Jonny’s Big Little Show

I do lots of science communication things; busking science out of my pockets, facilitating hands-on workshops and delivering demo-based shows. As time has gone by, I’ve picked up and developed performance skills from many quarters. Some of those have been science theatre professionals, such as David Hall; Others may have come from production backgrounds, like Lindsay Keith and Jonathan Sanderson. There have been storytellers like Jules Pottle and Duncan Yellowlees; specialist teachers like Sarah Bearchell and Paul McCrory as well as magicians like Matt Pritchard. The list of people who have influenced how I present science is vast. How do I measure the impact made on my performances by people like science busker David Price, poet Sam Illingworth, rapper Jon Chase, or comedian Steve Cross? Basically, if we’ve worked together or I’ve watched you teach, train or perform, you’ve influenced me!

So as time has gone by, I’ve revisited and refined my old shows and written newer ones, each introducing a new aspect, challenge or allowing me to develop what I do. The writing of a science show is not a simple task. Sure, I bet some will say that any scientist can bang out something ‘whiz-pop-boom’ in an hour and be happy with it; ‘Let’s have the rest of the day off’. But, it’s also not enough to say, ‘Well, the science is accurate and that’s how it is’. If that was enough, we’d all be flocking to watch academic conferences. The work that goes into a science show production is huge and eats weeks and months; probably why freelance science presenters charge so much as a day rate. The fee for that one day has to start paying back all the time spent NOT earning during the researching, writing and development stages.

I’ve tended towards demo-based shows because you can work to an obvious theme, building links between live demonstrations, unpacking a logical narrative to be explored. For example, my ‘Water Wizardry’ show starts with relatable things about water, what we use it for, etc. Then I introduce things we haven’t thought about yet would easily recognise, such as how water freezes. Later we stretch water, bend it and pull it apart into it’s two gases, which we proceed to blow up as a finale. Any theatricality is a product of me and how I intercede between the audience and the topic. For example, how are the twist and turns of the show paced to build and release tension in the audience? Ultimately, I still only ever become the portrayal of the scientist explaining things and that is something I want to move away from.

By that, I’m not necessarily referring to what we call a ‘deficit model’, where one assumes an audience knows nothing and that the scientist is the generous and benevolent expert. Rather, I would prefer the audience to make the connections themselves and be moved to consider the less obvious and general intended learning outcomes in a show. If that makes it sound a lot like allowing the audience to interpret what they are experiencing, then that is what I am aiming for.

I’ve long said that presenting science is a blend of education and entertainment; something I’m sure everyone would agree on. Principally, facts alone require much more. For instance, we all know how many pieces of fruit and veg we should eat every day, and more importantly, we know why we need to eat them; to keep the body in a healthy state. Yet the facts don’t move us all to do it. Accompanying emotions, while fleeting, can hook us into considering said facts more carefully, leading to action. But when we start talking about emotions leading to interpretation, it starts to sound a lot like the arts, not science.

Bringing these things together, arts emotions and interpretation, has led me to create a show that is radically different to my previous work. I’m effectively writing a screenplay, with a twist.

Jonny’s Big Little Show is the story of a young boy with little-to-no science capital. Nobody he knows is a scientist, so he doesn’t want to be one, plus he doesn’t really understand it. Tasked with discovering a new fact to present to class next week, Jonny is forced to spend the weekend learning how to be curious, and nurture his tender sense of wonder. Through a mix of animation and live science action, the protagonist shares his science discoveries with the audience.

Not only is it a different medium for me, but it has unique aims which I am keen to explore. The interplay between narrative and demos mean that the emphasis isn’t on the factual aspects of the science explored, but in reaching the overall goal of creating our own science capital; learning how to ask the right questions, be curious and feel confident in ‘doing science’. This last one is an important message. What primary school pupil aspires to be anything sensible? Why should we encourage children to be labelled as a scientist, when they first need to become confident in being able to ‘do science’; using it like a tool to accomplish stuff? That’s where we’re going with my new show.

It’s currently at the script writing stage, but other production elements are preceding alongside that. I hope to be updating you as it progresses, but there is a deadline for this. It will debut at the Lancashire Science Festival at the end of June. Even as it stands, I’m really going for it and am feeling confident this could be a show that leads me to not go back to the old ones. I have a feeling that I might be retiring the old shows to make way for a new approach to me presenting. Let’s see, eh.