40 Days – in the rehearsal room.

an image from Alexendar Kelly's instagram feed of the plan for one of the making days. A red post it says 'run' and a blue one 'science?'

This is a guest blog post from Alexander Kelly of Third Angel – my friend and collaborator on Equations for a Moving Body, here he is talking about his role in the process, and summing up the main work that went on in Stockton, and what’s to come.

Last Thursday we presented the latest work-in-progress of Equations For A Moving Body at the brilliant ARC in Stockton. That’s the last time we’ll show a version of the show before Hannah does the full distance triathlon next month.

One of the really interesting things for me about this process is how the temporal nature of it changes – each time we work on it we’re in a different place in time in relation to the event that the show is (partly) about. Back in February we were a long way off. It still felt almost hypothetical (to me at least). Hannah got her training schedule from her coach during that fortnight at Northern Stage, so the Outlaw was still something Hannah was going to train to do. One of my favourite pieces of material from that stage in the process was Hannah talking about imagining crossing the line. I don’t see my self crawling, she would say, when I picture it, I am running over the line.

For this fortnight at ARC, the Outlaw Triathlon is something that Hannah is training to do. On a practical level it impacts on our making time more (though of course the training is making, in this instance). She trains each morning and we talk and research and make the show in the afternoons and evenings.

Thematically though, it shifts our relationship with the science, and the research, and the narrative. If Hannah gets injured now (check Instagram for the latest knee damage) it could affect her final performance. We’re at the last stage where a serious injury is recoverable from. Early on in the process my assumption was that Hannah will complete the triathlon. As I find out more about the science of endurance sport, more about the world of triathlon (I’ve just read Chrissie Wellington’s A Life Without Limits – which I really liked), the more I discover about what else can go wrong – other than not being fit enough. Put bluntly (look away Han!), it is not a given that Hannah will cross the finish line. So, whilst this probably sounds obvious, we don’t yet know how the narrative we are telling will finish.


On Thursday night the show ran at 95 minutes – and this still wasn’t quite all of the material we have tried out or thought about. If this were the ‘finished’ piece that would clearly be too long, but in this context we have the luxury (thank you ARC) of trying out more than we need. One question we were looking at was how much science the show needs, how much is interesting to us, how much (and what) is interesting to the audience… This latter is an ongoing question. One of the exciting things about this project for me is that it has already demonstrated real potential to attract people who would only rarely go to the theatre; an audience who will come along because it is exloring their interests and experiences (swimming, cycling, running, endurance sport in general…), who won’t care whether we’re calling it spoken word, story telling, contemporary theatre. This is exciting, but it also means we will have different levels of expertise in the audience – which will mean different levels of interest and understanding in the science we’re exploring. Writing this now, I realise that my instinct remains: we can’t pre-empt what the audience will think of the show, how they will respond to the material, what will be the ‘right’ amount of science for each of them. We make a show that says what Hannah wants it to say, so it just needs to have the right ‘amount’ of science for her.


So where has all this material come from? On our previous collaboration A Conversation With My Father, the form of the piece was already set when I came on board; my job was to help Hannah expand on the 25 minutes she already had – to attach building blocks of material to the existing core of the show.

With Equations For A Moving Body, the project was less established, formally. We had talked about the ideas behind the piece, and a couple of proposals and project descriptions had been written for funding applications, which established a territory of exploration. Hannah had also done a try-out of some  related ideas at HATCH in Leicester, which I had seen, so we had an idea of how we would use a computer (screen).

At the start of our two weeks at Northern Stage in February, I set Hannah a warm up exercise. We set the space up with our regular tools: a table, couple of chairs, laptop, projector and screen. We had asked almost arbitrarily for a couple of lighting states (and then Kev and the team at Northern Stage had made Stage 2 look beautiful).

On the table I laid out a series of 24 prompts or questions, written on index cards, face down. These prompts were all born out of our discussions so far, so Hannah was clearly ‘able’ to answer them, but she was to respond in the moment as she turned each card. This is a mode of being ‘put on the spot’ but within a territory you are informed about and comfortable in, that we have used in the making of a number of Third Angel projects. I find it can help performers not worry about whether or not what they’re doing is “any good”, and just get some material and ideas out into the process.

I thought this would fill a couple of hours on the afternoon of the first day, and give us something to talk about on day two. It took a week. A performed live research process that discovered the rules of the space, of the piece. Hannah instinctively started using the internet live, explaining what she was doing, sometimes, just quickly sourcing a reference at others.

On one level the show is formally similar to A Conversation With…: there’s a screen, a projector, some video material, a table and a couple of chairs and Hannah tells a story. But the way these ingredients are used feels quite distinct, to me. Hannah’s relationship to the screen, to us, is different.

Over that first residency we mapped out a territory: what we knew, what we wanted to explore further, what we couldn’t yet know. Then we very deliberately used the work in progress showings as research tools, inviting in sports clubs, setting the space as much like a discussion group as a theatre. Over the two showings, five full distance triathlon finishers came and spoke to us afterwards. We were encouraged by the depth of feeling and interest people had in the work, the generosity of their responses.


When we gathered at ARC for this phase of the process, my instinct was to pick up and ‘finish off’ the index cards game. It felt more like a warm up this time, getting ourselves back into the making. Checking where we were. It threw up a few details to weave in, rather than new material. Because we already had a feeling of where we needed to go, of what the show needed: to get in to the science.

But Hannah is not expert in this, yet, so the cards mechanism doesn’t work – interest isn’t the same as expertise, being put on the spot isn’t helpful. If we’re going to explain this stuff to an audience, Hannah can’t just repeat text, she has to really understand it. She has to understand more than she explains in the show. I feel that we should be in a position where Hannah could stop the show and take questions on the science – and be able to answer them.

So we move to a mechanism of research: returning to the interviews we did with [sports scientists and psychologists] Angela, Phil and Sarah, then reading around the the ideas and theories they talked about; hearing ideas explained by different people really helps. Understanding what science relates to the story we want to tell. We’re still working this out, and some of this aspect of the process inevitably has to wait until we meet again next month.


On Sunday 26 July 2015 Hannah will undertake the Nottingham Outlaw full distance Triathlon. On Monday the 27th she’s got a day off. And on Tuesday 28th, we’ll meet at CPT in London, and I’ll ask her to tell me the story of the race.

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.