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Making an Impact: Performance with SOLE

January 13th, 2015


IMG_0835 It’s Thursday evening at the start of January, I’ve been back at work 4 days and am on my way to my first ‘Performing Research’ workshop. After gradual acclimatisation throughout my day to the idea of having to spend an additional 3 hours in a kind of half way house between work and ‘extracurricular’ activities, I arrive in Space 4, Culture Lab.

My initial thoughts are that most people are a lot younger than me (turns out it’s not all established academics but a mix of students too) and soon, I am going to have to talk to these fresh faced young’uns about my research in Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE for short) though the medium of drama. Oh god.

Okay, so I am not that old but I start to worry as I rarely interact with the regular student in my day job as Research Fellow. After a sandwich and a bit of a chat, I decide to give it a bit of time however and reserve judgement until the activities start.

We begin by standing in a big circle and after a bit of a warm up, we are asked to perform a gesture which we think best represents our research – as I work with ideas about self-organising systems and learning, what Sugata Mitra also calls ‘chaos’, I do some kind of chaotic hand movements for my bit. Others do more obvious gestures; driving a car, smoking a cigarette, listening, playing the violin. So far, so good. I don’t feel too traumatised by this and I am beginning to feel my age again.

We then walk around the room to ‘discover the space’. This activity is then modified to involve all kinds of “behaviour” which clearly flies in the face of any typical barriers of intimacy which exist when people who first don’t know each other interact. We are asked to make eye contact with each other (I’m talking deep in each other’s eyes, not just a glance), walk, stop suddenly and give each other a wink, share compliments. Immediately after this experience I begin to feel closer to everyone. Strange. I’m amazed at myself.

Things progress. We work in pairs to mirror different movements and then tell a story, we then collaboratively come up with some movements and shapes to represent 5 key words from our shared stories, then perform them to the group. By now, I have completely relaxed and am still amazed at myself. I feel like I am having some form of self-discovery. Thoughts of it being a Thursday night in January, being tired after a full day at the SOLE-face and having a slight identity-crisis at being surrounded and directed by people I wouldn’t usually encounter in my day job have long since disappeared.

For the rest of the session, I join the ‘movement group’, where 4 words related to the research topic of ‘habits’ become the subject of a series of gestures which are integrated into a series of movements. We choose our own gestures and work in pairs and trios to integrate them into a full piece. We don’t share our words but let the movement do the ‘talking’. This, I’m told later on by a creative-type friend, is the basis of contemporary dance. We then perform these pieces to each other.

At the end of the session, we come together to share our reflections on the activities of the night. I choose the words ‘refreshing’ and ‘learning’ to describe my experience overall. Some choose words like ‘movement’, ‘dynamic’, ‘internalised’ and ‘team’. These guys and girls are pretty good with words, I think to myself.

Walking home through with the icy wind blowing in my face, I have time to think a little more about what has just happened. I realise that despite the title of the programme I had signed up to, I had only once during the whole evening ‘performed my research’. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about it other than when I did my wavy hand gesture at the beginning. But this is not a bad thing.

By the time I reach the dark and winding road leading up to the Medical School, I already have ideas about how my pathways to research impact are inextricably linked to performance in much deeper ways than merely ‘acting it out’. Maybe the focus of research impact is not just about starting with the ideas to be communicated to communities outside the immediate hub of the university but through the channels we use to communicate it – and by this I don’t just mean the odd Twitter post or the odd one-off workshop.

I will return to the session next week, probably with some form of subconscious pre-judgements and identity issues in tow and I’ll look forward to my walk home.


Dr Anne Preston is a Research Fellow at SOLE Central, a global hub for research into Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs), bringing together researchers, practitioners, policy makers and entrepreneurs.


Performing Research delivered by Cap-a-Pie

Researchers from the Cap-a-Pie Performing Research programme will be performing a ‘Scratch’ Night at Northern Stage on 19th February based on material generated in the 6-week workshop sessions. Tickets here –

Performing Research is Cap-a-Pie’s current programme of work exploring how theatre and drama practices can enable academic research to be more democratic, more accessible and more relevant to communities. Cap-a-Pie believe the combined skills of theatre makers and academics allow for appropriate and rewarding pathways for research to impact on civic society, a powerful vehicle for dissemination and a means of conducting community engaged research.

Performing Research is funded by Newcastle University via the Engagement Fund and supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. The programme is supported by Newcastle Institute for Creative Arts Practice (NICAP). For more information, please contact Mel Whewell.

Keywords: Anne Preston; engagement; Cap-a-Pie; SOLEs; SOLE Central;

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