Thursday 23 March 2017

Theatre: The cosmic success of a one-woman show

Out of this world: Niamh Shaw spent a year trying to become an astronaut
Out of this world: Niamh Shaw spent a year trying to become an astronaut

Sheena Davitt

There are a lot of interesting characters on the Irish stage - and with the growth of the genre of the memoir-based, one-person show, there are more personal back-stories on display now than ever before. But you don't often come across many involving actual plans to go into space.

But then, Niamh Shaw's back-story is not typical. A number of years ago, she left behind a life in postdoctoral engineering research to become a performer, first as a traditional actor (in various TV and film roles including a stint in Fair City), although she now considers her work as more of a non-fiction type of performing ("I'm not a character," she says. "I'm myself at all times, and I do recreate parts of my past").

She creates pieces that merge science and theatre, such as the 2012 show That's About The Size of It, an interactive, partly biographical performance about the science that surrounds us.

Last week, she brought her most successful one-woman show, To Space - which she toured to Australia earlier this year - back to Dublin's Smock Alley. It's based on her experience of spending an entire year trying to become an astronaut, and, in the process, interviewing industry experts and successful astronauts.

But it's also about how somebody rediscovers their path in life, after becoming trapped in a deeply sensible academic career that was light years away from what she had imagined for herself as a sci-fi-mad child.

"I share how I got lost somewhere along the way and then have made attempts to come back. The idea really is to encourage people to think about what they want to do with their life. It's never too late," she says.

And her next show will take place on Mars. Eh, sort of. Next January, Shaw will be taking part in a simulation mission at the Mars Desert Research Station, based in the remote Utah desert. The station is an ongoing project that recreates the environment of the red planet, where researchers live in an isolated compound and carry out experiments to help prepare for exploration of Mars.

While her fellow crew members will be carrying out trials on how to use 3D printers to make bricks for space stations, Shaw will be writing a performance piece about a new civilisation - which she will then have to present outdoors in a space suit.

("It will be very quirky, won't it?" she says. "But that's the plan. Every time you go out you have to wear a space suit, and it has to be logged.")

Originally from Dundalk, Co Louth, Shaw grew up in Carlow, the third in a family of four that lived and breathed science. "It was everywhere - we talked science at dinner, we watched science fiction together, we watched David Attenborough. Science fiction and space for me seemed to be like where anything was possible, dreamland. Almost magic. So that's why I was like, 'I have to go to space'."

You can sense the zeal in the way she speaks - at great speed and with an affable, down-to-earth sort of enthusiasm. Which makes it no surprise at all that she's also heavily involved in events aimed at popularising science, and encouraging young women to consider a future in science, technology, engineering and maths - known as STEM.

"I started to realise when I was in the rehearsal room that whenever I started telling people stuff about science, it seemed to really pique their interest. I had this ability to explain science in a way that was simpler than how it was explained to me," she says.

And she's right. At one stage during the interview, she describes the alarming physical side-effects of space travel in memorably earthy fashion: "Suddenly you're weightless and you can't tell the difference between up and down. You've all these inner ear problems. Eating is hard, sleeping is hard, going to the loo is impossible. Washing your hair - forget that.

"Your fluids gather around the heart, which puts huge pressure on it. There's this feeling of pressure in your head all the time. Astronauts are pretty amazing people. They make it look like 'Oh, I'm weightless, it's fun'. They don't share with the world 'Oh my God, I feel like shit'."

Shaw likes to stress the relevance of science to people's daily lives, to counter its portrayal as a highly-formalised process, something that only takes place in a laboratory - a perception she feels puts many young people, especially girls, off studying it.

"This perception of what science is comes from it being taught in a very formal way and far too late - probably around 11 or 12 years of age - so you go into a room and you have a book and you have a lab coat and a bench. And it's all this stuff that's completely alien to your world, where you're texting and you're getting the bus and going shopping at the weekend, none of that stuff is in your day to day life. I'm always getting them to think about, well, science is in your phone, how your clothes are manufactured."

By the end of the interview, there's no sign of Shaw's enthusiasm flagging. As I'm packing up my dictaphone, she launches into a breakneck explanation of string theory - and you get the distinct impression she would happily continue the exposition for the rest of the day without stopping for breath.

It might just be possible that Niamh Shaw could make it to Mars on her own steam some day...

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