An experiment in living ...

Niamh Shaw combines her interest in science and the arts in her play, That’s About The Size Of It, says John Tynan

THE timing of actress/scientist Niamh Shaw’s collaborative show, That’s About The Size Of It — with Úna Kavanagh, as part of the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin — couldn’t be more apt. It comes a week after the announcement by scientists at the CERN facility in Switzerland of proof of the existence of the Higgs boson.

Ms Shaw’s show combines her science and theatre experience. “I came to the show with science as the basis,” she says. “I thought science was enough, but then Úna got involved. We both worked on Fair City, but got to know each other outside the show. As members of Anu, we collaborated on Laundry, about the Magdelene laundries, and it made sense to work together on That’s About The Size Of It.

“We put our proposal to Show in a Bag productions and we got to go to CERN, where we did video diaries and talked to physicists. Ariane Koek has an artists’ programme at CERN and I discussed my ideas with her. There is a bigger message than just pure science, and CERN recognises that art can help deliver it to the general public. CERN is not fantasy, it is real, but for most people it is unbelievable, notions that are beyond their thinking.”

At CERN, Ms Shaw met Dr Stephen Myers, from Belfast, who is the director of engineering and technology for the accelerators. “He is taking part in ESOF and is coming to see our show and will get involved in a post-show discussion.”

Ms Kavanagh says that “on a philosophical level, arts and science have always been connected.” She references Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer, who called artists and scientists “the official ‘noticers’ of society.” “They notice things that other people have never learned to see or have learned to ignore, and — most importantly — they communicate these ‘noticings’ to others,” she says.

Most people are aware of 3D, the third dimension, but in That’s About The Size Of It, Ms Shaw propounds that on the 10th dimension we “can see every possible outcome of our life”.

Ergo, she could view ‘science Niamh’, ‘ballerina Niamh’, ‘Muppet Niamh’ and ‘astronaut Niamh’. Different elements of herself, but all observable, according to string theory. Supported by a ground-based chalk diagram, her performance begins with an explanation of the basics of quantum physics, before an exposition of her life, putting it under the microscope in a courageous, moving, and introspective production. Backed by film footage, we are taken on a painful return to a cottage in Cork, where she lived following the break-up of her marriage; we see her as an engineer on the London Underground, learn of her aspirations as a child and her failure to realise them.

The message is that lives are about choice. “There is not a person who has not asked: ‘What if? What if I had done this, or that’? Quantum physics is abstract ... and so not everybody will get my show, but I feel understanding science can allow us to understand ourselves more. I think they are trying to model life through science. I want to be able to explain we have parallel lives. It is nice to see ourselves and that, if we are these vibrating strings of energy, then we exist in the 10th dimension. If that is true, we have opportunities,” she says.

For Ms Kavanagh, an actor, sculptor and writer, the question is how to bring science to the audience in an entertaining, relevant manner. “The show has been referred to as ‘quantum theatre’ and I feel it helps people grasp that there is a scientific explanation to the ‘what-ifs’ in our lives. We hear that when they come up to us after the show. When Niamh talks about science, I see pictures and see it in a philosophical way. The show is about transience and about trying to find answers. We all, at some stage, ask the eternal question: ‘What’s it all about?’. A theoretical physicist is just trying to put science on top of what we are asking.”

Asked if spirituality is a force and if it can be defined by science, Ms Shaw says: “I don’t know and I don’t mind if science can’t answer that. I know I don’t think the Higgs boson deserves the title ‘god particle’. Media has latched on to it, to help us understand the universe, but what does it have to do with God? Maybe I’m just a cynic.

“Ultimately, we do not have all the answers, nobody does and probably never will. But our production shows where a person’s life can be ... and proposes that anything is possible.”

* That’s About The Size Of It runs at the Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar, this evening in conjunction with the Euroscience Open.

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