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Festival of the Spoken Nerd - Q&A with The Nerds
Festival of the Spoken Nerd is coming to the Wyvern Theatre on November 1st. Here's what you can expect from The Nerds themselves!
For anyone who hasn’t seen Festival of the Spoken Nerd before – what can they expect?
HELEN: It’s a live science comedy extravaganza with experiments guy Steve Mould, stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, and geeky science songstress Helen Arney (that’s me!). We tour a new show every few years, and this is our third: You Can’t Polish A Nerd.
STEVE: Yes we went there… But it’s not comedy *about* science and maths (though we are partial to the odd Venn diagram gag) it’s actual scientific experiments and mathematical demonstrations live on stage, plus statistically significant levels of laughter.
MATT: If you’ve seen us nearly setting fire to Alan Davies’ hair and electrifying Sandi Toksvig on BBC Two show QI, or heard the DIY experiments in our Radio 4 series ‘Domestic Science’, it’s basically a lot like that – but in 3D.
Who should come and see it? Is it just for nerds?
STEVE: It’s definitely not just for nerds! You don’t need a science or maths degree, and you don’t even need to have enjoyed those subjects at school. Anyone who has a bit of curiosity about the world around them, and enjoys watching a microwave being used inappropriately, is going to have a great time.
MATT: It’s true. Our audience range across the full spectrum of nerdiness, from hardcore programmers who are fluent in binary, to people who just like watching the Big Bang Theory – and everyone in between.
HELEN: My favourite thing is when someone only came to see the show to keep a nerdy friend company, but they finish the night saying “I’m still not sure I know what a nerd is, but I think I want to be one”. That’s when we know we’ve got it right.
And for anyone who’s seen you on tour before, what’s new about this show ‘You Can’t Polish a Nerd?
MATT: It’s an entirely new show – a lot of our audience come to every show we do so it has to be! In one part of the show I use a combination of mathematics, computer programming and geometry to high-five myself in another dimension. It’s pretty mind-blowing.
STEVE: I’ve got a bunch of experiments made out of stuff I found at home. One of them is a genuinely profound visual way to understand the almost ungraspable concept of black holes and gravitational waves: the discovery that was recently awarded a Nobel Prize. But instead of a lab full of equipment, I use an electric drill, some rollerskates and a sheet of latex. Don’t ask why I had those things just lying around at home...
HELEN: I sing all 118 elements of the periodic table in under 2 minutes. And I have a very funny song about bananas.
Why do you think science-comedy has become so popular?
STEVE: I think that people have always been interested in comedy that makes them think and also makes them laugh. The audience is out there but it doesn’t often get its teeth into shows like ours, especially outside London.
HELEN: A lot of my favourite comedians think like scientists. They’re not the ones who deal with stereotypes or make the jokes about the same topics as everyone else. They take a different path, picking away at what’s under the surface to find out why things are as they are, and why people do what they do. To me, that’s a very “science-y” way of looking at the world.
How do you go create your shows? Is it a team effort or do you work individually and then bring it together?
MATT: We try out individual stuff that has caught our imagination at new material nights, which we now call ‘An Evening Of Unnecessary Detail’ and do once a month at the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green. The bits that we like, and the audience like too, get developed into chunks of a new “Nerd” tour.
HELEN: We always finish every show with a big interactive musical extravaganza that involves little bits of everything that’s gone before. It’s impossible to write until everything else in the show is pretty much finished. So, just before we start a new tour, we lock ourselves in a rehearsal room with all our experiments for a week until the grand finale is ready. It’s a mad panic, but it’s always worked. So far…
What are your individual highlights from your time performing together?
MATT: I was the first person to use an overhead projector at the Hammersmith Apollo since Pink Floyd in the 1960s. It’s hard to top that. Although, they were using theirs for lighting effects. I was using ours for maths.
HELEN: My childhood dream of Blue Peter fame finally came true when I was asked to smash a wine glass with the power of my voice live on the programme. It’s something we did on our “Full Frontal Nerdity” tour and DVD, and on-stage I usually get two or three goes at singing the right note before I have to smash it. But Blue Peter is famous for being “Live At Five” so there was no time to get it wrong - and no second goes! The glass absolutely refused to smash all afternoon in rehearsals, so tensions were high in the studio just before we started broadcasting to the nation… If you go find the footage on YouTube, you’ll see that when it actually happen, the look of surprise on my face (and the faces of the presenters) is absolutely genuine. And yes, I did get a badge. My parents are very proud.
STEVE: An experiment that I did in our live shows and on youtube led to me having a scientific phenomenon named after me: The Mould Effect. It’s an odd one… If you collect a few meters of beaded chain (the type attached to a bath plug) in a jar, then let the end fall out, the whole chain will follow until the pot is empty. That’s pretty cool but had been demonstrated before with plastic beads. I discovered that if you use metal beads, something even more remarkable happens. The chain rises about half a meter into the air above the rim of the pot. The video I made about it was viewed by some academics in Cambridge who were interested in trying to explain the phenomenon. They called in the Mould Effect in passing but I’ve been dining out on it ever since.
Can you tell us a little about the first Festival of the Spoken Nerd Book - The Element In The Room?
STEVE: If you’ve ever wanted to do science experiments with stuff you have already in your kitchen cupboards, this is the book for you. It’s like what we do on stage but in book form and without Matt.
MATT: Yes. I’ve written a book before, so when the publisher approached us and said “do you want to write a book” I knew that the correct answer was “no”.
HELEN: Quite right. It’s been hell. But Steve and I love the result. Matt doesn’t because there “isn’t enough maths in it”. If anything, we think there’s too much...
What’s next for Festival of the Spoken Nerd?
STEVE: Our Radio 4 show got recommissioned! So we’re diving straight into recording another 4 episodes of Domestic Science after the tour. Expect more funny science you can try at home.
MATT: And we’ll keep doing You Can’t Polish A Nerd here and there of course, until we eventually commit it to DVD some time in 2018. That’s the end of the life cycle of a show.
HELEN: It’s dead to us after that. Or perhaps it just hibernates away in its dark plastic crysalis-like case, only to emerge into your DVD player one springtime as a beautiful, nerdy butterfly. Yeah. That’s a better image.
Festival of the Spoken Nerd are at the Wyvern Theatre on November 1st. Click here for further details.
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