make work alongside researchers, academics or scientists but don’t where to start, then this session is for you.

Hannah Nicklin, who is currently making Equations for a Falling Body a show about the science and psychology of endurance sport, will run this two hour workshop offering advice and tips on how to research, write, make, and tell stories in and around science.

The workshop will also touch on interview methods, how to read research, how to find stories as compelling as the science, or make science feel like a compelling story; weaving autobiographical theatre making with cutting edge research.

Hannah doesn’t have all the answers, but the question is always the best place to start. Come along to find out more.

And just in case anyone else would like to know where to start, here’s roughly what I took the participants through.

The first bit is always introductions, I think it’s useful to know where I’ve come from, so you can see how I got to this point, and also I love to know why people have chosen to come to a workshop – what they hope they’re going to get out of it – so if it might not be covered you can make time to address it.

Then we started with the PATENTED HANNAH NICKLIN POST IT WALL (not actually patented). One of the main parts of my practice is using post its as a means of mapping your thoughts – allowing more than just linear thought patterns, recognising threads or themes you don’t immediately see, and for allowing rearranging of the thoughts, continuously. I particularly enjoy this process alongside others – as it allows your thought process to be disrupted and opened up. So we started with a post it wall, at one end ‘Science’ and the other ‘Story’. Anything goes, from form and definition, to imagery and content. It can be what ‘science’ makes you think of, what it means to you, and specific instances of it – as well as socio-political impact. Etc. And then ‘story’ – the same. What captures you/has captured you recently, what makes up a story/storytelling? We then looked at the wall, discussed it, I invited people to think about similarities between the two, and to think about how others thought. I then asked everyone to pick their favourite two post its – one from Science and one from Story (obviously this division is arbitrary, but useful in this context). We put them to one side – but loosely that was a means of finding a piece of science that really interested people, and of recognising what about storytelling they love. A means of putting those together is not a bad start.

Next we had a chat, about the scientific method, and how actually it’s not that different from how we make art – revised and tested hypotheses. I talked about my experience and what I’d learned from working in universities at a postgrad level, and from my knowledge of science-related trusts and organisations. About Impact – that universities are expected to demonstrate that they are engaging with non-university communities. About things like UCL’s Arts Entrepreneur in Residence, the Wellcome Trust, about simple ways to approach experts in the field (just look up staff profiles and email someone!) And other means of developing science storytelling – what it means to research something on your own, skills you need, understanding sources (primary, secondary), places you can search for free, what an abstract is, what peer review means, press releases vs actual papers. And the problem of “facts” on THE INTERNET – how untrue things can become true if they are referenced often enough.

We then talked about potential devising/writing exercises around science. Such as:

  • Get a pile of articles and papers, and a friend or co-writer/devisor, read 1 article/paper for 20 minutes and come back and explain it to each other.
  • Do ‘live researching’ as a task – write down some questions and explain as you discover.
  • Interviewing experts (also we talked about how to interview/ask questions – asking them about why they’re interested, what they’re excited about, what you haven’t asked – how is what you’re asking different from just reading their book?)
  • The physical living of the subject matter – can you embed yourself in first hand experience (Ethnography)
  • Reading
  • Autobiographical evaluation
  • Verbatim
  • Attend lectures/practical experiments (be a test subject or attend tests)

I said “Watch, record, question, retell. But think abstractly too – don’t think only about telling the literal story of the science, but telling stories that illuminate the science. Or that look at it from other more abstract points of view – not just ‘how pulsars were discovered’ but ‘let’s make these light waves into sound waves and make music out of them’.

And never ever ever have a character say something like:
“So let me get this straight [proceeds to explain the science for the audience]”
Show don’t tell.

Then we did a quick exercise, in pairs I gave them 5 secondary source science articles – on photosynthesis and solar panels, what rats dream of when they sleep, imaging of Mercury, pulsars, and e-tattoo monitoring in pregnancy. Then I invited them to – in their pairs – pick an article and then come up with 2 radically different ways to explore it, one abstract, one more literal. Find the form to fit the work – is it interactive, is it reactive, is it a storytelling, or a play, a sound work, immersive video, a game, a videogame, etc… Find what interests them the most – remember ‘show don’t tell’ and then work out what the idea is, and their first steps in exploring it – beginning to develop the research and story.

After presenting and discussing those ideas, I then invited the participants to (on their own, now) take their post its from before, and go through the same process – initial ideas, and identifying next steps.

And that was it! I only had 2 hours, which overran a little. It’s possibly a much more relaxed 3 hour workshop! But the folk who came were brilliant, lovely and thorough, and came up with some lovely stuff – a huge patchwork made of many submitted images of earth, to be mapped to the map of Mercury; an installation which maps the path of a dying satellite; an immersive game you play once ‘awake’ and second in a dream state. And more great stuff.

So, thanks to those who came along! And to ARC for having me.

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