Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas at Unbound

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas brings academics and the public together to discuss everything from privacy and surveillance to health and education. We talk to Dr Sarah Anderson about the benefits (and pitfalls) of conversation

Feature by Kirstyn Smith | 03 Jul 2018

Noise complaints aren’t always a bad thing. If one disgruntled George Street resident hadn’t been such a party pooper, The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas might not exist. When a space opened up for ‘quiet’ shows like acoustic music or spoken word, comedian Susan Morrison jumped on it, with a new idea for a show exploring controversial research topics performed by the academics researching them. With help from arts production company Fair Pley and the Beltane Public Engagement Network, the stage was set for danger.

“Universities are not always great in how they engage with the wider world, especially when engaging with non-specialists,” says Dr Sarah Anderson from the University of Edinburgh. “There can be a real power imbalance when you have a researcher from one of Scotland’s top universities who is a world-expert on something speaking to someone who feels like an average member of society. However, universities are publicly-funded institutions and everyone has a right to benefit from the knowledge they generate.”

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas levels this playing field by introducing audience interaction and a compère – Morrison – to each show, so members of the public can feel free to ask any questions that come to mind. Added to this, the researchers involved are fully aware of the fact that, on some occasions, their purely academic knowledge can also be a limitation.

“Audience members often bring a fresh perspective and spot questions and holes in arguments that researchers haven’t spotted before. So the interaction can actually make research better.”

While the university staff called up to CODI are engaging and intelligent, it hardly needs to be stated that they’re not entertainment professionals. This is where the compère steps in, playing an integral part in forging the link between researcher and audience member.

“They work with the researcher to make sure the shows are entertaining since they’re being sold as entertainment. They’re also there to help keep the audience discussions on topic and to manage the more vocal members of the crowd who might otherwise monopolise a discussion.”

It’s not unusual, Anderson admits, for the audience to completely take over proceedings from time to time. A show on capitalism saw the researcher speak for just seven minutes before questions and debate began. Some of her favourite shows, though, have been where the ‘danger’ in The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas is not immediately obvious.

“Rachel Hosker turned what could have been quite a dry topic – archival research – into a discussion of Trump and the manipulation of collective memory. Amy Burge’s show on writing romance fiction, where she got heckled by her own dad, was also considerably livelier than I anticipated! And our shows on data, privacy and your online footprint always leave me thinking (and a bit unsettled).”

While dangerous is, literally, the show’s middle name, there’s also the threat of topics that get too controversial. One particular event, 'Let Extremists Speak', meant a lot of risk assessment had to be done beforehand, and the organisers were prepared to withdraw the show at any time, keeping a close eye on online discussions. Although as Anderson points out, when you’re at the Edinburgh Fringe “you can guarantee that someone out there is being far more dangerous than you”.

As for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the line-up includes Edinburgh Napier’s Richard Kyle, arguing that obesity has bankrupted the NHS, University of Edinburgh’s Smita Kheria, making the case for copyright, and EDINA’s Nicola Osborne, taking a look at online privacy in the wake of GDPR. Each researcher has 30 minutes to present their topic and speak with the audience, and, if you like what you see, consider these events a taster menu for the full shows that will be taking place during the Fringe.

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, Charlotte Square Gardens, Tue 21 Aug, 9pm