Throwback (not quite) Thursday

As the heatwave hits and August and the fringe start to feel much more tangible, here’s a little throwback to last year’s CoDI

Dr Liam Brierley took part in the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas with his show ‘A Virus to End Humanity?’, here is his experience of CoDI:

Can you really trust your own eyesight? Would it be a good thing return to child labour? Is technology the final solution to cancer, or Parkinson’s disease?

These are just some of the thought-provoking questions explored at this year’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (or the handy abbreviation ‘CoDI’), where different academics present a “dangerous” or controversial topic each day at the Edinburgh Fringe. In January, I was trying to think some different or original ways I could communicate my PhD research. Fast-forward eight months, and I’m on a candlelit stage in an intimate George Street theatre, stood beside a Glaswegian comedian with a box on her head.

I was taking part in CoDI for the very first time, exploring what might happen if the next pandemic started at the Edinburgh Fringe and whether this would be “A Virus to End Humanity?”. I have to admit I didn’t really know what to expect when I signed up for CoDI. And in many ways, I couldn’t have – the shows all end up wildly different, depending on the presenter, the topic, and the audience. But as an academic presenter in CoDI, you’re trained in workshops where the Beltane Public Engagement Network guide you through what might work for your show (you certainly don’t need to turn up with complete ideas!) and prepare you for the stage and how to generate discussion with the audience. Compere Susan Morrison co-presents and supports all the shows, so you’re never alone, in the run-up to the Fringe or on the actual stage.

As my own show opened, the audience were informed that the theatre was quarantined because of the new Fringe virus and together, we would conduct our own scientific investigation to find out how risky it might be. Firstly, we explored how viruses jump from animals to humans with the help of our ‘computer simulation’. We found out the Fringe virus came from rodents – pretty risky! – and next, looked whether the virus was spreading. Finding infected audience members with our UV torch, we saw that a lot of contacts of infected people were also infected themselves. Using the epidemiologist’s measure of R0, it seemed like the virus was spreading quite quickly. Our audience then suggested some ideas as to measures we could take to prevent the Fringe virus spreading further across the globe (some successful and some not so successful!) While playing each of these games, we adjusted the levels of risk to humanity as we went along and, happily, our audience successfully prevented the Fringe virus pandemic.

The Beltane Network’s aim for CoDI is to generate “debate, discussion, and discourse”, and in my experience, it certainly did! Obviously, the show was going to attract some people already working in epidemiology, but I was fascinated to find out just how much non-scientist members of the public knew – and they came up with some really challenging questions!

It is surprisingly hard work doing a CoDI show, and it’s easy to feel like you’ve just dived into the deep end. There’s not only your show content to think about, but your staging, your promotion, your dialogue with the audience, etc. But for any academic interested in public engagement, it’s a fantastic way to pick up a lot of new skills and new perspectives in a supportive environment, no matter how experienced you are. And who wouldn’t want to be able to tell all their friends they’ve performed at the Edinburgh Fringe?