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Features Published 10 August 2015

Brian Lobel: “Everyone’s realising the benefits of working outside of their own bubble.”

The performer and playwright talks about The Sick of The Fringe, a new programme of discussions and performances around health and art, supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Lydia Thomson

Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn performing Fake It ‘Til You Make It. Image credit: Richard Davenport

In recent years, the conversation on how art and science can support each other in both the telling of stories and development of research has been slowly but confidently coming to the fore. It’s taken the form of plays such as The Effect by Lucy Prebble in 2012, the work of Curious Directive, and the Wellcome Trust’s collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor (Thinking With The Body – 2013). It’s been found in festivals, regional theatres and arts centres, and celebrated in installations, aural experiences and solo shows battling everything from mental health to astrophysics. And it’s been embodied by Joan Littlewood and the Fun Palaces, with their tagline ‘everyone an artist, everyone a scientist.’

The latest instalment in this conversation is The Sick of The Fringe, a festival celebrating science, health and art at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s been conceived by artist and Wellcome Trust engagement fellow Brian Lobel around the question: “How can we use the Fringe to put people in dialogue with each other?”

“Each other” is the operative phrase here, because it’s not just art that benefits from the influence of science. The exchange goes both ways, and when I speak to Brian the night before he goes to Edinburgh, he observes that “Everyone’s realising the benefits of working outside of their own bubble.” And realising, too, how similar the creative processes in art and science are: “Sometimes you have to micro-pippette something for a year to find out if it works.” It can be fun, it can be interesting, it can be incredibly boring. You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a lot of painstaking work that artists and scientists can laugh about together, but despite these similarities Lobel has noticed that “Actually they’re not drinking in the same places, they’re not chatting in the same places”. Whether it’s over coffee or whisky, the goal of the festival is to get this dialogue happening.

The festival itself includes a series of Open Meetings with the likes of Bryony Kimmings & Tim Grayburn (Fake It ’Til You Make It), Brigitte Aphrodite (My Beautiful Black Dog) and Simon McBurney (Complicite), which will be platforms to hear and talk about making work that tackles health issues. On 27th and 28th August, the festival culminates in keynote speeches from neuroscientist Sir Colin Blakemore and actor, comedian and disability rights activist Liz Carr. While seeing seven shows a day, Brian and a team including the festival producer, two assistants and a guest artist curator are on the lookout for work that will be presented as an Opening Act for each keynote talk. Shows can be submitted for consideration, and what they’re mainly looking for is work that draws an interesting – not necessarily direct – link to the questions posed by the keynote speeches, which are published on the website.

Lobel asserts that this isn’t a competition, it’s an opportunity to contribute to the conversation. But think your show won’t fit? Perhaps think again. When I pose the possibility of seeing references to health in every show at the Fringe, Lobel counters that “I see health in everything I see anyway.” A feminist may always see gender inequality, a Marxist may always see class struggles. “Everyone has their own radar – that’s just my lens.” It follows, then, that Lobel will be keeping a blog – a blog of Diagnoses – charting how the work he’s seeing is relevant to the wider discourse around health. I offer that perhaps as a result of the festival, audiences and artists will come away having adopted this new lens through which to view theatre. Brian says that he hopes so.

What the festival is also offering is an opportunity for inspiration beyond the Fringe. Brian is crying out for artists, performers and creators to come forward, and wants to “encourage the people who are new to making work to make it, to not be afraid of stigma, to not be afraid to talk about their body.” Just because artists such as Bryony Kimmings and personalities such as Ruby Wax seem confident in speaking about themselves and their bodies, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy: “I love Bryony, and I’m so excited she’s speaking, but who knows if she felt empowered to make that show and talk about that topic had she not already been quite a successful performer?”

Brian Lobel's Ball

Brian Lobel’s Ball

Ball, a quirky, hilarious exploration of his own diagnosis of testicular cancer at the age of 20. But he explains that when he first made the show, he struggled for audience and support partially because he was a new artist, but also because he found audiences were resistant to autobiographical work about someone’s body. There’s the danger of expecting it to be a ‘Woe is me!’ outpouring of inner pain and experience. But to see – for example – the joyous musical My Beautiful Black Dog by Brigitte Aphrodite, is to realise that it can be entirely the opposite.

It is in this sense that the festival is, above all, a forum for discussion. Against the backdrop of frantic flyering and marketing campaigns, what The Sick of the Fringe is hoping to offer is a sense of community and a place for critical engagement. Brian acknowledges that “of course the festival is a hotspot for seeing a lot of things, but that’s not the only thing that needs to happen there.” He’s interested in creating an environment where we have time to reflect. A space to pause between art and science, the fields that most furtively question what it is to be human.

As the keynote speeches will demonstrate, this synergy between art, health and science presents a platform that’s just as personal as it is political: Brian tells me that while Liz Carr will be discussing social perceptions of ourselves and being the person “that no one wants to be” in terms of disability, Colin Blakemore will be talking about synaesthesia, and how the brain perceives things via illusion and conditioning. The social and the biological are two sides of the same question, and ripe for debate.

And if theatre is a medium by which we can understand ourselves better, there’s scope here for collaboration that incorporates cutting edge research and important questions and transfers it into the public consciousness. As it is, Lobel remarks that theatre lags behind science: “Although the world is having so many conversations about health, and access to healthcare, and the rights of healthcare, and the impacts of science and the ethics of science, we don’t have the breadth of art to support it.”

This is why The Sick of the Fringe is happening, and this is why Lobel is keen to “embolden” artists to make work that shares big experiences and asks the big questions. It’s the first time a festival like this has happened. Certainly in Edinburgh, if not nationally. And Lobel’s hopes for the future after The Sick of the Fringe are to develop a year long programme that reaches artists beyond Edinburgh – beyond the UK – and audiences beyond theatre. He says that the Wellcome Trust is more open to new work than we think, “or than anyone thinks”, and hopefully, the Surgeries that artists can sign up for to discuss their work and funding options with a member of the Wellcome team will be a platform to prove that.

Brian laments that “artists have been taught not to ask for anything”, but what this festival presents is a chance to bring the Wellcome to Edinburgh and open the floodgates between artists, audiences, funding and researchers. It’s got all the excitement of conducting an experiment in a test tube: let’s see what happens.

You can view the full programme of Monday open meetings, as well as information on how to submit an act, at The Sick of The Fringe.

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Lydia Thomson

Lydia writes about theatre for her own blog and reviews local work for the Basingstoke Gazette and the Hampshire Chronicle. She was also a member of the reviewing team for LIFT 2014. As well as arts journalism, Lydia is a playwright and performance artist working in Hampshire and London. She is an associate artist of Proteus Theatre Company in Basingstoke and is part of the artist's network at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton.

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