What's a cell got to say?

Exploring cell biology through the art of monologue

Inspired by Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, the Talking Cells team had the idea to create monologues from the perspective of cells. Following the style and composition used by Bennett in his plays and TV scripts, the project explored cell biology through theatrical means in a two-week online workshop during the Cambridge Festival 2021.

An extract from Birgit Meldal's monologue, "Out of steam"

An extract from Birgit Meldal's monologue, "Out of steam"

An extract from Rebecca Finch's monologue, "Alpha Beta Gamma"

An extract from Rebecca Finch's monologue, "Alpha Beta Gamma"

An extract of Kaja Posnik's monologue, "Dear, Yours"

An extract of Kaja Posnik's monologue, "Dear, Yours"

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An extract from Birgit Meldal's monologue, "Out of steam"

An extract from Birgit Meldal's monologue, "Out of steam"

An extract from Rebecca Finch's monologue, "Alpha Beta Gamma"

An extract from Rebecca Finch's monologue, "Alpha Beta Gamma"

An extract of Kaja Posnik's monologue, "Dear, Yours"

An extract of Kaja Posnik's monologue, "Dear, Yours"

Frank Schwach: It all started when I was watching Talking Heads on the BBC at home and the brain started ticking: We’d previously explored the idea of theatre of the cells, where children enacted different genomic sequencing structures but, since we can’t do things in person, it has to be online.  Could we do cell monologues? 

Alena Pance: It was an exciting idea - I'm a cell biologist so for me it was a window to exploring this topic in a new way, peeping into cell types, their functions and mechanisms and then translating that into analogies to humans. I also thought that, further on, we could use the project to engage with patients, and help them communicate what they feel and what they hope for. Could this help them communicate with their families better? Better understand what they’re going through? 

Birgit Meldal: I wasn’t in the project from the start, unlike Alena and Frank. I joined the workshop that they organised for campus staff along with Sophie Utting, an experienced theatre coach. I thought some of the techniques used for monologues could help me when talking to a classroom, as I do lots of engagement with school children. That was my only interest at first. However, after the workshop, I felt I was bursting with ideas and the rest of the group encouraged me to put them down on paper. Then, when we did the Cambridge Festival Workshops I plucked up the courage and did my own video. It was slightly nerve-racking because it was so different from standing in front of a live audience, which I’m more used to. 

Rishi Nag: Very similar to Birgit - I got interested in the theatrical techniques, so got drawn in via the initial workshop. Then, enticed by the idea of creating my own video, I put that to paper and it just happened.  

James Blackshaw: I heard about the project off one of the public engagement newsletters or slack channels. And went - this sounds like absolutely my sort of thing! I really like acting and improvisation, and I just thought it was a really interesting project to do a short monologue where I had to personify what was going on in a given cell and make the public empathize with something that can't think.

Frank: Setting up the project was the best teamwork I've been involved with in a long time. Everybody contributed. We had people who were better focusing on the technical aspects - our very own IT team! Then we had people doing a little more on the organisational side or writing scripts.  Everybody had a chance to shape the final workshop which was delivered to the public during the Cambridge Festival in March 2021.

Rishi: James Blackshaw and Bishoy Wadie, other team members, turned up just when we needed them. I remember trying to sort the to-do lists and looking at it, the technical part of shifting videos around was a big question mark - how are we going to do this? James sorted this out, his knowledge of EMBL-EBI’s systems was a real benefit. 

Frank: We had other challenges, the most prominent quickly became safeguarding online. We needed as much interaction as possible between the panel and participants. However, we had to make sure that there wasn’t direct messaging between participants, as we might potentially have under 18s taking part; it was a real technical challenge. Without the right software to accommodate the needs of these workshops, it was really frustrating and took us to the point where we all asked: can we even do this?

Birgit: But we did it in the end! After endless hours of trying out online messaging tools, we settled for Discord, which allowed us to have a continued interaction with each other and the participants involved but to disable direct messaging. 

James: Discord worked, because we could instruct people to turn off private messaging on that server. It also let us control with user roles, who had access to voice rooms, so we could easily administrate things.

Rishi: Interestingly, what we came to realise, despite the safeguarding challenges, is that this project would not have worked in an in-person setting. There was so much going on, along with impromptu meetings and discussions. The fact that it was online gave a chance for people to stew over their ideas. When it’s in person, and you have a fixed time window, things can get a little rushed.

Frank: Absolutely! Trying to run this project in person would’ve been impossibly expensive with not just venue hire, but also having everybody with us for two whole weeks. In this way, we got the right people rather than going somewhere and expecting the right people to just happen to walk through the door. 

Rishi: I did get quite worried during the Cambridge Festival, when we launched the project. The number of people that signed up compared to the number of attendees… they just dropped steeply, from over 50 to 4. However, having (much) fewer people than expected was actually a blessing in disguise - we couldn’t have managed the amount of editing and support to a larger number of participants. 

An extract from Rishi Nag's monologue, "A sequence of unfortunate events"

An extract from Rishi Nag's monologue, "A sequence of unfortunate events"

An extract from Peter Crawford's monologue, "As Rod sees it"

An extract from Peter Crawford's monologue, "As Rod sees it"

An extract from Alena Pance's monologue, "The odd neighbour"

An extract from Alena Pance's monologue, "The odd neighbour"

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An extract from Rishi Nag's monologue, "A sequence of unfortunate events"

An extract from Rishi Nag's monologue, "A sequence of unfortunate events"

An extract from Peter Crawford's monologue, "As Rod sees it"

An extract from Peter Crawford's monologue, "As Rod sees it"

An extract from Alena Pance's monologue, "The odd neighbour"

An extract from Alena Pance's monologue, "The odd neighbour"

Frank:  I would never have expected the quality of the final videos either. The level of thought and subtlety in the scripts and video production was just mind blowing. There is one particular video, the rod cell video, which opened up a new avenue that I wouldn't have considered at first. You can very well build an entire lesson around it - it’s so full of subtle hints! It was really interesting to decode and find out what the actor is doing. Just by analysing it, you’d be learning about the rod cells in our eyes. You can easily envision a whole A-level lesson, being built around this video, which is fantastic. 

Birgit: We got encouraging feedback, from an A-level Biology teacher: as a result of working with us, he is thinking of bringing more of this into his own classrooms. We might have stumbled on an innovative way of exploring how science is taught to A-level students. It taps right into this craze for escape rooms and online riddles, looking for clues in the video and guessing, which cell can they possibly be talking about?

The project has taught me how to create a narrative. And I have already put into practice what I learnt. I did a short talk to primary school children some weeks ago and rather than describing bit by bit what I've done career-wise, I picked one element that I thought the children could engage with most and told the story about that project.

Alena: For me, it has definitely helped me think of different ways to communicate the research I do and to use analogies.  If you think of it, you realise that actually, in science you can also apply what we learnt from theatre structure:  You have a beginning, a development of a story and an end. And then, you also realise that any science project no matter the topic, needs milestones, it needs deliverables, and it needs outcomes. The same structure we have applied to our Talking Cells monologues!  

Watch the live broadcast of the Talking Cells monologues

Watch the live broadcast of the Talking Cells monologues

The Talking cells team would like to thank:

Sophie Utting, for being an amazing theatre coach

Steve Cross, for his excellent hosting of the live event