What's Next?

I used to be part of a secret cabal, and I'm about to blow the lid on it. But first, some context.

One year ago I was surviving my fifth London winter. The countdown to my biggest ever project, You Have Been Upgraded, was on. My to-do list spanned multiple A4 pages and I flicked between reviewing contracts, feeding back on theatrical scripts and editing press releases. I didn't take breaks. I was being pulled in a thousand directions at once. It was thrilling, difficult, and I was incredibly proud of what we* eventually achieved. I was a diplomat, editor, project manager, researcher, coach - a problem solver. Daft Punk thumped me onwards through late evenings.

You Have Been Upgraded Sunday cast

Today, I'm in a South Australian summer, two-thirds through painstaking rewrites of my first fiction novel. I'm answerable to no-one but myself on this, the biggest writing project I've embarked on. I'm living in a concrete shack by a rocky beach beside a corrugated dirt road. On my breaks, I'm building a rock wall. I can count on my fingers the number of people I've had a conversation with in the last week. It's less than the number of dolphins I've swum with. The Decemberists croon stories to me on hot afternoons.

The contrast is, frankly, ridiculous.

Point Turton Pelican in the sunset

When I'm not pondering the vast gulf between the my past and present, I've contemplated a more difficult question: What's next?

London is a world hub of science communication. I worked on unusual projects there. Two aspects, in particular, stood out.

Across four projects, I helped psychologists run real mass experiments with Museum visitors in dynamic, entertaining and previously unheard of ways. Bringing psychology out of universities - and their inevitable cohort of 20 year old student test subjects - is very valuable, both for the scientists, and the large number of visitors who discover psychology by being a part of it.

The second was my work with theatre practitioners and artists who engaged with major contemporary science issues. I was blown away by the critical and intense engagement with the science that Unlimited Theatre brought to the bear on You Have Been Upgraded. Closer to my own (environmental) heart, Best Festival Ever by Australian outfit Boho Interactive took principles of systems science and shaped them into a big interactive performance board game lecture (… that really, honestly, is the best way to describe it. If it tours near you, go.)

These two elements of my work had no playbook. Yes, they built on previous projects. But they had the distinct feel of forging forwards, beyond convention and the norm. Broadly, they worked.

Now I'm back in Australia. The country holds my history, family and heart. The landscape of science communication here is different. The politics of science are different. And, in my first months home, it's been tempting to view the move as a step back from what goes on in London.

I'd be wrong. This discipline - amorphous as it is - is shaped by the culture it inhabits, driven (often) by politics and moulded by the institutions that its practitioners call home.

Many jobs, by and large, look similar. There are people who explode hydrogen balloons, write university media releases, write news articles, program museum events, edit journals… yes. These are people I recognise.

But the audience is different. The drivers are different. The science is different.

That brings me to the cabal.

London Eye by night

We'd gather after dark, at inconspicuous entrances to grandiose buildings that house the most magnificent treasures of the nation. We were museum event programmers, overworked and underpaid in the under-attack culture sector, and we'd sit and drink wine and talk about adult learning and pensioners and petulant violinists and queues. We'd learn from each other's mistakes. We'd be inspired by each other's successes. We'd trade tips on ticketing or compare notes on the value of historical re-enactors.

That network gave me true sector-wide perspective. I was given eyes in a dozen more places than I had before. Suddenly, back in Australia, whisked around the world in a flying tube, my network is gone. I'm standing outside again.

It's scary and exciting. I have a new challenge. I need to grasp the nuances of Australian audiences, scientists, issues, institutions, and fellow science communicators. I've brought back confidence and a swag of new skills. I've built the bravery to say yes when the path ahead is uncharted. I've recharged my batteries with nine months of travel and writing.

What's next? I'm ready to find out.

*Pippa and Katherine, I shall never forget what you both did to make that festival real.

#science #communication #writing #events #museums #thoughts

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