(Another article from our INSIGHTS pre-2001 archives, this one by Loren Silber, that followed IMTAL's very first International Conference.)
It is a daunting task to sum up in one brief report IMTAL's first international festival and conference, "Museum Theatre into the Millennium," held in Boston this summer. An experience as rich and diverse as this one cannot be encapsulated in a few paragraphs, but this article will attempt to outline the basic structure of the event and some of the activities that transpired. First, congratulations are due to everyone who visualized, organized, and carried out the event, especially Catherine Hughes, Sheli Beck and the team at the Museum of Science where most of the conference took place. They all deserve a special round of applause for their massive expenditures of energy and skillful planning. The event exceeded expectations and we all came away loaded with new insights, information, and an exciting vision for museum theatre's role in the millennium.
The conference began with a very basic question posed by speaker Chris Ford of the National Railway Museum, UK. He asked, "Why are we here?". Why had over 80 theatre and museum professionals from places as distant as Bermuda, Panama, Canada, the UK, and at least 19 states in the US gathered together in Boston for four days in the middle of a hot and humid July? He suggested that we had come to Boston because we all believe that museum theatre should be a primary method of interpretation in museums and that our purpose in gathering was to figure out how to convince others that we are right! The question then became how to achieve this seemingly monumental goal. Answers did not come all at once, but over the next four days, a plan, a vision, a route towards major recognition and support was mapped out. There were many different paths to choose along the way; many sessions, roundtable discussions, performances, speakers, and social functions to select from, but each contained a clue, sometimes many clues, toward a way of bringing theatre into mainstream museum culture. In looking back over the events of the four days, I see several clearly defined ways in which we learned how to achieve this goal.
1. We must understand museum theatre in all its many forms and know when and how each form is most effectively used. Being able to watch the amazing array of performances (at least 14!) held at the Museum of Science, Children's Museum and U.S.S. Constitution Museum was a great start towards this goal. Talking with artists about the style and content of their performance was not only informational but inspirational. Theatrical forms we viewed included first-person interpretation, short scripted plays written expressly to enhance exhibits, interactive children's shows, puppetry, one person biographical plays, and musicals.
2. We must evaluate and assess our work with both qualitative and quantitative data. Museums and educational institutions need to see factual data on how museum theatre is affecting factors like museum attendance, students grades and test scores and revenue. Several of the roundtable discussions and sessions/workshops dealt with this issue and we were able to learn from session leaders like Dale Jones of the Institute for Learning Innovations how to go about presenting the value of our work in concrete terms to those who need hard proof. In another session, The Science Museum, London contributed the results of their evaluation report, "Enlightening or Embarrassing?" and its affect on their drama program.
3. We must know how to communicate to museum staff about our vision and the practical steps we will use to achieve it. Nothing could have illustrated this better than the "amusement" presented by some of the IMTAL board, which depicted the confusion created when a couple of extremely artsy and flamboyant theatre people team up with two stuffy and highly intellectual curators to produce a play about King Tut's Ball (as in orb, not dance). You can imagine the rest. In this case, a short theatrical piece taught us a lot about the inaccurate and sometimes slightly mistrusting ways museum and theatre people view one another and how necessary it is to improve communication, and learn one another's languages. The board's "amusement" turned out to be a perfect example of museum theatre presenting a controversial issue in a highly entertaining and educational manner!
4. We must handle the business side of museum theatre efficiently and professionally. Ever wondered about mini-grants? intellectual rights? Equity rules? shared copyrights? We must educate ourselves about contracts, budgets,
grants, marketing and all aspects of the business side of putting together a show. There were an abundance of events centered on this part of our work and we learned a lot of practical information from well-seasoned colleagues coming from a variety of backgrounds, who shared their experiences, resources and methods for success with us.
5. We must deliver a superior product to visitors and those who ask us to enhance their institutions offerings. This can mean several things. We must utilize the best playwriting skills for our medium with writers who understand the specific dictates of theatre performed in museums. Jon Lipsky, resident playwright at the Museum of Science, Boston was a great example. He conducted discussions and presented performances which demonstrated the kind of masterful writing needed to make museum theatre not only factually accurate and educational, but emotionally riveting and thought provoking. We must also carefully select and train actors who can develop and understand the specialized performance demands needed for our purposes. Andrew Ashmore and his team from the Museum of The Moving Image in London showed us an ideal picture of how this can work by demonstrating for us their highly systematic (and fun!) audition and training process which they use to find the most suitable performers for their in- house company of 18 first-person interpreters. And especially in the case of historical recreation, technical aspects of theatre like costuming, lighting, and set design, need to be addressed with the highest accuracy possible. Workshops centering on working with material resources were very helpful sources of information on that topic.
6. Finally, we must work with the community to develop supportive bonds, take advantage of resources, and reach out to new segments of the population, bringing them into the museum environment. We can take our examples from sites like Astors-Beechwood Mansion which works closely with the Cultural Tourism Department in Newport, RI and the Science Museum of Virginia's theatre program which has, under Artistic Director Larry Gard's guidance, formed partnerships with the local theatre community to create a mutual support system and bring mainstream theatre productions into the museum setting. Programs like The Health Museum of Cleveland's Curtain Call Youth Performance Ensemble and The Lower East Side Tenement Museum's "Origins Theatre Project" in conjunction with City Lights Youth Theatre in New York City work with young people from the area to create performances relevant to the museum's mission, school curriculum requirements, and the students own personal development and sense of achievement.
No one can accomplish these tasks alone. We must work together to achieve major recognition and acceptance in the museum world and of course, one of the primary goals of the conference was to get people together to network, talk, plan, and share resources. Luckily there was plenty of schmoozing time for these kinds of activities at special meals, a reception sponsored by the American Alliance for Theatre & Education, a resource marketplace, and the unforgettable Victorian Ball and Dinner at The Astors' Beechwood Mansion, where we were able to hobnob not only with one another over food and 19th century entertainments, but with the famous "Astor Family" so colorfully interpreted by the resident theatre company there. By day four, the initial seemingly simple question, "Why are we here?", had become about much more than just our reasons for attending the conference. The question had really expanded to the point of asking ourselves why we do this work in the first place. Perhaps no one addressed the question as eloquently as keynote speaker Rex Ellis, (Chair/Curator of Cultural History at the National Museum of American History) who reminded us that we are here because we all have a story to tell and that the way to knowledge and collective healing is through the telling of all our stories. We, as members of a profession, which strives to educate and enlighten the public, are caretakers of those stories and it is our job to make them heard. What better way to draw people in and tempt them to listen than by telling our stories in the most personal, captivating ways possible, ways that spark interest and a desire to discover more. I believe that is what we do as museum theatre practitioners and "why we are here".
At the time of publication, Loren Silber was a museum educator in New York City and Secretary of the IMTAL Board.