Some scientists are up for giving a lecture in a sunny field – but only Guerilla Science has the gumption to build a maze in the middle of the Hell zone in Glastonbury’s Shangri La field and fill it with rat scientists. Lloyd Ryan-Thomas – one of half a dozen immaculate actors fit for the task – tells us what it was like to stage our bravest experiment yet…

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Performing in Lab Rats was a unique experience most certainly. Glastonbury punters were largely very playful, delighted by finding themselves suddenly face-to-face with human size rats!

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We performed Lab Rats in both the afternoon and late into the night. The feel of the two was as distinct as heaven and hell. Shangri-La night-time was extraordinarily busy. There was edginess to the performances with audiences generally being either intoxicated or narcotised. We’d greet them with squeaks, sniffing, hugs, tickles and pats on the head.
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All this whilst conducting our raft of cognitive tests, as well as measuring various parts of the audiences anatomy.
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Some of the evening crowds were delightfully “tripped-out” by the experience, which itself places a certain responsibility on you as performer. I found myself thinking about how far to take it with certain audience members, realising they may not react so well if it seemed threatening, whereas the chemical affectation in others seemed fair grounds for really pushing the ratty interactions to near burlesque extremes. Late shifts were, in a nutshell, pretty crazy. Almost felt like anything could happen with the audience (indeed one tried to copulate with me in a cardboard box).

The afternoon crowds, by contrast, were delightfully mellow; they were full of smiles and willing to play. Kissed by ambient sunshine, the whole experience within the maze and cognitive testing area had an almost halcyon atmosphere. The more relaxed tempo meant we were able to more clearly bring out the story of the tests, the audience being much more clearly connected with the central premise, namely “am I dumber or smarter than a rat?”

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Every crowd was different from the previous, so we learnt quickly the things that would work well and what was just not possible based on the limitations imposed by the masks and the space. So, on that note, to the rat heads…

For several hours after each performance I could feel a sensory revenant of rat mask on my skin; it was intense. When you put on one of these wonderfully crafted masks you immediately become aware of how you have to adapt your physicality. The eyes of the rat were set on the top of the mask. The gauze through which we could see was located beneath the nose, so in order to maintain the illusion of the rat one had to figure out a way of seeing without seeing: keeping the head angled down so as to keep the rat’s eyes on the audience.

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You don’t want them thinking it’s just some human struggling to see through a mask!

They key to simulating a ratty physicality is to “be nosey”. The rat’s most important sensory apparatus are the olfactory system and the whiskers. Both are located, obviously, on the nose area. This was the point of first contact with the audience, plunging the snout into crevices and caressing faces with whiskers. Not really being able to see the majority of the punter’s body meant that we were running in a heightened mode. You had to gauge everything by fractions of sight and the sounds in the room; we worked with a number of aural cues so we’d know when it was time to wrap up the experience. It’s really quite wonderful to operate with that kind of restriction as you really do feel your senses and body becoming more, well, present to compensate for the sight deprivation. Your spacial awareness suffers a bit too in a rat mask. There were some collisions in the tight space, but that was easily spun into the whole thing of rats just having bad eyesight!

Overall, I’ll just say that I had a rat of a time! We all did, fascinating experience. Cheers Guerilla Science!

This project was generously supported by the Wellcome Trust.