Caro Meets Children's Show Interview

Sarah Punshon: We’re Stuck!

By | Published on Wednesday 23 March 2016


As someone who has always thought “I’m bad at maths”, I have often wished I’d got a better start on it. I rather envy the older children and pre-teens who stand to benefit from ‘We’re Stuck’, an exciting show for young people, specifically designed to teach them not to be afraid of the trial and error process of the discipline.
The show is on at Shoreditch Town Hall over the Easter holidays, which is very handy for all you London based parents out there. I spoke to the director of the piece, Sarah Punshon, to find out more about what happens in it, and what inspired her to create it.

CM: Can you start by telling us what happens in ‘We’re Stuck’? What’s the narrative of the show?
SP: ‘We’re Stuck’ is an interactive adventure: the audience are visiting academics, professors on a tour of a top secret research institute, Volcano Industries. The tour’s supposed to show off the amazing artificial intelligence systems they create – only it doesn’t go quite as planned… The audience end up having to help our ‘scientists’ to save the day, against terrifying odds. They have to be brave enough to try new things, stretch their brains in new directions, and probably make a few mistakes along the way.

CM: In what ways is it interactive? Does everyone get involved or can shy people observe from the back…?!
SP: No-one’s forced to take part – we ask for help at various points, and so far audiences have been very eager to help us out, coming up with brilliant ideas and clever strategies. Everyone goes on the adventure together, and we become a team by the end – but yes, there’s definitely room for shy people at the back!

It’s a promenade show, we move through several rooms, and it’s all in the strange basement spaces of Shoreditch Town Hall, so it’s quite exciting.

CM: Who would you say the show is suitable for?
SP: It’s aimed at kids aged 8-11, whether in school groups or families. Grown-ups can get involved too, though they might need the help of an 8-11year old – the challenges involve some specific maths techniques that kids learn at Key Stage 2 (years 3, 4, 5 and 6). But in case any grown-ups have forgotten those bits of maths, there’s no need to worry – the story should still be very clear.

We’ve had classes of years 4 and 5 this week and they’ve all loved it. So far the most common words used to describe the show are “awesome”, “funny” and “scary”. We wouldn’t recommend bringing anyone who’s 7 or younger along, as they might get a bit frightened…

CM: What inspired you to create it?
SP: Loads of things! But mainly my nephews and nieces – I have ten of them, aged 2 to 19, and I’ve seen how our weird cultural attitudes to maths have had huge impacts on them. Somehow it’s ok in this country to say “I can’t do maths”, in a way you’d never say “oh I can’t read”. We’re collectively a bit scared of maths – there’s even an official term for it, maths anxiety. And we have this very old-fashioned idea in our heads about it: that it’s this really hard subject that only clever people can do, and if you find any of it difficult then you’re clearly no good at maths and should just give up.

John Mighton, who’s an award-winning mathematician and playwright, wrote a book all about this, called ‘The Myth of Ability’. I read that, and it scratched away at the back of my mind for ages – and then one day I thought, come on Sarah, do something about this.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about how the show was developed? What was the creative process? What research had to be done?
SP: Initially I got in touch with a lovely little charity called Maths on Toast, who share my feelings about maths, and run events for families. Alexandra Fitzsimmons and I went and interviewed lots of research mathematicians, and discovered that of course they get stuck ALL THE TIME. Some of them even say that’s exactly what maths is: getting stuck and worrying away at a problem, sometimes for years! And of course, they make mistakes, too. But when we showed kids in school some of the things the mathematicians had said, they were amazed.

We knew we were on to something. And we got really interested in the neuroscience behind all this – how our brains learn, the amazing change your brain is capable of all the way through your life. We got Wellcome Trust funding and support, and went and interviewed several scientists.

One neuroscientist told us “the brain hates doing maths – you have to force it – sculpt it”. We’ve got enormous natural ability to learn languages or recognise faces – those are things our brains have evolved to do easily, instinctively. But we didn’t evolve to learn maths in quite the same way. We use all kinds of different bits of our brains to do it, we have to train our brains gradually over years. There are bits of your brain that get bigger and more connected-up the more maths you do.

So it’s crazy to say you’re “naturally” good or bad at maths – that’s like saying you’re “naturally” good at snowboarding. Yes, possibly some people are born with tiny advantages in specific areas, but how often you work those muscles, how keen you are, what access to equipment and support you get – those are massively more important. So the more kids can have fun doing maths, the better. And hopefully we can help teach families that being good at maths is about so much more than just getting the right answer first time – it’s about being willing to struggle, to perhaps not understand at first, but not to give up.

I worked with a team of brilliant performer-devisers and a games designer to explore games and characters that might be in the show – we did several periods of intense work together, with me going away to write and think a lot in between.

We did loads of work with schools, asking kids their feelings about maths, getting stuck and making mistakes; and trying out all the games to get them to exactly the right level of difficulty and fun.

Robots came in very early: they’re so literal-minded, you have to talk to them in precise, logical, mathematical ways. Then we discovered these real things called ‘cerebral organoids’ – tiny clusters of living brain cells, created from skin cells, that scientists are really growing right now. We also met some scientists who are working on how brain cells and computer software can ‘talk’ to each other via electrical signals – even controlling small robots with living neurons.

We’ve taken all that real stuff as inspiration for our highly fictional robots – it’s been great fun inventing how they work, move and talk. Very technically demanding – my design team have done amazing work creating them.

CM: Who or what is One Tenth Human?
SP: It’s the company I formed to produce the show. I’m fascinated by scientific research, and was running an event about microbes recently. Someone told me that nine tenths of the cells in our bodies are microbes – so we’re all actually only one tenth human….

CM: Given its helpfully educational subject matter, I feel as though this is something that should run and run – to the benefit of future 8-11 year olds! Do you think you will keep reviving it…?
SP: I’d love to! I’ve been working on this on and off for nearly two years now, it’s so exciting to see the show finally happen. We’re visiting four different venues this time round, but we hope to revive the show and visit lots more in the future.

CM: What else do you have coming up? Any exciting plans for the future?
SP: Next up is another show for families: I’m directing ‘The Box of Photographs’ at the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, 22 April-15 May. It’s a new play by Daniel Jamieson, which has been inspired by stories written by 8-11 year olds. It should be great fun. It’s in a normal theatre where the audience sit in their seats all through the show, so hopefully it’ll be a breeze compared to the challenges of ‘We’re Stuck!’

‘We’re Stuck!’ is on at Shoreditch Town Hall from 25 Mar-1 Apr (not 27, 28 Mar). See this page here to book your tickets.

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Photo: Arnim Freiss