Six academics walk into a Fringe venue



Professor Alan Gow performing at the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas

No, that’s not the start of a bad joke but a summary of how some Heriot-Watt researchers spent a few days in August. 

Their appearances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe were part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas.

Now in its seventh year, the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas puts sharing and discussing research at the heart of the world’s largest arts festival.

This year, Heriot-Watt had six academics in the programme appearing across eight performances, a record for our university. Our contributions ranged from dramatic solutions for global food shortages with Dr Ross Alexander, Assistant Professor in EGIS, to exploring why we feel disgust.

Each show attracted different audiences in terms of age and background, and even one complete sell out performance.

A key selling point of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas is that the pitch must be based on solid research, but no slides are allowed. Dr Ross Donaldson, a Research Fellow in EPS, noted the advantages of that approach saying "It helped me lose the PowerPoint crutch for giving presentations and talks".

Dr Thusha Rajendran, Associate Professor in Psychology, agreed “It was a real challenge to be up on stage and not have notes or Powerpoint to lean on. But the immediacy of the audience interaction and ‘buzz’ was worth the effort of the planning and preparation. You’re really well supported throughout and it’s great way to get your ideas to a different audience and develop your communication skills at the same time.”

Both Dr Donaldson and Dr Rajendran were first time performers, as was Paola Ruffo, a PhD Research Student in LINCS. Of her experience, Paola said "I got to conquer stage fright and work on my project from a different angle while trying to turn it into a show. I had the opportunity to talk about what I'm doing to such a varied audience, who didn't necessarily have an academic background or work in my field. People were genuinely interested and willing to learn something new, while also offering their perspective on the matter.”

Returning for her second year, Dr Anna Sedda, Associate Professor in Psychology, offers the following advice: “Those wishing to be involved should consider how much the audience questions can help them reason about their research topic and provide ideas for new avenues”.

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas is curated by Edinburgh Beltane, and a call for new performers will go out towards the end of this year. Support for those wishing to participate is provide by each host institution, and the Heriot-Watt Engage team are on hand to offer encouragement and advice to anyone tempted to give it a try in 2020.

Alan Gow, Professor in Psychology, has taken shows to the Fringe for five years and suggests “The opportunity provided for direct engagement with the public about your research is incredibly valuable. It hones your communication of your topic, without ever affecting the quality of the research foundation on which it’s based. I know those experiences have influenced my teaching practice, and whether at the Fringe or elsewhere, I’d always encourage colleagues to explore ways in which to engage people with what we do.“