"Have you ever had one of those moments, when Ping! A lightbulb seems to come on above your head and you suddenly understand something in a way you never did before? Well I had and it totally changed the way I look at the world."
One Giant Leap is an impossible attempt to bring the whole universe into a theatre and into our understanding, using a tennis ball, a wastepaper basket and a dash of theatrical invention. Iain Johnstone’s passionate solo performance takes us on a spin through the solar system and the history of humanity’s relationship with the heavens - and then back down to Earth.
‘Your performance was really fun to watch and I don’t think I’ve ever learned so many things in a single hour, you really opened my eyes.’ Primary 7 pupil
Funny and serious, intelligent and silly, theatre and lecture, cosmic and personal, One Giant Leap is a true story about what we take for granted and about what we choose to ignore.
One Giant Leap was part of the Made in Scotland showcase at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has just completed a UK autumn 2014 tour.
|Written, directed and performed by||Iain Johnstone|
|Technical Manager||Andy Gannon/Jonny Reed|
|Stage Manager||Sooz Glen/Gary Morgan|
|Education Pack||Cerin Richardson|
|Image by||Fogbank Projects|
|Original concept by||Andy Cannon, Iain Johnstone and David Trouton for Wee Stories in coproduction with the National Theatre of Scotland|
- Edinburgh Spotlight
- Edinburgh Reporter
- Broadway Baby
- The Guardian
- The Scotsman
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- The Stage
A Wee Stories performance always brings high expectations of quality, but One Giant Leap at Summerhall meets and exceeds these in one impassioned somersault.
Taking place in an old lecture room, this one man performance is inventive and exciting, and brims over with information and moments of laugh out loud comedy. Most of all, it leaves its audience stimulated to go out and engage their own spirit of scientific curiosity.
The story begins with a premise which will be all too familiar to the parents and pre-teens in the audience: a son confronting his dad with an unopened school science project due in the following day. What develops is what Wee Stories describe as part lecture and part theatre, as dad (Iain Johnstone, who also wrote the piece and directs it) becomes caught up in a personal voyage of discovery about the history of how we understand, and feel about, the universe, from earliest times to the present day. Its heroes, rediscovered and described by dad, are the individuals who took a giant intellectual leap to challenge the status quo of their day and propose new ideas about the stars.
At the heart of the story, though, is its championing of curiosity – what makes us human. The play encourages its young audience to explore and understand our universe – and to see our individual responsibility for the effects we have on our own world. It’s striking that the play is as interested in the forces which have attempted to stifle scientific curiosity as the people who have pursued it.
Iain Johnstone is wonderful as dad, unfolding the experience of his ‘light bulb moment’ with energy, excitement, intelligence and passion. He uses simple household objects and basic pieces of costume to illustrate the wonders of the universe with great inventiveness. The magic of the production is, however, a synthesis of creative and technical input. A blackboard behind dad is the base for really captivating visual effects which are integrated seamlessly into the performance, including brief interludes of film and music, and there’s a backdrop of beguiling music from David Trouton. Hats off also to the interpreter who kept perfect pace with Iain Johnstone at the BSL interpreted production we attended.
It’s a mix which is well designed to appeal to the 10+ age-group at which it’s aimed, and for whom it gets slightly more challenging to find engaging theatre at the Fringe. At an hour and ten minutes my ten year old found it just slightly too long, although this was the result of the rather cramped and uncomfortable seats rather than of boredom. And he does want to see the show again.
With its combination of inventiveness, discovery, comedy and multi-media effects, and the endlessly fascinating subject matter of our universe, this is a show which informs and entertains both parents and young people. It will continue to stimulate long after you leave the lecture room.
Family friendly theatre is not always easy to find in a festival saturated with comedy, but if that’s what you want this August look no further than One Giant Leap, a theatrical storytelling event for adults and kids aged 10+ running at Summerhall.
‘Have you ever had one of those moments, when Ping! A lightbulb seems to come on above your head and you suddenly understand something in a way you never did before?’ asks Iain Johnstone, standing before us in an old lecture theatre lined with the kind of seats that were designed with posture and not comfort in mind. ‘I have, and it totally changed the way I look at the world.’
Johnstone’s lightbulb moment came from a project on the moon landing that – theoretically, at least – his son was working on for school. However, as most parents will know, the end result with homework like this is often dependent on how interested Mum or Dad is in the project! Starting with the notion that he had to find out more about space, Johnstone tells the story of how his research spiralled outwards until he’s giving an exploration of the history of ideas. This might sound like a weighty concept for a kid’s show, but in the hands of Wee Stories (in coproduction with the National Theatre of Scotland) it all seems effortless.
The show travels through time, from the Big Bang to Aristarchus (not so bonkers) and Ptolemy (kind of an idiot), then to Copernicus and Brahe, and back to the moon landing before asking young viewers to think about what might be next for our one in a million planet earth.
Those who have seen Wee Stories before will already know they are excellent storytellers, and with One Giant Leap they continue to impress. The show weaves together factual narrative with music by David Trouton, technical effects (including a magic blackboard) by Andy Gannon, and a healthy dose of audience interaction to create a magical, immersive and educational experience. Banter between Johnstone and Stage Manager Sooz Glen adds a sense of fun and intimacy to the show, and there are echoes of the sort of silliness you’ll find in Horrible Histories so that although there is a serious message here, it’s never preachy.
Perfect viewing for families, thinkers, or just for those who want to understand the universe.
There, in the midst of the darkness, sits the earth, glowing eerily, surrounded by silence. Slowly, the light rises and we meet our storyteller - he's that embarrassing 50-something Dad who still wears a hoodie and makes us do our homework.
Written, directed and performed by Iain Johnstone, this was an exceptional solo performance, covering the history of civilization and the evolution of astronomy, all in seventy minutes. It's about numbers. Big numbers. Mind boggling numbers, which Johnstone tries to help us imagine using a visually stimulating combination of toys (globe, solar system), sports equipment (tennis balls) and a very clever blackboard.
We journeyed from ancient civilisation through to the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines, discovering the origins of the day, month and the year, the planets and the stars. The Dark Ages heralded in a time when the church reigns over science and Johnstone played a sinister monk, complete with said hoodie. We heard about Aristarchus, Copernicus, Ptolemy, Marco Polo, Galileo and many more. There were moments of high drama, lights, darkness, music - everything from Johnny Cash to Zorba the Greek. The total eclipse of the sun is particularly stunning and at times, it was rather like being in a planetarium.
The performance flagged a bit at Ptolemy, with far too much information for an adult brain, never mind a child’s. There was some shuffling of feet (probably the adults), but no yawns and somehow we made it through the next two thousand years and back to where we started. The performance is enclosed beginning and end by the 1969 moon landings, rather like the way the ancients imagined the solar system encased in concentric celestial spheres. Beyond this, it's enclosed once again by our geeky Dad's ponderings over our damage to the planet. It makes you think.
Wee Stories bill the show for ages ten plus but there were several younger children there. Leander, aged five years, was laughing hysterically for the first 15mins and survived to the end, but he’s possibly a genius in the making. There was a little audience participation, but it was just a tease. A lot more interaction and a trim of the script would make this a five star show.
19 September 2008
Professor Michael Reiss should have bided his time. Instead of causing all that hullabaloo over creationism in science lessons, the Royal Society's now ex-director of education should simply have prescribed One Giant Leap for every school in the land. Though the head-spinning production by Wee Stories and the National Theatre of Scotland does not address creationism head on, in its humanist inquiry into 2,500 years of scientific thinking about space, it persuasively argues that the greatest enemy of knowledge is foundationless religious dogma.
The giant leap of the title is a reference to the small step taken by Neil Armstrong nearly 40 years ago when he set foot upon the moon. But the giant leaps that most interest performer Iain Johnstone are those taken by history's freethinkers, the people who upturned religious and scientific orthodoxy to present a new vision of our place in the cosmos.
The hero of his story is Aristarchus of Samos, the ancient Greek astronomer who suggested the Earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun. It was an idea that remained at best forgotten, at worst heretical, for 1,700 years, until Copernicus thought he'd give it another spin. Those ideas inspired Giordano Bruno, a rebel Dominican friar, who was burned at the stake for his ungodly beliefs only 400 years ago. There is real anger in Johnstone's performance as he describes the church's stranglehold on knowledge, while back projections make an ironic link between the flames that destroyed Bruno to the burn that propelled Apollo 11.
As if mocking themselves for their own lecture-room earnestness, Johnstone and his collaborators Andy Cannon and David Trouton present the show before a school blackboard next to a library of forbidding books. It is a classroom of the imagination, however, one in which the chalk stars magically move across the black emptiness of space and in which a teacher describes the size of the solar system in terms of an unfurling toilet roll.
Wee Stories has produced more joyful shows, and some of Johnstone's jokes are tentative. But any play that requires the audience to join in a plainsong chant about the Earth being at the centre of the universe gets my vote. As with the company's The Emperor's New Kilt earlier this year, the inspirational message is that sceptical inquiry is more wondrous than blind faith.
19 September 2008
The last time Scotland’s brilliant children’s company Wee Stories tackled Macbeth, they took less than 90 minutes not only to perform a respectable chunk of the play, but also to confront the vexed question of the conditions in which it was written, and the pressure on Shakespeare to produce a version of Scottish history that would flatter the dynastic pretensions of his new monarch, King James VI and I.
So it’s joy to discover that Wee Stories’ latest community-hall touring show One Giant Leap – co-produced with the National Theatre Of Scotland – brings the same fierce, unpretentious intellectual energy to bear on the history of humankind’s relationship with the stars. The 75-minute story begins with Wee Stories’ usual air of improvised casualness, as Iain Johnstone, as an ordinary post-modern guy facing his 50th birthday, starts to help his son with a school project about the moon.
It gradually builds, though, into a tremendous small-scale history of ideas; and what emerges is an impassioned 21st-century elegy for the age of enlightenment, that traces the relationship between humanity and the heavens from the earliest days of Greece and Rome, through the religious oppression of the Dark Ages, to the thrilling age of modern scientific investigation and progress which, forty years ago, finally took men to the moon, and to the realisation that our jewel-like earth, as seen from space, represented our best hope of paradise all along.
The script still needs some trimming and stabilising, particularly around its angry, over-verbalised ending. But the simple action – delivered with co-creators Andy Cannon and David Trouton, on a stage full of jumbled books and props – is backed by a dark screen capable of small but startling visual effects. And there’s something about that collision between basic poor theatre and unobtrusive technology that sums up the whole magic of Wee Stories; one of the least showy companies around, and yet one of the most quietly ambitious, when it comes – even on a damp night in Fort William – to leaving your audience shaken, stirred, and changed for good.
19 September 2008
Wee Stories theatre company and the National Theatre of Scotland opened their latest co-production, One Giant Leap, amidst considerable anticipation. Their previous joint presentation, the award-winning The Emperor's New Kilt, enjoyed audience and critical acclaim north and south of the border.
However, One Giant Leap is a world away from the Edinburgh company's Caledonian version of Hans Christian Anderson's tale of regal hubris. A modest three hander it may be, but, in its attempts to explain the origins of life, the universe and everything to children as young as 10, it is possibly one of the most ambitious works of children's theatre ever created.
Opening, appropriately enough, to the dramatic sound of Mars from Gustav Holst's The Planets, the piece is played on a set which is part school classroom, part astronomer's study.
We see images from the historic Apollo space mission in 1969 and then, just as we expect an astronaut to arrive on stage, we're introduced to a 49-year old dad in jeans and trainers.
It's a smart conceit. The father, played by Iain Johnstone, engages with the history of astronomy when his son announces that he has a school project on the planets to do. The problem is the deadline for his homework is tomorrow.
We follow the man as he goes through his "mid-life Renaissance". With wild eyed enthusiasm, he teaches himself about the accumulation of knowledge - from the Greek astronomer Aristarchus, through Copernicus to Galileo - that finally displaced the Earth from the position given to it, by Ptolemy and the great religions, at the centre of the universe.
Friday 26 September 2008
With many small steps and plenty of inventive insights, Iain Johnstone sets out on the simple journey of helping his son write a project on the moon. Telling this straight to the audience is classic Wee Stories storytelling territory - albeit one that is put slightly out of kilter with his voice amplified into the soundscape - as Johnstone begins to question how humankind succeeded in working out not just that the earth is a sphere, but exactly how big it is.
Such ruminations need a little something extra if they are not to descend into the quagmire of pontificating lecture. Fortunately, Andy Cannon is on hand to do any necessary pontificating - he manipulates tennis balls, grains of sand and rolls of toilet paper to give reality to the fantastic size of the galaxy.
This is not about to stop at the moon, however. Johnstone is soon undertaking a journey that brings the history of rational thought to life. There are some blips - audience participation in plainsong chanting to highlight the Church’s of Ptolemy’s “pants” ideas about a geocentric universe becomes too long-winded, but is basically sound.
The finale is worth waiting for. As all the various props used over the 80 minutes are brought together to create a lunar landing craft, with the Earth floating in the backcloth. Johnstone twists the whole production round to say something very strong indeed about us and our relationship with our planet. Earth. One in a billion.