Joyce McMillan: Edinburgh Science Festival to break down barriers between science and the arts

Uncanny Valley by Rob Drummond, one of 16 theatre productions at this year's Edinburgh International Science Festival
Uncanny Valley by Rob Drummond, one of 16 theatre productions at this year's Edinburgh International Science Festival
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Far too many people in Britain think that they’re just not interested in science; so

says Amanda Tyndall, creative director of Edinburgh’s International Science Festival, and it’s hard to disagree with her. It might be the legacy of a hundred science fiction stories about mad scientists whose arrogance leads to disaster; it might be the traditional association between science and maths, in a culture where people often proclaim their innumeracy with pride.

Whatever the reason, though, Edinburgh’s International Science Festival – founded in 1989, and now flourishing in its 29th year, with more than 250 events on its programme, and an annual budget of around £2 million – is dedicated to the cause of changing people’s minds, and drawing them in to the astonishing and sometimes magical world of 21st century science. Its schools programmes are legendary, and it works hard at creating events – like this year’s Play On exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland – that will attract youngsters on the cusp between primary and secondary education, when many begin to move away from science.

For adults, the Science Festival often emphasises links with other, more instantly attractive areas of life; there’s a Gastrofest, for example, that focuses on the science of food and drink. And in recent years, the Science Festival has also been strengthening its links with the arts and theatre, building on its successful programme of children’s events to develop a theatre programme that this year features 16 productions, including major shows at both the Lyceum and the Traverse, and a world premiere from Scotland’s award-winning site-specific theatre company Grid Iron.

“Last year, we made a decision to use some of our Scottish Government Expo grant to commission two new plays for children,” says Tyndall. “We worked with Borderline Theatre on Rob Drummond’s show Uncanny Valley, and with Catherine Wheels on Lost At Sea, about plastic pollution in the oceans; and that experience went really well, so that we’re now determined to expand our work with Scotland’s theatre companies, and to make sure there is a strong strand of theatre for adults as well.

“For us, though, there can’t be any one model of how we do that. With those two plays – which are both returning this year – we were fully involved as the commissioning organisation, and we’re also co-commissioning one show this year, Francis Gallop’s Cosmonaut, about a girl called Lucia, and the world’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. That’s part of a programme of seven shows at Summerhall which have largely been programmed from work our team has seen and loved over the past year or so.

“So sometimes we’re commissioning shows, sometimes we’re inviting and programming shows that already exist, and sometimes – because our funds for commissioning are very limited – we’re just working with Edinburgh theatres to encourage them to become involved in the reflection on science that is a vital part of the festival – provided, of course, that it fits in with their own artistic priorities. So we talked to David Greig at the Lyceum about the Science Festival, and they decided to stage a production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, a fascinating play about the ethics of cloning that has never had a professional production in Scotland before – and we’re helping them to present two discussion events around that.

“Then with the Traverse show, Stef Smith’s Girl In The Machine, I just saw that play being read as one of the Traverse’s Breakfast Plays during last year’s festival, and thought it was a wonderful piece of speculative fiction about the increasingly pervasive role of the internet in our lives, and how it might be changing our very idea of what it is to be human. And Grid Iron and Lung Ha came to us with an idea they’d been working on for some time, which we agreed would sit brilliantly in our programme; so Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery will be performed at Edinburgh Zoo during the festival, and we’re delighted about that.”

Is there any danger, in the context of the Science Festival, of art becoming just another instrument of science education, and losing its special creative role? In theory, the threat exists; but for playwright Rob Drummond – whose interactive Science Festival show Uncanny Valley, about the relationship between a young girl and her artificial intelligence friend, was judged Best Show for Children and Young People at last year’s CATS awards – the connection with science is pure gain, and a thread that runs through all his work.

“I’m always looking for a hook to hang my work on anyway,” says Drummond, “and I was really struck, last year, by how empowered audiences seemed to be by the context of the festival, and by this general feeling that people were there to learn. For me, theatre is an exploration of what it means to be human, and so are many branches of 21st science, whether it’s psychology or neuroscience or artificial intelligence. So I’m very drawn to those subjects, and to ways of doing theatre that really involve the audience in the debate, and give them a significant role.”

And for Tyndall, the connections between arts and science can only grow stronger, particularly in this 70th anniversary year of the Edinburgh International Festival.

“Our overarching theme this year is ‘Get Connected’,” says Tyndall. “So we’re delighted to be building these relationships that help to draw arts audiences towards scientific debate, and also make people from a science background aware of the key role of the arts in dreaming and imagining new futures. Because it really is not “two cultures” any more. It’s one great continuum of exploration, imagination, discovery and understanding; and we love to celebrate that in our work.” ■

The Edinburgh International Science Festival runs from 1-16 April, in venues across the city, www.sciencefestival.co.uk