Skip to content

“I’ve tested visual perception in humans, birds and bees. What I’ve found surprising is that, despite the huge differences in brain size and structure, all animal species seem to recognise objects in similar ways.” – Quoc Vuong

October 28th, 2015

admin

What made you start looking at your research? 

I studied psychology for my undergraduate degree to avoid physics and chemistry. Although the choice of psychology was somewhat by accident, I was happily surprised by the range of topics explored in psychology. I became especially fascinated in how people’s brain make sense of the world around them.

How do you conduct your research?

The main tool I use is a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner that is common now in hospitals. I test volunteers in experiments in which they perform simple tasks with pictures or sounds while their brain is scanned. The scanner is a very strong magnet that allows me to see brain activity going on in different parts of the brain as volunteers perform the tasks. Based on the brain activity, I try to figure out how the brain process the information it gets from the different senses.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found out from your research?

I’ve tested visual perception in humans, birds and bees. What I’ve found surprising is that, despite the huge differences in brain size and structure, all animal species seem to recognise objects in similar ways. This suggests that there are general principles that allow animals to make sense of the world around them. The flip side is that these general principles are difficult to discover.

Why did you sign up for Performing Research?

I think it is important to communicate my research and their implications broadly to students, clinicians, artists and the public. I therefore want to learn performance skills, as it would help me engage this broad audience and make my research accessible beyond the scientific community.

How do you feel about the performance at Northern Stage?

This will be an exciting new challenge for me. Though, of course, I will be a little terrified!

“To see the end result at Northern Stage is equally exciting and terrifying – especially to hear reactions from the audience.” Laura Richards

October 28th, 2015

admin

Performing Research

Performing ResearchLaura Richards has recently completed a Masters at Newcastle University. She investigated the new campaign This Girl Can by Sport England.

In this blog Laura tells us more about her research, what inspired her to do this project and what she found out.

What made you start looking at your research? 

The year before I started my research I was working for an NGO based in Cambodia, that used football as a tool to tackle gender inequality. One of the challenges we faced was in encouraging rural communities to let girls play football, as there was a genuine belief that playing sport would turn the girls into boys. This ‘change’ wasn’t an abstract idea, rather it was believed to be a bodily change – there was a belief that girls would physically change sex and wouldn’t be able to have children.

This really interested me, as it prompted me to think about my personal experiences of gender and sport: not being allowed to play football in P.E. classes because girls weren’t allowed to play in boys’ leagues, male players at a tennis club being told they were hitting like a girl in front of female players, etc.

Not long after I returned to the UK, Sport England launched their ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, to encourage more women and girls to participate in sport. The campaign received widespread positive feedback, but I found the videos and posters jarring. It made me wonder if women were embracing the ‘girl’ identity and if this was actively encouraging them to take up sports.

How do you conduct your research?

My research was carried out through an analysis of social media interactions, surrounding the hashtag #thisgirlcan on Twitter. A big part of Sport England’s campaign relied on social media participation, so it provided an opportunity to observe online conversations as they were happening.

I used a method of analysis which allowed me to pinpoint moments in interactions where social media users moved from being less powerful to more powerful. The method also recognised that gender is one of many competing discourses, which allowed me to analyse how gender was constructed online, in the context of sport and the campaign.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found out from your research?

The most surprising thing I found was probably the individual instances where the This Girl Can social media campaign genuinely seemed to empower social media users. For example, one subject tweeted that they didn’t last long on a run, as a boy had commented on their appearance. By engaging with this user, Sport England successfully encouraged them to continue running. I wasn’t expecting to see such a clear and direct response to the campaign.

Other than that, it was surprising to find that there were three distinct gendered identities that were repeatedly performed by social media users. Of the three, the most interesting was that subjects who embodied the notion of ‘This Girl Can’, were not usually tweeting about sports. Those that tweeted about doing sport actually appeared to actively rejected a ‘girl’ identity.

Why did you sign up for Performing Research?

This is the third time I’ve joined Performing Research. I joined originally to do something a bit outside of my comfort zone and see how drama and research can intersect. This time, I’m looking forward to seeing how other people respond to my research and for the opportunity to explore those responses outside of a classroom setting.

How do you feel about the performance at Northern Stage?

It’ll be really interesting to see how my research develops and grows throughout the course of Performing Research, as others have an imput into it. To see the end result at Northern Stage is equally exciting and terrifying – especially to hear reactions from the audience.

What does it mean to say ‘I rate my happiness as 7 on a scale of 0 to 10’? – Matt Jenkins

October 27th, 2015

admin

Performing Research

Matt Jenkins is just finishing his PhD at Newcastle University where he looked at how and why statistics are created. One of the statistics he focussed on was the happiness measure. Britain is around 7.2/10 happy and Matt wanted to find out what went into calculating that number. Matt is working with Cap-a-Pie on Performing Research and the show at Northern Stage will feature his research as theatre.

We caught up with Matt to find out more abut his research and how he feels about taking part in Performing Research.

What made you start looking at your research? 

I sort of fell into it – the original plan had been to use a particular government statistic in quite a dry, technical way to help think about inequalities in education and opportunities. The more I looked at that statistic though, the weirder it seemed – I couldn’t understand how the people that made it thought they could count what they were counting. So my question became that really, how do official statisticians count things? I shifted to looking at the ‘Measuring National Well-being’ programme, because it was much easier to access the people who made it and because ‘well-being’ seemed like such a non-numeric thing. What does it mean to say ‘I rate my happiness as 7 on a scale of 0 to 10’? And what does it mean when lots of people say that? Three years on, I still don’t know what it all means, but I do know a little more about how it happens.

How do you conduct your research?

One of the things I wanted to show was that statistics don’t come out purely out of theory or out of reality – it’s not that there is a thing called ‘well-being’ which we’ve identified and understood theoretically and that we then go out and count. Instead, statistics are made by people in social contexts, interacting with each other and the situations they find themselves in. So part of my research involves going through official reports, histories, theoretical texts, press releases and the like to try and get an idea of what those situations are. The rest is looking at meeting minutes and personal accounts of statistic-making and, most importantly, talking to people involved in making statistics to find out what their interactions were.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found out from your research?

There was a load of stuff that I knew intellectually and so sort of expected, but which was a bit of shock when it came out in interviews, mainly around the way that people live their ideas. The statistic you see is a set of numbers which look quite clinical and scientific. But they come out of debates and arguments in which people are passionately involved – in principle all that is going on is a debate about ideas, but it very quickly becomes a debate about the people who hold those ideas. Some of that gets taken quite personally. I’d been hoping to rehumanise statistics by showing some of the people involved in their creation, and I got to see a bit more grit than I’d expected.

Why did you sign up for Performing Research?

I do research because I want to improve the understanding of the world. You can do that by increasing knowledge, and you can do that by spreading knowledge out to more people. We don’t get enough opportunities to do the spreading part, so I was really glad to have the chance.

How do you feel about the performance at Northern Stage?

I’m hoping I’ll get to be light-tech or something.

INSECT BLOG – Post-project

September 7th, 2015

admin

Insect Drama Workshops

Last week was our final week of workshops for the Ouseburn Farm’s holiday programme.  The last three workshops were spent almost in a state of ‘live rehearsal’ as we looked ahead to the work-in-progress showings that went ahead on the Friday afternoon.Insect Drama Workshops

With over half the show taking place outside we anxiously checked the weather reports to see if the day would be kind to us.  Thankfully it was and the stockpile of umbrellas we’d brought from home weren’t needed.  Of course that is just one day and if we’re going to tour this in outside spaces over the long term, the UK weather is bound to get us at some point so how we cope with inclement weather will be important.

The showings themselves lasted for about an hour and had a story and structure that had evolved over the past couple of weeks.  The challenges were primarily logistical, with just two actors playing a variety of insects with different costumes in different locations it was crucial to figure out a route around the garden for both of them that was easy to follow and meant they had the time to change costume.  The showings were well received with some useful feedback coming from the audience and many things to think about going forward. 

It’s looking likely that we’ll be back in rehearsals in early 2016 to shape what we’ve done into something closer to the actual show the public will see.  We’ve come to really like this way of working – a few periods of concentrated working with time in between for thinking and writing.  it seems to give us space and clarity when making pieces which we find extremely useful.  So until then I’ll be looking over everything we created and figuring out where to go from here.

It’s been a great summer and we’d like to thank the Ouseburn Farm for hosting us, Dr Vivek Nityananda for his insect expertise, our brilliant actors Hannah Goudie and Aron De Casmaker for their limitless energy and invention, Newcastle University and Arts Council England for their support, Byker, Hotspur and St Lawrence’s RC Primary Schools and of course everyone who came along (several hundred of you) to the workshops to explore your inner insect!

Insect Blog – Post-workshop, day 10

August 26th, 2015

admin

Insect Drama Workshops

Insect Drama WorkshopsA small but very engaged group of children today which meant a really lovely workshop with lots of great things. One participant came along for the third time and her mother said that her daughter had been playing bee games after coming to the workshops and that the science we mention in the workshops had really been staying with her. Result!

I think today’s session puts us in a good position heading into a days rehearsal with the actors tomorrow with a view towards putting together our work-in-progress showing next week.

In past workshops I’ve definitely been guilty of rushing things, of going to far too fast which sometimes seems to shock the kids into silence or shyness. But I was really happy with how it seemed to pan out with the participants, who seemed a bit shy to begin with, slowly coming out of their shells and by the end they were happily getting involved.

Using an easel, a walking stick, a sheet and some tape I’d put together a ‘flat’, which is basically a free-standing wall – something that the actors can be behind and then come out from in character. It means it makes it a bit more magical, the insect characters seem to appear from nowhere and when one actor exits, the audience’s imagination can reset before the next characters comes out.

We spent most of the hour meeting the different insect characters and revisiting some of the scenes and situations we’d created over the past few weeks. Our actors were amazing as usual – I give them a quick rundown of what we’re going to be doing each day but never in much detail so they have to just run with whatever I throw at them, not really knowing what scene they’re going to have to do next. And they jump in every time. 

With just 5 workshops to go before the end of the summer, it feels like the show is starting to take a wee bit of shape which is reassuring and exciting.

Insect Blog – Post-workshop, day 9

August 21st, 2015

admin

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

After an hour of workshopping today we came out with a great song, which is what we wanted but it was a tricky session overall.

It started well, with some real live insects in the room (some grasshoppers in a clear plastic box that really grabbed the kid’s interest) and some physicalising of crickets, learning more about them through Vivek’s commentary of their behaviour and then turning them into humans.

We moved into the musical element of the session with some playing of percussion instruments to accompany the cricket’s activity.  So far, so good.

But when we moved into starting to write lyrics we hit a bit of a wall and the session seemed to peter out.  We begun with what we felt was an accessible exercise about where the crickets were, what they did and how they might feel amongst their environment but shyness seemed to take over and it was left to the parents to chip in most of the ideas.

One factor may have been that our participants were very young overall and perhaps this way of working was too complex for them.  Therein lies the challenge for these sessions and one that I’m always grappling with – there is no way of predicting the number or age of the participants from day to day.  So when it comes to planning you have to make an educated guess as to what will appeal to a variety of age groups and then, in the moment, try to change it if it isn’t working.  This is something that isn’t always possible, or at least you don’t feel it’s possible as your brain whirs away trying to think of an alternative. 

So as well as generating material to make a show and connecting with lots of children and their families from within the community, (I hope) these workshops are making me a better facilitator.

Next week is quite an important week as on Wednesday we’re rehearsing with the actors for most of that day, putting together the core of what will be shared at the work-in-progress showing the following week.  The shape of that is coming together, it’s just a matter of taking all the fragments we’ve made and joining the dots between them.  At least, that’s the plan.

Insect Blog – Post-workshop, day 8

August 21st, 2015

admin

Bee

Bee

After a couple of false starts brought about by plans changing and the weather being awful, we finally made it outside.  We’re lucky having an office at the Ouseburn Farm where there is lots of greenery to be found and also, by default, real live insects.

We took our participants (all 20 of them, including some repeat customers which is encouraging) to the orchard which is away from the main farm building and a bit more secluded.  It was lovely to be outside in such a big space and we were able to use the distance available to good effect as we watched 

Hannah’s bee buzz around from 50 yards away.  A pond with real dragonflies flying around was a real highlight and there was also an abundance of real bumblebees and honey bees.

The challenges are moving a group of that size around, it takes up a fair bit of time which means you can lose the magic somewhat.

But it wasn’t bad for a first effort.  We’re considering the possibilities of a show that starts inside and then moves outside as it did yesterday.  We bring the group together in a more intimate space, set up some conventions, the audience can ‘meet’ the actors and some characters and then, as a team, we can move outside where the lion’s share of the performance takes place.  We’ll see.

Tomorrow is also an exciting ‘first’ for the Insect Drama Workshops as we are going to try and write some songs that will be sung by a ‘cricket choir’!

Insect Blog – Post Workshop Day 4

August 11th, 2015

admin

Insect Drama Workshops

Insect Drama WorkshopsDid you know that dung beetles use the stars to navigate?

Or that non-toxic butterflies have evolved so their colouring is similar to that of toxic butterflies, therefore warding off potential predators?

I did not know either of these things until yesterday when I was planning today’s workshop with Vivek.  Both are fairly mind-bending facts; facts you’re sure kids would be really psyched about – the challenge is how do you weave these into a workshop in a way that’s clear, engaging and memorable?

I’d been tying myself up in various knots over the past couple of days trying to figure this out.  Katy Vanden,  producer at Cap-a-Pie, came at it with a lot more clarity this morning:

“We’re co-creating the show with Vivek and the kids, so we need to get the kids to understand the science so that they can be creative with it”.

So I guess the upshot of that is perhaps we don’t have to be too clever in our attempts at weaving in facts.  It may be enough to explain the information in a clear and simple way (possibly using drama) and use that as a springboard to create new things with the kids.

I feel like we managed to do that today.  Today, more than any other day, we managed to achieve a good combination of the kids acting, writing and directing with our brilliant actors (Aron and Hannah) while creating various small scenes.  It’s something that I need to refine but we’re getting there.  And during the short end-of-session discussion, it seemed to be that the majority of the participants had learned something new about insects to take away with them.

Tomorrow, we will take all of our characters and attempt to create story.

Insect Blog – Post-workshop, day 3

August 6th, 2015

admin

Photocredit – Dr Vivek Nityananda

It seems hard to believe for us, but our first week is all done and dusted.  It’s only been 3 workshops and only 3 hours contact time with our little human-insects but it feels like we’ve generated a lot of material in that short amount of time.

Circumstances dictated that we were in a much smaller room today so the idea was to focus more on design – of costumes and sets and see what the kids imagined a human insect might look like and where they might live.

First though, we met with our ladybird and dragonfly characters from the day before.  They were armed only with movements at this stage so we watched them move around, gave them more insect activities to do and gave them voices.  Then we started to explore what it might look like if these insects morphed into humans with insect souls.  What jobs might they have?  Where do they live?  Almost instantly we had possible ideas from our participants and our actors fleshed these out in the moment.  For the record, ‘Buzz’ the Human-Dragonfly was the owner of a successful spectacle-making business and ‘Darubybelle’ the Human-Ladybird was a house painter.

As it turned out, we were generating so much juicy stuff by working with the actors that we had a bit less time to look at design than anticipated.  But we still managed to see some insect costumes and insect houses drawn in chalk on our blackboard material.

The show itself feels like it is taking some kind of shape in our heads, although it is a very faint shape.  I do want to resist the temptation to start curating the children’s ideas with my adult brain and try and let their creations be as they are and act as provocations for further thinking from other children to see where that takes us.

One thing that we’re also still refining is how the research can fit best – we want to be accurate with the behaviours and appearances of our insects and try and make sure that any fantastical ideas don’t conflict with this.

All in all a great week and looking forward to getting back in the room on Tuesday!

Insect Blog – Post-workshop, day 2

August 6th, 2015

admin

Insect

Photocredit – Dr Vivek Nityananda

It was dragonflies and ladybirds today in the world of insect workshops and the kids we had today got into it with much gusto, smoothly flying around and changing direction as a dragonfly and scuttling about as ladybirds. I slightly changed the methods we used today, just to keep the experimenting going and seeing what might work best. We were also helped along today by having our researcher, Dr Vivek Nityananda in the room, who was incredibly helpful in imparting insect information and helping us with ideas on how each insect moves and behaves.

Another two characters were created out of the session today which we’ll explore a little bit more in tomorrow’s session, adding voice and other characteristics. We’ll also see what happens when our insect characters morph into human versions, whether this could be interesting to an audience and what they could do or say.

Today we also looked into how insects might feel in certain situations. Our participants thought ladybirds might not like wind because they’re so little they might get blown away; and that they might get excited if a bigger ladybird was teaching them how to fly. It’s these kind of insights and leaps of imagination that us grown-ups don’t have the same access to and hearing these has been my favourite part so far of the first two workshops.