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Zinnie Harris, Morna Pearson, Stef Smith, Amanda Tyndall - Theatre Meets Science at Edinburgh International Science Festival Theatre

When worlds collide, what happens next is usually the stuff of disaster movies. This has never been the case with Edinburgh International Science Festival, however, as this year's substantial and expansive theatre programme looks set to prove. While the children and families theatre section features a brand new commission, Cosmonaut, site-specific specialists Grid Iron team up with Lung Ha Theatre Company for Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery, which is performed in the grounds of Edinburgh Zoo.

Things take off even more in the adult programme, as both of the city's main producing theatres present major productions as part of the Festival. At the Royal Lyceum Theatre, playwright/director Zinnie Harris oversees the Scottish premiere of Caryl Churchill's look at cloning, A Number. At the Traverse Theatre, meanwhile, artistic director Orla O'Loughlin presents Girl in the Machine, a new play by Stef Smith which looks at the all-consuming nature of twenty-first century technology. For the Science Festival's Creative Director Amanda Tyndall, this brace of work is as much a reflection of the times we are living in as recognising that arts and sciences have always been mutually supportive lifeforms.

“This is a real opportunity to find out where theatre and science interact,” says Tyndall “One of the things for me as a science communicator is that with some of the things going on just now, there seems to be a rejection of facts and expertise-based things. In these complex and uncertain times, people are responding to things in ways that are much more about emotions and beliefs, and that opens up a way of exploring these ideas in a different kind of way.”

This has been the case with television drama for some time, with a new wave of science-fiction or speculative fiction shows such as the clone-based Orphan Black, the robotic revolution in Humans and assorted technology-based dystopias explored in episodes of Charlie Brooker's series of one-off dramas, Black Mirror. Just as novelists and short story writers embraced speculative fiction before them, theatre writers and makers have increasingly kept one eye on the future to explore where we are now.

A pioneer in this has been Caryl Churchill, whose uncategorisable canon over almost sixty years has explored form and content in ways that have frequently confounded expectations of what British theatre can be. While her work has used myriad means of story-telling, her last work to be seen in Scotland was Far Away, which was set in a future landscape where nature was at war. In A Number, a thirty-five year old man who believes he is an only child discovers he is one of several clones following a genetic experiment.

“It's both playful and forensic,” says Harris. “It gives both audiences and the people working on the play some real intellectual meat to grapple with, as well as packing a real emotional punch. For anyone who's a parent as well, and thinking about being able to start the day again and not make mistakes, Caryl has taken that idea to the limit, and dared to ask what the emotional consequences of that might be.”

This is something addressed too in Girl in the Machine, which was first seen in a shorter version at the Traverse's technology-themed Breakfast Plays season at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As if to demonstrate the current cross-fertilisation between disciplines, the show is being produced in partnership with the University of Edinburgh.

“My starting point was the human condition,” Smith says of her play, which looks at how a successful couple's relationship is affected by a new piece of hi-tech kit that promises them the earth, but ends up short-circuiting the reality the couple have built around them.

“One thing I'm becoming increasingly aware of is how our relationships are defined by technology. Like a lot of people, I have a love/hate relationship with social media, and from this seed of an idea that I had, it exploded out to how technology defines the rest of our lives, and to question if there is another reality.”

Despite such a back-drop, basic human needs remain at the play's heart.

“It's a love story,” says Smith. “It's about two people living through constant changes, and battling forward in constant motion when everything around them seems to be making things harder.”

In utilising science-fiction tropes, Smith points to novelist Margaret Atwood, author of dystopia-set feminist novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood, incidentally, is also the inventor of various real life technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

“Atwood described some of her work as being set in a parallel present,” says Smith. “They're set in a world and a situation that doesn't exist, but which still look familiar. I think theatre is increasingly having a relationship with science and science-fiction because it's so playful and so political as a metaphor for what's going on now.”

Morna Pearson takes this even further. Her child-friendly tale about a brother and sister who encounter a series of mythological creatures may be more prehistoric than futuristic, but sounds as fantastical as anything else Pearson has written. The production, co-directed by Lung Ha artistic director Maria Oller with Dundee Rep associate artistic director Joe Douglas, also ties in with Lung Ha and Grid Iron's previous science-based collaboration, Huxley's Lab.

“When I was trying to brainstorm what I wanted to do,” says Pearson, “I remember how impressed I was with mythical creatures when I was a child, and because Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery is a children's show, I wanted it to be a show where the audience could discover things, not just about the animals, but other things as well. It's a show about sibling rivalry, and difference and acceptance. It's about memory and imagination as well, and how your experience during childhood can shape who you are.”

This again points to speculative fiction used as a metaphor for other things. As Pearson points out, however, “Theatre is metaphor, and people will always read stuff into things even if it's not intended. Although I've said what something is about, someone else might think something different. There are so many TV programmes of a very good quality just now, but they're not necessarily about the things they say they are. They're about people, and the way they present them is just a different way of telling a story.”

Pearson cites Waking the Dead as a favourite TV show.

“That's a good example of something that's not really about zombies, but is about people,” she says.

As with all of the other theatre shows taking part, it is this over-riding sense of humanity that tallies with the ethos of Edinburgh International Science Festival the most. As Tyndall points out, “We're asking fundamental questions about people's lives. Whether that's a philosophical thing or a pragmatic thing, art and science can ask those questions in different ways. No single discipline can look at these things on there own. If there is going to be more innovation in anything, we need to merge the worlds of art and science more and more.”

Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery, RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, April 1-9; Girl in the Machine, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 5-22; A Number, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 6-15.

www.lyceum.org.uk
www.gridiron.org.uk
www.sciencefestival.co.uk



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