A fresh start with the arts
Turn off the treadmill and ditch the diets, says Nancy Groves, and look to these inspiring events for a restorative, nourishing beginning to the new year
Monday 03 January 2011
It's a cliché of comedy, the reason people avoid the front row of a Frankie Boyle gig: "Who are you and what do you do?" The answer no one expects to hear is "I'm a neuroscientist", still less from one of the acts on the bill.
But this is Bright Club, the "thinking person's variety night", where instead of stand-up, you get scientists; instead of one-liners, the latest in cutting-edge academic research. It's also just one of many arts events seeking to inform as well as entertain its audience this month.
If your January goal is a healthy mind and body, why not ditch the diet in favour of something more nourishing – and twice as fun? "There's currently a thirst for learning we don't get from more traditional channels," says Ken Arnold, head of public events at the Wellcome Collection, a museum long dedicated to putting art and science in conversation with each other – and the general public. "We're excited by what we don't know and like to be stretched." Just not necessarily on a treadmill.
The problem, says Arnold, starts at school. "We're naturally multi-disciplinary beings, but we're taught not to muddy the waters. Our teacher tells us: 'Don't focus on the colour of the rainbow, focus on its wavelength.' As adults, we are able to relax a bit." A slice of science-and-culture cake not only feeds the brain, but helps us to understand ourselves better. "Medical science and artists are both exploring the same question, after all," says Arnold. "What it means to be human."
At a time when research and the cultural sector are both being forced to tighten their belts, it pays to club together. But what makes a good art and science hook-up? "When everyone brings something different to the party," says Arnold. "A long marriage between scientists and artists ends up producing dull happy families. I'm more excited about a one-night stand."
Happily, this is one habit that doesn't need to be taught, he says. However, we all learn best when we're having a good time. So for self-improvement with a scientific stamp of approval, simply match your new year's resolution to the perfect night out.
Learn something new at Bright Club
Evening classes are all very well, but wouldn't you rather be LOL-ing at Bright Club, where academics attempt to find the funny side of their work, tackling a different sticky topic each month in front of a live comedy audience? Next up: "Brains" on 18 January. Like all good gigs, it runs in the back of a pub – Clerkenwell's Wilmington Arms – but originated at University College London as a means of connecting researchers to the outside world.
How does a five-minute stand-up slot differ to an hour-long lecture? "Audience expectation," says organiser Dr Steve Cross, comedy aficionado and head of public engagement at UCL. "Students are in a formal education setting to learn, while people have no more reason to be here than to be entertained. You can't rely on an exam at the end to keep them listening." Cue lots of silly props.
Offshoot Bright Clubs have opened at Manchester's Nexus Art Café and Cardiff's 10 Feet Tall, while on 4 February, the London branch takes over the Bloomsbury Theatre to discuss nothing less than "Life", with guests including Peep Show's Isy Suttie and Chris Abram from UCL's Department of Scandinavian Studies. Every few months, audience members also get the chance to show and tell.
"You leave feeling you've seen a top quality comedy night and yet you can tell your mum you went to an interesting university event and learnt about astrophysics," says Cross. Everyone's a winner.
Sing your heart out at the Sage
If quitting cigarettes is the best thing you can do for your lungs, learning to sing comes a close second. The Sage in Gateshead hopes to give your vocal chords a workout with Join in and Sing, a day-long workshop on 8 January, culminating in an evening concert with the Northern Sinfonia.
The event grew out of last year's successful BBC project, Sing Hallelujah, which saw novice choirs across the country performing Handel's famous work. More than 800 people are expected to participate at the Sage this month, many of whom will be singing in public for the first time.
Glee this is not, with a deliberately challenging programme ranging from Handel's "Zadok the Priest" to "The Heavens are Telling" from Haydn's Creation. But as conductor Simon Fidler says: "There is something so indescribably satisfying about being part of a large choir that everyone should try it once. Singing decreases stress, improves posture and breathing, enhances concentration and boosts your confidence and self-esteem." You don't get that from a self-help book.
Get physical at Guest Projects
Most New Year fitness regimes are destined to fail anyway so head to Physical Center instead. What sounds like a gym is actually the latest show to take over artist Yinka Shonibare's Guest Projects in east London.
Until 28 February, the Regent's Canal warehouse turns adventure playground for 11 performance artists exploring new concepts in physicality, alongside a busy programme of film screenings and lectures on bio-science. Hear cardiothoracic surgeon Francis Wells (known for performing live surgery on Channel 4) discuss the human heart, then watch Kristin Sherman's Prop Prop, a live sculpture scrum featuring a real rugby team.
"You know that questioning phase people go through as teenagers?" says head curator Juliana Cerqueira Leite. "Well, I'm still in it. What if we could slow down time and fall in several different directions at once – what kind of form would we take?"
Leite was last seen burrowing naked through clay to create her three plaster-cast sculptures for the Saatchi Gallery's Newspeak II show. "I would like Physical Center to become just that," she says, "a centre where people can drop in and know there's something going on, something that will make them question how their own form dictates their experience of life."
Go green at the Royal Court
Staying on top of eco-affairs can be tricky, particularly when it comes to the polarised debate on climate change. Now Richard Bean has written a play loosely based on last year's "Climategate" to help you.
The Heretic opens at the Royal Court on 4 February, starring Juliet Stevenson as Dr Diane Cassell, a leading Earth Sciences lecturer at odds with the orthodoxy over man-made climate change. Is global warming the new religion? asks Bean. "I'm a scientist," says Cassell. "I don't 'believe' in anything."
With James Fleet playing her head of faculty and singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn making his Royal Court debut as an inquisitive undergrad, The Heretic promises to deliver.
Theatre can bring science to life in ways journalism can only dream of, as plays such as Copenhagen and Arcadia have demonstrated. Simon Turley, resident writer at Theatrescience, says: "A good bit of theatre completes itself in the mind and body of the audience, not necessarily when the show ends, but an hour, a day, or even a week later." Which is longer lasting than your average New Year's Resolution.
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