Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be involved in a fun public engagement project with a charity called Cardboard Citizens who make theatre with and for homeless people. This project was funded by the Wellcome Trust, with the aim of bringing science and art together to teach young people about their brains in an engaging way. The script was written by Sarah Woods, with input from neuroscientists led by Dr Iroise Dumontheil. A neuroscientist was on hand during each performance to help the audience understand what was going on in the characters' brains (a group of PhD students, including me).
The play was performed in a forum theatre style, which I hadn't come across before. The idea was that the play involved a series of events that went badly for the characters, and by the end of the play they were near homelessness or self-harm. Tony McBride, the director of the play, would then turn to the audience for help. Audience members were asked to choose a scene where a character could have acted in a different way to change the outcome. The actors would then re-enact this scene and the audience shouted "stop!" when they thought the character could do something different. This was the fun bit: teenagers could then come onto the stage one at a time and take the place of a character. The teenager and actors then improvised what might happen next to see if they could create a more positive outcome. The teenagers seemed to really enjoy this aspect of the play as it gave them a chance to get involved and try out their ideas. In between these improvisations, Tony would ask the neuroscientist why the character behaved this way, what was happening in their brain, and why this new strategy might be better than the old one.
Towards the end of the session, Tony would lead the audience towards the concept of meta-cognition, revealing the meaning of the play's title, Meta. Teenagers and actors alike seemed to find this the most powerful part of the show: the idea that we can think about our thoughts and feelings, and try to change them. A short documentary shows the impact the play has had on the actors, and pre- and post-play questionnaires will allow us to see the impact the play had on the teenagers. Overall, the play was seen by 2813 young people, so we hope that beyond the enjoyable experience of watching the show, everyone will have learnt something about the way their brain works.
Being involved in this play was a challenge for us as PhD students but also a lot of fun. As Lucia M Weinberg explains in her blog post, we had to work hard to think about how best to describe things to non-scientists. We couldn't rely on powerpoint slides as we normally do for talks, and we never knew what Tony or an audience member might ask us! Overall this was a really rewarding experience, and a great example of how art and science can come together to create something exciting that the public can learn from.