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Bringing research to life


A play set in a fictional town is one of the more unusual ways Newcastle University academics are sharing their research with the public.

The innovative idea to put on the production at Northern Stage next month (April) was borne out of an on-going collaboration between researchers and a local theatre company.

The Town Meeting is set in the fictional Little Rikjord - a town in crisis. Voted most picturesque town in Great Doggerland four years running, it is an affluent and vibrant community which owes most of its wealth to an open cast iron ore mine.

However, with the current seam close to exhaustion, there is growing uncertainty about the future and a difficult decision has to be made.

The play is set on the eve of a crucial hearing when the audience, in its role as the town’s residents, must come up with a plan for Little Rikjord’s future assisted only by shambolic junior planning officer Benjamin Rennold (Brad McCormick).

The Town Meeting has been developed by local theatre company Cap-a-Pie in collaboration with Dr Paul Cowie, a researcher in the University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

“It will be interesting to see what will come out of this,” says Dr Cowie, who also has a cameo role in the play. “Part of the challenge is getting the balance right between academic rigour and theatre. This is a play that has to be interesting and engaging enough for people to enjoy it at the time but also provoking enough to also make them think about things differently afterwards.”  

The main aim of this project is to make academic research more democratic, accessible and relevant to communities. Using a play in this way means the audience is both the co-producer of the theatre and the research.

However, Cap-a-Pie’s artistic director Brad McCormick is keen to stress that audiences can engage meaningfully in many different ways. “The Town Meeting is really exciting to perform as so much of the story depends on how the audience engages with the situation,” he says. “I think it’s a great chance for audiences to play and explore the subject without feeling self-conscious – no one is put on the spot.”

Little Rikjord is modelled on a real-life mining town in Sweden – Kiruna - which is being moved 3km east to allow iron ore mining to continue.

Dr Cowie’s research revolves around how communities engage with the planning process, including issues of representation and legitimacy and how they choose who represents them. “There’s a lot of interest in political communities at the moment, especially with the rise in direct action groups such as Occupy,” he says. “I’m particularly interested in how all these political relationships work together and how people decide who they can trust politically.”

As a lecturer, Dr Cowie uses this method of performing research as a teaching tool on the Masters in Town Planning course.

Newcastle University has been working with Cap-a-Pie since 2012 when social geographer Michael Richardson linked up with Cap-a-Pie to bring his research into Tyneside Irish identity to life through a play Under Us All. ??This led to the University’s engagement team, Newcastle Institute of Creative Arts Practice and Cap-a-Pie forming the Performing Research collaboration, bringing together academics and theatre makers to create with each other and to connect to audiences and communities.

The Town Meeting is supported using public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England, as well as from Newcastle University’s Engagement Team and Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal.

The Town Meeting will be performed on six dates in the North – Friday 10 April at 7.30pm at Northern Stage (tickets £10/8; 29 April - Cheviot Centre, Wooler, 01668 282 406; 30 April - Theatre Delicatessen, Sheffield; 6 May – Amble Development Trust, 01665 712 929; 9 May - Newbiggin Maritime Centre; 18 May – Customs House, South Shields, 0191 454 1234.

??For more information about the performances, contact Katy Vanden at Cap-a-Pie.

Photo credit: Robert Paul Steadman - CUBESEDGE

published on: 23 March 2015