We caught up with Puppet Place resident artist, Chris Pirie of Green Ginger, to talk about RATLab, a partnership with The Royal Academy of Engineering and University of Bath to develop an interactive STEM-focussed performance.
You’ve recently been working with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the University of Bath to develop an interactive STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) piece for Key Stage 2 pupils in the South West, can you please tell us a little more about the project, and how you came to be involved?
This really exciting project came about some months before the pandemic, and Green Ginger was really fortunate to have funded activity as the theatres started to close. We were first contacted by academics from University of Bath’s (UoB) Dept of Bio-Mechanical Engineering, who sought a partnership to create a classroom intervention targeting primary school children. The project was conceived to challenge any fixed, negative perceptions of STEM, particularly Engineering, and then reframe these subjects as exciting, creative, and relevant.
In 2015, the Royal Academy of Engineering published a major report into the low numbers entering into engineering careers at post-grad level, and since then has been investing in public engagement initiatives to address the problem. The report identified a tendency among Key Stage 2 pupils (7-11 yrs) to form notions that STEM subjects were somehow incompatible with any interest in arts or sports they had. The UoB proposal was a perfect fit; as a theatre company specialising in puppetry effects for stage and screen, bio-mechanical engineering sits at the heart of our work, and we were delighted to also forge a new working relationship with an academic partner.
How are you using theatre and puppetry to talk about STEM in new and engaging ways?
The original intervention for RATLab had relatively simple ambitions; Green Ginger would go into classrooms with teams of graduate engineers and academics from UoB, and employ puppetry and automata to demonstrate some of the fundamental concepts of bio-engineering. However, once the effects of the pandemic kicked in and schools stopped being able to invite external guests, a major rethink was needed.
We arrived at a Covid-safe version of our activity – a series of interconnecting inflatable domes that could be sited within school grounds, yet remain independent from their buildings. Our UoB project partners went back to the Royal Academy who liked our reworked proposal and promptly doubled the budget. This enabled us to purchase the domes, think more theatrically than in the original iteration, and invest in the necessary resources to make the most of the opportunity.
Currently, our design and fabrication team – led by the amazing Nick Willsher (www.niklaas.co.uk) – has been literally assembling the cast; these are life-sized or over-sized rats, pigs, and dogs. We decided early on in the process to anthropomorphise all our characters, in order to represent diverse team of workers who populated the RATLab. It has been important to emphasise the role of teamwork in engineering; very little is done in the industry that isn’t marked by close collaboration between numerous, distinct areas of skill and expertise.
What has been the biggest challenge in disrupting the traditionally perceived STEM narratives, reframing them, and making them more inclusive and accessible?
Green Ginger – known for its absurd, irreverence and highly visual productions – has needed to ensure that its fresh narratives are grounded in science! Thankfully we have partnered with an amazing team of educators to guide our thinking. The whole project has thrown into sharp focus the sheer amount of STEM activity that the company does in its day-to-day puppetry activities. From exploring the properties of different raw materials to working out how a pig’s hind legs actually move, we can identify physics, biology, chemistry, maths – and of course, engineering – at the core of puppet design and fabrication.
As we approached the reframing of negative narratives, the core creative team reflected upon their own childhoods; how we were taught science and technology subjects, and how we perceived their relevance.
During the project’s development, we have needed to think creatively about how to deliver such an ambitious, experiential performance event under Covid-safe conditions. Fortunately, our inflatable, all-weather structures have presented us with some amazing possibilities, and have given the delivery team its own bespoke working environment. The solution also gives added educational value to our young audiences and their teachers, with an experience outside of their normal learning environment.
You’re gearing up to tour this Autumn term 2021 and Spring term 2022; what do you hope the Key Stage 2 pupils will take away from their experience of RATLab when it visits schools?
We are excited by the potential of this project; it specifically targets children in areas of social deprivation and low arts engagement, and will be free to schools at the point of delivery. Our primary aims are to capture imaginations, inspire curiosity and collaboration, and to reinforce the idea that science is for everyone. We will introduce some of the basics of biomechanics: surgical repair, bone replacement, and injury prevention, whilst shining some light on the influential research carried out by UoB’s engineers, some of which has had real impact on the daily lives of people around the world.
Personally, I’d be delighted if a handful of kids that might normally perceive themselves as essentially arty or sports-oriented, begin to understand the everyday nature of engineering, and its role in every human-made thing we interact with.
Intronauts. Photo Paul Blakemore.
As the Arts, especially theatre and live puppetry, begins to find its feet again a year on from Covid-19; what are your hopes for the coming year in general, for Puppet Place, and for Green Ginger?
I am starting to get excited about making – and performing – new touring work again, I’ve definitely missed that. Green Ginger was fortunate to receive a grant from the Creative Relief Fund, support that has enabled us to invest in some research and development of new show ideas. I’m currently setting up some investigations into deeper exploration into the possibilities of Hologauze technology (www.holotronica.com) that we employed in our last show Intronauts. The production featured video projection onto a fine, silver-coated gauze stretched across the front of the stage; the gauze disappears with any light behind it, offering us endless possibilities of layering digital content with other scenic elements – including Green Ginger’s trademark lo-fi puppetry.
Puppet Place is an exciting place to be working as our sector slowly re-emerges from the pandemic. All the co-working spaces are full, and the building is buzzing with projects as we relax the caps placed on capacity. Opposable Thumb (opposablethumbtheatre.com) have been creating a new touring production, and House of Funny Noises (www.houseoffunnynoises.com) have been busy making a new film ready for Beverley Puppet Festival. We have been fortunate to be in a position to sustain our external hires, with Max Humphries block-booking the rehearsal space and Fabrication Bay for more monstrous builds for Dinosaur World Live (dinosaurworldlive.com).
Puppet Place has also been collaborating with UWE’s architecture department, with its students helping us to reimagine the building for future redevelopment as a bespoke ‘centre of excellence’ in all things animated. And we are having important discussions across the city to explore practical solutions to the lack of diversity in our artform; exciting times ahead!
If you would like to find out more about Green Ginger and RATLab, please:
Interviewed by Matt Gibbs