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  • 01 Sep 2021 7:25 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    How the 2017 IMTY Award led to a fruitful community partnership — and eventually, a gift of cherry trees to the Gillette Castle State Park.

    By Kandie Carle 

    Cherry tree with white blossoms is growing in front of a body of water. People stand around the water and in grass in the background.

    Never underestimate the power of museum theatre to motivate and inspire! It may seem that we are often pushing a snowball uphill, backwards, and in high heels, but when you see the ultimate impact of the effort, it is not only rewarding, but humbling as well.

         When IMTAL visited Gillette Castle State Park and conferred the 2017 IMTY Award to site supervisor  Phil Yuris, well-deserved attention was paid to the efforts to promote creative options for interpretation onsite with the use of live theatre. At the awards ceremony, Connecticut State Representative Melissa Ziobron awarded Yuris and the East Haddam Stage Company (EHSCO) official citations from the State General Assembly in recognition of our value to the community.

    This spotlight went a far distance in legitimizing our work when noted in EHSCO’s grant application to the Connecticut Office of the Arts. The grant was for the creation of an original one -man show on Yukitaka Osaki, who had been an integral, yet quiet, part of life when the ‘Castle’ was home to famous actor/playwright William Gillette, best known for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage. Osaki’s brother had been the mayor of Tokyo and was responsible for the gift of the famous cherry trees from Japan to Washington, D.C., in 1910. The spring blossoms of those Cherry trees have been a delight for the city for over 110 years.

    EHSCO received the grant and produced the show, which premiered onsite in September of 2018. Read the story below for what happened next……and how the Japan Society of Greater Hartford would ultimately give a precious gift to the park…

    As told to Kandie Carle by Masamichi Hongoh, Secretary, JSGH:

    The Japan Society of Greater Hartford (JSGH) had always wanted to plant cherry trees somewhere in Connecticut. In Japan, people visit the trees to see their beautiful blossoms during the spring season, at parks, old castles, schools, or along the riverbanks. For them, it is a time to share the joy of living. In Connecticut, however, we only occasionally see these gorgeous blossoms on private properties. There is nowhere for the public to enjoy them.

    In early 2018, Kandie Carle contacted JSGH to help with her research for the upcoming production of her one-man drama on the life of Yukitaka Osaki, titled Osaki-san, William Gillette's Gentleman Valet. The play is based on the life of Yukitaka Osaki, who was valet, confidante, secretary and friend to the famous Sherlock Holmes playwright and actor, William Gillette. Carle had received an artist's grant from the Connecticut Office of the Arts to produce the play, which would premiere at the park in September 2018. She told us that Yukitaka Osaki's brother was Yukio Ozaki, the famous Japanese politician and onetime Mayor of Tokyo, who facilitated the donation of 3000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C., in 1910. Yes, THE famous Washington, D.C., Cherry Trees! (The reason for the last name spelling difference is unclear, but we know that Yukitaka signed his name Osaki, with an s.) We had previously been unaware that there was a Connecticut connection to that great statesman.

    The experience of JSGH seeing EHSCO's show onstage at Gillette Castle State Park prompted the desire to plant cherry trees there, at the park, in memory of William Gillette and Yukitaka Osaki. When the plan to donate the trees to Gillette Castle as well as to Osaki-san’s burial place was presented to JSGH, a member suggested that we try to get cherry trees from Japan. But we had no experience on the importation of trees from Japan.

    Through a chain of contacts, we learned that the 3rd generation of the Washington, D.C., cherry trees are actually grown in Sagamihara, the Osaki brothers’ hometown! We had hoped that 100 young Yoshino trees from the nursery would arrive in the U.S. by early 2019. However, we learned that exporting trees from Japan to the U.S. is difficult. Moreover, JSGH is a not-for-profit, small organization of about 150 members and the funding was a real concern. 

    Checking on the regulations, we found that in certain cases trees can be imported from Japan with permission from the USDA, and would include a period of quarantine.

    Fortunately, the young trees offered from Sagamihara Japan were rather small and the cost was attractive, but we still had to follow strict instructions by the USDA to export them to the U.S., and the cost of transportation was the biggest unknown.

    In early 2019, we received a nice surprise from Dr. Foster at USDA. He was impressed by the importance of the 3rd generation of Washington, D.C., cherry trees and kindly offered to pay for the transportation. Quarantine would take place outside of Baltimore Maryland at a USDA facility. We were very encouraged by this news. JSGH was now closer to our goal. Subsequently, JSGH received funds from individual donors to aid in getting the trees to the States.

    Twenty-two young Yoshino cherry trees from Sagamihara, Japan, survived the journey and arrived at Dr. Foster’s facility in March of 2019 for quarantine. Dr. Foster discovered a few viruses in the trees, which he told us would be removed, but would take time. He also suggested a graft to propagate the trees to healthy rootstocks for 2021.

    In October of 2020 JSGH decided to go ahead with phase one of the project by purchasing additional cherry trees from a local Connecticut nursery and planting them at Gillette Castle State Park in a few spots: around the pond, near the Castle itself, and at Osaki’s house on the Connecticut River (Yukitaka Osaki was an avid gardener). We hope the cherry trees and their beautiful blossoms will be out for everyone to enjoy in the spring of 2021! Phase two of the project will be carried out when the trees from Japan are out of quarantine. Some of those trees will also be planted at Yukitaka’s gravesite, Cove Cemetery in Hadlyme, Connecticut.

    Postscript from Kandie Carle of the East Haddam Stage Company:

               The trees flowered in Spring of 2021, to the delight of everyone. A celebratory picnic took place, and the Japan Society of Greater Hartford along with the East Haddam Stage Company thank the park crew for their care of the trees. They look very healthy and happy to be at Gillette Castle State Park. 

    The gift of these cherry trees and ultimately the addition of those imported from the hometown of the Ozaki brothers is a testament to the power of the arts to bolster and ignite the coming together of cultural partnerships like that of the JSGH, EHSCO and a state park. Osaki-san, William Gillette's Gentleman Valet based on the life of Yukitaka Osaki (1865-1942) with actor Taku Hirai as Osaki has played multiple venues throughout the Northeast, was selected for New York City's Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre's 2020 NuWorks festival, and will continue touring once pandemic restrictions have been lifted.


    Meet the Author:

    Kandie Carle is the Producing Artistic Director of the East Haddam Stage Company, East Haddam, Connecticut. She is in residence at Gillette Castle State Park, also in East Haddam.

  • 19 Apr 2021 8:40 PM | Anonymous

    The winner of 2019’s Lipsky Award for Excellence in Playwriting was Betsy Maguire for her play “Tales from the Dungeon: Life at Newgate.” This script, created for presentation at The Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine in East Granby, Connecticut, is playful and humorous but does not shy away from the darker history of Newgate. It employs four historic characters, including a notorious counterfeiter, a murderess, a preacher and an abusive prison keeper. Two fictional characters, a prison guard and his wife, round out the cast and provide levity and interaction with the audience. The play is based on over twenty sources and was presented in the open, one-acre prison yard, using the brick ruins as the perfect backdrop for live theatre. Member-at-Large and former IMTAL President Douglas Coler sat down last fall to chat with Betsy to learn more.

    IMTAL President Todd D Norris presents the Lipsky Award to Betsy Maguire at the 2019 IMTAL ConferenceDoug: We first met during the IMTAL conference in Connecticut in 2017, at Mark Twain House. You and the team were presenting character tours there.
    Betsy: I started as a historic interpreter and I was there for about five years total. Around three years in, the Executive Director was very interested in creating theater in the space. She thought it would be fun to do a nighttime event over a couple of weekends with the servant staff in the house in character. Anybody on staff who had theater on their resumé was invited to create their own little piece to do at this event. I created Lizzie the gossipy maid, which was based on a young girl in the House back in Twain's time. The Executive Director loved it and asked if I would create a program that could be done on a daily basis in the house. I was hired to create their living history programs, which I loved doing. After two years I left the program in good hands and went on to do freelance work.

    Having taken the character tour, I honestly can't imagine touring the house in any other way.
    Spending an hour with an actor in character really isn't for everyone, but, to me, it makes it very personal. Some of the scripts I wrote were very emotional and some were funny, and I thought we had a great response to it. With six characters going at once I made sure there was no overlap in information. I thought that was important. What we were trying to do was get people, especially local people, to come back to the house and not just say, "Oh I've seen that house. I don't have to go back.” We wanted people to visit and then revisit. I was very careful not to make anything redundant within the scripts I wrote. It's not that I didn't mention the same people, but the various characters spoke very differently about certain events and rooms and things like that.

    So how did the Newgate script come about?
    It wasn't too long after I decided to go off on my own [that] I got my first gig. Morgan Bengel of the Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine approached our local theatre company and said, “We're reopening after nine years of being dark, and I would like to have visitors come and stay at the prison ground longer than 15 minutes to just read the placards, go down into the mines, and be on their way. Maybe if there was theatre going on, they would stick around and learn some more, and the local theatre company could perform.”

    So the prison itself had been closed for more than nine years ?
    Connecticut has four state museums and it's one of the four. They had all been closed for a while -- I believe Newgate definitely had been for nine years. So the question became, How long am I going to give myself? Because I knew nothing about it, I had never been there, I didn't know anything of the history, but there was so much information to absorb! Morgan was very helpful giving me things. Whole books were written about some of the prisoners. Connecticut has a very old and rich history and people love to write about it. I had plenty to read, and thank goodness for the Internet. I always say I don't know how people wrote pre-internet. I really don't. I had to put a pin in it and say, Well after a month or a month and a half I'm just going to stop reading and start writing.

    The obvious thing I could have written about but didn't is that Newgate was thought to be escape-proof, but people escaped left and right. My original thought was something kind of lighthearted and funny about how people got out of those mines. Then I realized there was this very interesting time period, a couple of years before it closed, where these characters that I was reading a lot about were all there at the same time, including one of their only female prisoners. I thought Okay, I'm just going to set it right in that month and then I can write about all these people and the murderess. All I had was a newspaper article about her trial and that was it pretty much. That's fun to me: to take very little information but use it as much as you can. I met with Morgan Bengel in February and delivered her the script in May, and we began rehearsals in June. The first performance was July of 2018. They did it again this year [2019] without me, which I thought was great.

    You said that some of the descendants of the characters in this script have seen the show?
    One of the characters was a notorious counterfeiter. He was a braggart and wrote in his own autobiography that he faked an injury to get released from prison. He was just a funny guy. One of his descendants came and then came again and brought family members -- and I think came again this past summer. I was nervous because he introduced himself to me before the show. I really poked fun at this guy -- I mean, it was just that kind of character, it was easy to have some fun with it. I thought, Oh my gosh I hope he doesn't revere this guy or think that I'm being terrible. But he loved it. He laughed, he thought it was funny, he seemed to really like it and not be offended at all.

    And you're working on a radio drama now?
    There's a company here called Herstory Theater and they produce various historical shows. Actress/Playwright Virginia Wolf, who runs it, does a one woman show called Panic in Connecticut about the witch trials. Every year she presents It's a Wonderful Life as a live radio drama as if it were being done in the 1940s. I've been part of that as an actor. Next year she would like to do four spooky one-acts set in a radio studio in the 1940s. She asked for playwrights who live in Connecticut to each contribute a piece to it.

    I like getting different things. One of the historical societies in town is doing an exhibit called The Road to Equality next year, so I'll be working on that [as well]. I'm concentrating on the women's suffrage movement and [they] asked me to tie a play to their exhibit which I've actually never done before. I'm at the point where I am able to and feel very lucky that I can turn down work. I've done so three times in the last two years for various reasons, but a lot of history is men and boys fighting and I'm just, like, ...I don't care about that. So when The Road to Equality came along, I said now you're talking! I also feel very strongly that certain stories require and deserve a writer who is personally tied to the history. Native history, for example… I feel that they should have a Native writer. I mean, who am I to try and dramatize the struggles of Native life?

    Did you always know this is what you wanted to do, or did you come to writing later?
    Oh, I was a computer science major. I worked for IBM. That was my career. So no, no.

    So how did this first happen?
    When we moved to Simsbury in 1992 I had twins and then another daughter and my husband was traveling quite a bit internationally. I started to get into community theater and was really enjoying it. Our kids were too little to be left all the time and I wanted to keep my hand in the theater. We're a pretty small community in Connecticut. There's a very active, lovely community of actors here, and I wanted to stay involved. I decided, well, I could write for theater and that'd be fun, right?. I had never written before but I was a voracious reader... I think I've read every single play that's on the shelves in our library. So that's how I learned. I saw a notice that the Association for Theater and Higher Education was sponsoring this national playwriting contest for 30- to 40-minute plays. I wrote a play in 2002 called Heart Suspended and it came in second. I thought, Oh this is fun. Maybe I'll just do this now. I started writing one act plays and they were getting into festivals and being performed and I was going to see them, and it was really fun.

    Your first IMTAL conference as an attendee was at Indianapolis Children's Museum, who do amazing work.
    And the theater, I thought, was off the charts. I thought it was absolutely wonderful. The whole place is great. It was an unexpected place to see such poignant theatre being done. Honestly I thought it was going to be all bubbles and magnets. You know it's the children's museum. Yes, it was terrific.

    But I'm so thrilled that you are now part of this organization and I'm thrilled that you can help us spread the word. I'm just delighted that you found us and we found you. Thank you, and congratulations again on the Lipsky award!

    Meet The Lipsky Winner:

    Headshot photo of Betsy MaguireBetsy Maguire is a freelance writer specializing in grant-funded plays and unconventional theatre spaces. She created the Living History pro-gram at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, writing scripts and training actors to portray members of Mark Twain’s family and servant staff. Other nonprofit and history organizations Betsy has worked with include the Simsbury Historical Society, Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine, the New England Air Museum and the Theatre Guild of Simsbury. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild and the International Museum Theatre Alliance.

  • 19 Apr 2021 8:36 PM | Anonymous

    By Fiona Meagher

    Screenshot of Zoom gallery during the virtual conference

    I attended the “IMTAL at 30” conference in a cabin nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. Fellow board members joined sessions from New York City and the Midwest. Some attendees enjoyed the spring weather of Melbourne and Auckland while others joined from the wee hours of a European night. It wasn’t what we’d expected when we started planning for our 30th anniversary, but what a delight it was to bring together so many different faces from different time zones across the branches of our truly International Museum Theatre Alliance. We were able to see our community join in debate, discussion, celebration, nostalgia, and imagination, in a year full of great personal, professional, and societal challenges.

    After Catherine Hughes’s remarks, attendees -- both IMTAL members and newcomers to our community -- jumped immediately into discussion with our founder. What are the biggest obstacles facing museum theatre practitioners? How do we fund our work, especially this year? What’s the biggest win you’ve seen for museum theatre in the past 30 years? Catherine expands on some of these queries in the post-script to her remarks.

    Next, a quick jaunt into small breakout rooms allowed us to connect with new and old friends. After introductions and some chat, my breakout room bonded over a love of Halloween, morbid histories, and costumes. Look out for the spooky international collaboration, coming at you someday…

    Presentations from IMTAL Asia-Pacific followed, led by President Jo Clyne, with a focus on the professional and mental health challenges faced by museum theatre practitioners, as well as the resilience shown by colleagues in the field. IMTAL Asia-Pacific Vice President Patrick Helean of Questacon, Jo Brookbanks of the Auckland Museum, Michael Mills of Heaps Good Production, Barry Kay of Sovereign Hill, and performer Nigel Sutton shared stories about the work they’ve done both on and off site in the past year. They gave many of us in the U.S. who are still under shutdown a glimpse of what reopening our museums might look like. Their insights included ways to navigate institutional prioritization of revenue-generating programs, creative solutions to performing live under health and safety restrictions, and effective methods of virtual programming.
    Thursday night ended with a charming slideshow of conferences past. As a newer member of the organization and of the museum theatre field, it was moving to see how many compatriots I’ve had over the years and to hear a bit more
    of our history. It put quite a few places on my “Museums to Visit” list, too!
    Day Two brought us a Shakespearean presentation from Chair Angela Pfenninger of IMTAL Europe. We heard about the tragedy of the IMTAL Europe conference in March, which suffered from coinciding with the introduction of travel restrictions across the continent. But we also witnessed comedy (the Virtual Pub Crawl of IMTAL Europe) and of course the histories (creative virtual theatre content produced by members). Like Asia-Pacific and Americas members, European museum theatre practitioners faced closures, loss of jobs, and lackluster social safety nets. Angela left us with an invitation to read this newsletter’s sister publication, Insights Europe, available online, and with a note to look out for information on the 2021 IMTAL Global Conference which, hopefully, will take place in person in Athens, Greece this fall.

    Next up was a duo of delightful presentations on projects in Philadelphia and in Muncie, Indiana. Paul Taylor and David Wrigley presented on “Science After Hours”, a series at the Franklin Institute. Before the building temporarily closed in March, this series of adults-only themed programming combined demos, activities, quizzes, and refreshments.

    Paul and David incorporated museum theatre into these events and enjoyed the freedom to, in their words, “get weird” with pieces about booze, sex, and love. Clips from “Cosmos” and “Tesla’s Dream” showcased a wonderful union of musical talent, artistic video projections, and an electrifying dance sequence inspired by the history of electricity.

    We then chilled with Bob Ross -- I mean, IMTAL Americas Treasurer Mason Absher. His institution, Minnetrista, launched the “Bob Ross Experience'' in the onsite classroom where soothing painter Ross’s show, The Joy of Painting, was filmed in the 1980s. Minnetrista links objects, Bob Ross originals and other media, a life-size 80s living room, and occasional Bob Ross painting classes in an interactive and immersive experience. The Experience opened to great acclaim and remains open with health and safety precautions in place. Other happenings at the site include pivoting from their usual traveling theatre shows to a podcast exploring the historic book collection owned by the Ball family who once lived at Minnetrista. Adaptation, always!

    We ended our conference with odes to the projects we lost to 2020 and with the “Idea Thunderdome” -- an open discussion about where museum theatre might and should go, both during and after this unique historical moment. As IMTAL President Todd Norris put it, “What happens from here?” Fears, hopes, predictions, and creative solutions flew. The final 90 minutes or so featured a robust discussion of museum theatre’s role in perpetuating and combating systemic and interpersonal racism. The ever-present question of who gets to tell whose stories, and when, sparked deep discussion. There were no brilliant final answers or consensus formed over our practices, but common ground and new perspectives were found. It was clear to me that our field has both a renewed commitment to racial justice and quite a bit of work to do to reckon with our nations’ and our institutions’ pasts.

    Just like an in-person conference where we find ourselves in eager discussion at hotel bars long after formal sessions have wrapped, many of us stayed on Zoom far longer than scheduled, and surely many more wished we could have had more time together. I look forward to meeting all of you again in person someday, but this conference proved that distance and a pandemic can’t prevent us from forming meaningful, productive connections. Stay safe.

  • 19 Apr 2021 8:13 PM | Anonymous

    At the “IMTAL at 30” annual conference, held virtually in November 2020, Founder Catherine Hughes opened proceedings with a keynote address that invoked memories while looking ahead to our future as museum theatre professionals and as an organization. Printed here is a written version of those remarks and Catherine’s Postscript.

    By Catherine Hughes

    Group of 23 people gathered in a group in four rows, with the front two sitting on the floor of in a pink and purple lit space. Text on image reads "Get Crititcal: Forging the Future of Museum Theatre" conference attendees celerbate at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, 2019."

    Greetings to those reading this from the United States, Australia, and Europe and hello to everyone from wherever you are reading. I was touched to be asked to speak at this conference, celebrating 30 years of an organization that has created a community of museum theatre practitioners who have buoyed each other in dark times, challenged each other in good times, and inspired each other always. One of the goals I remember having at the beginning when I was forming IMTAL was to show people that there were others that thought as they did, that they were not alone in this idea that theatre could have a place in museums, that they weren’t crazy! That community has sustained many of us working in the field over these 30 years. To find a group of people who spoke the same language, used the same idioms, and shared similar dreams was at the same time exhilarating, comforting, and challenging. We formed a community, within which we could then argue over definitions and best practices, to spur us on to be better.

    Many people have heard me declare myself a missionary for museum theatre, which is what I became, spreading this idea at conferences and roundtables, and in writing. Happily, I discovered I wasn’t alone. I discovered a merry band of museum theatre that spanned the globe. The original organizations that came together to form IMTAL included the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney; the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec; The LA Children’s Museum; the Science Museum in London; and the Museum of Science, Boston. Over the years, there have been many dynamic personalities that have driven IMTAL forward, and I am thrilled to see many of them in leadership positions in museums now. Some of them joined us for the recent conference. 30 years on, we have much to be proud of in the field. The power of our collective programming has affected and changed many a mind, young and old.

    I have a story of a young mind and an old one changed. Years ago, I performed a play at the Museum of Science called The Bog Man’s Daughter by Jon Lipsky in an exhibit on bogs. I performed it 4 times a day, usually at least 4 days a week, for a year. I did it a lot. I often saw repeat visitors. One was a young mother with a toddler and a daughter around 5 years old. They came so often the girl began to mouth my lines as I said them, dance when I danced. I would sometimes have to ask her to say the words silently because not everyone else knew them. Many years later, her mother contacted me. She’d found me in Ohio as I was finishing my doctoral studies. She was hesitant and asked if I would remember them. Immediately, I knew who she was. We had mutually affected each other. She told me that her daughter was graduating from high school and she’d never forgotten her time watching me in The Bog Man’s Daughter. It had made a deep impression and she wanted me to know. I was surprised and touched to have her find me so many years later.

    The second story is from when I was collecting data for my dissertation. I was at the Kentucky History Center and Greg Hardison, a master museum theatre creator, was performing Into the Veins, a play about coal mining. A staff member had announced the play in the mining exhibit and invited people to come watch. There were a couple benches indicating a performance/audience area. I was observing how people chose to watch or not. There was an older man in the exhibit reading text panels and he looked over, but then turned back to read. In the first scene, Greg played a young boy getting water from a stream for his coal miner family. As the scene continued, the man kept getting a bit closer, but still faced the exhibit. Just as it was ending, he had turned around and was now part of the audience. When a staff person invited everyone to move to another part of the exhibit for the next scene, this man joined in. In the second scene, Greg now played an Italian immigrant who had been injured mining and now worked in the Company store. He saw the visitors assembled and began talking in Italian, gesticulating and asking questions. After a minute, he switched to an accented English and said, “Ok, you no speak English, we’ll talk in Italian,” thus setting up the fiction that the visitors were now new Italian immigrants. He went on to tell us how to fit in as new immigrant miners. The old man stayed. For the third and final scene, Greg became a union organizer at the opening of a mine shaft. He stepped up onto a wooden box and began a rousing speech, assuming those before him to be miners and miners’ families. After the play was over, I asked the older gentleman if I could interview him. He agreed, and I asked him why he decided to watch. This is what he said: “I never thought it’d be factual at first, but after I listened for a while that’s actually the way it was. I thought it was just kind of a play.” He went on to tell me about a friend of his who had been a coal miner, but who had now passed on. He was shocked to realize some of the conditions miners faced and wished he’d asked his friend more about what he’d endured. The work we do poses questions, provides access to new information or reminds of us what we already know, and can often lead to a feeling of connectedness or community. Over thirty years doing this work, I have found this anecdotally as well as in formal research. You might not always realize the effect your work has had on the audience. You might not be lucky enough to collect rich data afterward, and hear time and again the surprise in people voices when recounting how they were drawn in by a performance. It was so dynamic! It was really good! And my favorite, I never knew that!

    When it is good, when all the pieces come together, museum theatre in whatever form -- scripted or improvised, musical, comedy, or tragedy -- has the power to transport the audience from the walls of an exhibit or historic site to another time, and another place. And that experience stays with the audience. It goes straight to long term memory, coated in emotional response. My dissertation was a visitor response study exploring how people made meaning from their museum theatre experience (Hughes, 2008). What I found was that affect or emotion, and cognition, worked together to create strong and long-lasting memories. It was a balancing act. Too much of one without the other did not work the same way.

    My research led me to build a 4-point rubric for museum theatre, which I use in my work and my teaching. Good museum theatre, that is able to strike that balance, must be in some way 1. emotional, 2. thought-provoking, 3. participatory, and 4. offer multiple perspectives. Begin with essential questions: What is justice? What are the social implications of science? Who gets to tell their story in history? And make sure you have a reason to be there, in front of an audience. Make sure they know who they are and what they can do. Need their help, need something from the audience.

    I have wondered if I have anything to say that could bring hope, inspiration or comfort to the field in this terrible time. Museums have been decimated by the pandemic, many limiting their live programming indefinitely and laying off actors. Independent museum theatre contracts have disappeared. The future is foggy at best. The present moment is not for the faint at heart. But of course, what we all know is that museum theatre people are not fainthearted. In fact, they are some of the strongest, most resourceful people out there. For museum theatre professionals, it is in your nature to be tenacious, persevering, and resolute. It has always been a true axiom that theatre people are subversive. You do first and ask forgiveness later. Bar the theatre doors and we will go elsewhere to ply our craft. Just ask Oliver Cromwell or Jesse Helms. Still, while the pandemic may be without puritan leanings, its effect has been no less damning. But rise to the challenge we must.

    So what can we do now, in this trying time? First and foremost, we must stay subversive. No one generally let us in the front door of the museum in the first place, right? We snuck in the back and surprise, we showed our power with our impact on the visitor. They had no idea what we could do for them.

    We can take heart from the related field of escape rooms equally impacted by the coronavirus. The New York Times recently profiled how the field is reinventing itself, noting their creative spirit and scrappy nature (Soloski, Nov 5, 2020). This immersive theatre and gaming community has “entered a period of frenetic innovation. In search of pandemic-friendly entertainment, they have created and adapted games to make them available for live remote play, asynchronous point-and-click play, print-and-play, and play by telephone and mail.” According to the Times, “these new games constitute a wholesale rethinking of immersion and experience design.” Let us be inspired by and learn from them.

    Christy Coleman, former IMTAL board member and now CEO and President of Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, challenged those who attended the American Association for State and Local History’s virtual conference in September by asking: How do we tell stories that matter? Coleman has been telling stories that matter for many years, beginning at Colonial Williamsburg with her work heading up African American interpretation. One thing that we can do to tell stories that matter is lean into the coronavirus and social unrest that has marked 2020.

    There is a frenzy to collect oral histories and objects about the pandemic and protests of 2020. Institutions large and small, including mine, are determined to capture the compelling stories of front-line workers, doctors, nurses, police and emergency workers, teachers, students, and regular ordinary people living through this moment. They are being collected from those who lost loved ones or were sick themselves and survived. These oral histories will tell future generations what it was like to navigate economic collapse, home schooling, sickness, and separation from loved ones. Themes will emerge from these oral history collections, poignant tales of loss and surprising stories of resilience. And museum theatre must be there to interpret these oral histories. We must inhabit them and bring them to life in performances and living history. It will be a treasure trove of human experience, captured by museums, but providing the museum theatre field in particular with compelling drama and immediacy. It will be a necessary exercise in interpretation for the museum theatre maker and the
    audience. Whatever discipline you are working in, think of how science has played a role, think of what art will emerge from this time, and if this isn’t history-making, nothing is. As we contemplate the inequities raised by the pandemic, documenting these and giving voice to them is crucial.

    While there might be a current vacuum of activity in museums, people need arts and culture like never before. We are chafing to break our isolation, to congregate, to interpret and understand the effects of this moment. We are all trying to understand what it means to be human in 2020. Our daily rituals are disrupted. Fresh paradoxes have emerged. We are afraid of contact, and yet we crave it. There are lights in the darkness. We can look to theatre for hope. Outdoor performances are blooming. The work two theatres in western Massachusetts have done to carry on outdoors inspired a brother and sister to recently donate 2 million dollars to these companies to stay afloat this winter. Live streaming feels like theatre in many ways. It is immediate and risky. Whatever can go wrong, often does, and when an actor carries on in the face of technical glitches, we all cheer. Access to theatre has opened up paradoxically, as people can watch from home, often for free. How many of you have seen something amazing from home? I recently watched What the Constitution Means to Me. I had wanted to see this live, but never had the opportunity. And now I know why people were so over the moon about this show. In my mind, it also contained the balance of museum theatre. It brought the abstract of the constitution down to a very particular set of stories. And that is so often what we do, break down complex and remote issues into specific and familiar human stories.

    There are a plethora of historically based theatre pieces out now, inspired no doubt by Hamilton, but many carrying on the tradition of theatre based on historic events, like Frost/Nixon, Copenhagen, and Sondheim’s Assassins. San Diego Rep has been streaming JQA about John Quincy Adams.

    We are on a continuum. This collection of oral histories and objects that illuminate the lived experience of the pandemic and social unrest also reminds us that we have been here before. In 1918, the world was changed. In 1968, the world was changed again. But it didn’t stop.

    We have to keep breathing and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Museums have been changed and will re-emerge altered, as will museum theatre. Because there is still the human need to tell stories, to hear stories.

    Over IMTAL’s 30 years, members have shown the power and rightness of theatre in museums at meetings and conferences around the world. In 1993, at the Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England, a lively group of about 100 practitioners converged to tease out, argue, and challenge each other about what makes the best theatre in museums. Was it scripted or improvised? Should characters be composites or real figures from history? We had amazing examples to support each argument. At one site, Oakwell Hall, we the visitors were the ghosts; passing through the house to witness life unseen and unheard by the busy inhabitants living their lives. We went to the National Railway Museum in York and witnessed the vaudevillian humor and sudden pathos of Chris Cade and Chris Ford as they inhabited multiple roles each to tell the story of the navies who built the railway tunnels across the UK. They took us down into the darkness of the tunnels, made us feel the fear and courage it took to do this work. Later, Chris Ford shared research he conducted with school children, who drew pictures of what they had seen, and described the story. Many showed the two men tumbling down a shaft. How did they see the shaft? It was just two men with some costume pieces and a woven basket.

    Let me end with the story of Clarissa, a young actress I worked with on a play about Frederick Douglass, More Light: Douglass Returns, written by Celeste Williams. It was a collaborative production between Conner Prairie and Asante Children’s Theatre. In this project, I asked the youth actors to journal through rehearsals and performances. Clarissa was playing Anna Douglass, wife of the great man. While she worried the project might be boring, she wrote that “from the first day of rehearsal I found it anything but.” She welcomed the support and guidance of the supervising adults from both Conner Prairie and Asante Children’s Theatre. Notably, she felt she grew as an artist, charged with the mission “to use my body and my voice to give voice to the people that cannot speak.” During rehearsals, she did her own independent research of Anna Douglass, and became passionate about portraying her. She wrote of how the project helped her face personal problems, of how working on her scenes helped her learn “something new about my history” and changed the way she carries herself in the world. This was Clarissa’s experience. It can stand as an exemplar of what museum theatre can achieve from within. Her performance brought Douglass’ great-great grandson to tears. In his public remarks after seeing the play, he talked of how happy he was to have the spotlight shine on Anna. Her story was generally overshadowed by her famous husband. He was moved that her voice was finally heard.


    In the Q & A, Michael Mills of Heaps Good Production in Adelaide, Australia, astutely observed, while appreciating my optimism, that people can’t make a living offering free museum theatre programs. He challenged me and the group to offer ways museum theatre might monetize online content. We can see theatres charging for live streamed or prerecorded performances, though the ticket price is most often far less than an in-person ticket. Some museums are finding that schools will pay for online programming during the pandemic. However, I acknowledge that more is being canceled than is being sustained. My short answer to this query is sponsorship and grants.

    In my present institution, the Howard County Historical Society, we received a grant to produce a video that could offer a virtual COVID-safe alternative to our annual Christmas at the Seiberling event. We created a 30-minute video tour of 27 individually decorated areas throughout our historic 1890s mansion, which was launched on our Facebook page, with an accompanying Photo Album that provides the opportunity to vote on your favorite. This interactive aspect was important, as people can do this in person. At this writing, the virtual tour has been viewed over 5,900 times. This far outstrips the number of visitors who have ever come in person. While viewing is free, voting is done by donating $1-50 for your favorite decorations. Though the pandemic forced our hand to create a virtual tour, we will probably offer this parallel experience next year too, as it has made it so widely accessible and available.

    Later in the conference during a free-ranging discussion, I jumped in when the age-old question of who can tell a story came up. It is a central question for the field, and one that has been argued over incessantly. Answers have ranged over the 30 years of IMTAL’s existence. The field has certainly become more sensitive to the challenges of one culture telling another culture’s story, as it should be. But as Hamilton has shown us, we have more artistic freedom than we might have dreamed in historic role play. I would argue that not only does an actor not have to look like the historic character they are playing, it is perhaps more effective to not look like them. It can heighten the theatricality, promoting a more Brechtian relationship with the audience. While the strictures of living history might confine who plays which characters to carry out a sense of verisimilitude at a historic site, there is danger in believing any historic character can speak through the vessel of the contemporary actor.

    We are in the business of attempting to bring history to life with full knowledge that we cannot do so entirely. We can bring about an approximation. The best that we can do, which is pretty great and difficult to achieve, is engage the visitors’ imagination to travel to another time and place, to invite them to play in that liminal space between here and there. To blur the line and convey that somehow the actor is channeling an historic character, should not be the goal.

    I have always come down firmly on the “theatre is art” side of this argument. It is flexible and has many styles and techniques. We are not lecturing. We are not animatronic. We are balancing emotion and cognition, provoking, prodding, and questioning to get at some elemental human truth or endeavor. And this age-old argument will continue, as the community of museum theatre practitioners challenges and cajoles each other on best practices and the meaning of what we do.

    Hughes, C. H. 2008. Performance for learning: How emotions play a part. Doctoral diss., The Ohio State University.

    Soloski, A. 2020. Escape Rooms in an At-Home Era? Here’s the Key, New York Times, November 5. Retrieved 11/10/2020 from

    About the Author: Meet the Keynote Speaker

    Headshot photo of Catherine HughesCatherine Hughes, PhD, is a museum leader with more than 20 years experience in education, interpretation, museum theatre, and evaluation. She is the Executive Director of the Howard County Historical Society and Museum in Kokomo, IN.

    Catherine is a hybrid museum professional, theatre practitioner, educator, and researcher who has enriched the visitor experience by empowering educational and interpretive teams to transform ways audiences can connect to museums. She has taught Museum Education at IUPUI, and Museum Theatre at Butler University. She has had senior leadership roles at Conner Prairie History Museum, developing and implementing programming, research and evaluation to expand and deepen public and student engagement. Prior to that, Catherine was Project Director for Meet the Past, a 3-year initiative to transform the visitor experience at the Atlanta History Center. She has also worked at the Museum of Science, Boston and the London Science Museum, and founded the International Museum Theatre Alliance. Catherine has consulted with a number of institutions, such as the National Museum of Australia, University of Manchester (UK), and the Center for Chemical Evolution at Emory University. Her book, Museum Theatre: Communicating with Visitors through Drama, was published by Heinemann. She has lectured and written widely on the use of theatre in museums.

  • 15 May 2019 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

    Rita Boersma and Darius Dotch in INFESTATION The Evolution Begins by John Gordon and Liza Pryor

     Mitigating Failure Through 
     Unscripted Expertise:
    a polemic 

    By Molly M. Ritchie

    When first asked to write an article on the theme “Adaptation! When things don’t go as planned…” I thought it would be fun to ask my fellow castmates for Science Live Theatre horror stories, then write peppy responses to how we fixed them through being adaptive. That’s not what this has turned out to be...

    Instead I would like to talk about casting practices, performance practices, and our mindset of what “legitimate” theater is, and if by courting that image we are only asking for a place at the table, instead of asking what is being served. By questioning these things, we can become more adaptive as Museum Theater artists.

    As practitioners of museum theater we often find ourselves in a battle for artistic legitimacy in the eyes of the others. This can mean having to explain ourselves to upper management who may hold live performers in such low regard they think we could be easily replaced by a low-budget video, or a well-trained squirrel. Or to parents upset that not everything we do is a puppet show for kids 4 and under, or a science demo for kids 8 and under that involves the pure recitation of facts, so the parents can then feel secure while sitting in the back of the audience rubbing on their phones.

    Or to boards composed primarily of extremely wealthy people from the private sector who would never personally avail themselves of, but still want to have control over, our programming (several in the nonprofit sector seem to fetishize these oligarchs, perhaps out of personal financial envy, but that can be saved for another tirade).

    EJ Subkoviak in As the Worm Turns by Melanie WehrmacherSo too do we fight for legitimacy in the eyes of our fellow theater practitioners who work outside of the museum world. I am more guilty of this than anyone else I know. It has practically become a function of my autonomic nervous system that whenever I tell fellow artists about where I’ve been working, I trot out the old chestnut that Science Live’s first resident playwright was August freaking Wilson.


    This is not the first time in my career I have faced this.

    I have a long, complicated relationship with “legitimacy” in theater.

    Rita Boersma and Darius Dotch in The Paul and Babe Show by EJ SubkoviakDespite my background in and continuing study of, scripted theater, shortly after high school I found myself getting a paycheck for doing improv shows several nights a week. I always hated improv exercises in acting class because they didn’t seem “real.” I have a bachelor’s degree, and half of an MFA in acting for goodness’ sake (my grad program fell apart, it’s a long story) and while I continued to poo poo the value of improv in my head, I kept coming back to it, and not just because it was a reliable paycheck. Improv was not something I studied, I learned it in a brutally Socratic way through trial and error in front of a paying audience, as a member of a troupe run by an insecure megalomaniac who had no idea what the heck he was doing (another long story). If I have any improv expertise nowadays it’s because of that Malcolm Gladwell hour ratio.

    Improv is not considered “legitimate” theater.

    Sound familiar?

    And just as my internalized self-loathing over the legitimacy of museum theater has had a sinister grasp on my psyche, so too has improv’s lack of legitimacy lead to a tendency for me to over explain my place in the theater world at large (by the way, my Equity name is Michael Harrigan Ritchie, in case you were wondering).

    So here I am, the bastard daughter of two illegitimate art forms.

    Neal Hazard and Melanie Wehrmacher in The Cure-All Road Show by Melanie Wehrmacher

    What’s next?

    I advise this.

    Whether you run, manage, or perform museum theater, embrace the illegitimacy.

    A fine way of doing this is to seek out, hire, and mine the expertise of this new generation of artists who have studied improv not as Viola Spolin first wrote about it—a private, rehearsal room-only exercise for script creation and actor training—but as its own perfectly “legitimate” art form. Then, give them room to run.

    When we museum theater artists create shows, then treat each and every one of them as being as rigidly unchangeable as Beckett, it is the equivalent of me invoking August Wilson’s name. We are attempting to legitimize our practice by mimicking the practices of professional “legitimate” theater. Those practices of docking pay for a dropped line, of maintaining a rigid hierarchy within the theater structure may work well in that setting, (I mentioned I’m Equity right?) but by doing that are we actually doing what is best for our form of theater?

    By seeking out, hiring, and training improv artists, our shows can become as adaptive as needed, and lead to the creation of a new movement in museum theater based not on expectations we bring from other art forms. By making room for a few of our shows to not have rigid scripts, but instead have teaching points, rudimentary blocking, some notes on character, and/ or demonstration tools, we can create a form of museum theater that is engaging, well-informed, and undeniably adaptive.

    Jen Maren and Denzil Belin in A Fraction of the Whole by Melanie WehrmacherI recognize that this puts a lot of pressure on casting. Not only do you need to look for people with performance expertise, but also with intellectual curiosity, integrity, and a hunger for informal education. However, I would like to state that those are the very same people who are best at museum theater anyway.

    I also recognize that this is easier said than done. We have several interests to please. Funders, grant committees, consulting scientists, museum leadership with no artistic background, our work can quickly turn into art by committee (looking at you, Boston Irish Famine Memorial statues). However, through repeated examples of how this more adaptive, and less rigidly controlled kind of theater can lead to entirely new kinds of educational and artistic success, perhaps this will lead to greater autonomy within our organizations.

    To cultivate ideas on how to do this, start by reaching out to long form improv theaters in your community. Or contact me and we can brainstorm.

    Who knows, maybe it will make us seem more legitimate?     

    This article can be found in Spring 2019 - "Adaptation! When Things Don't Go As Planned"  (Volume 29, Issue 2) of IMTAL Insights.


    Molly M. Ritchie is a Minneapolis-based actor, unscripted theater director, and the creator of several innovative, critically acclaimed improv shows. She has worked with SMM’s Science Live Theatre since 2009. Her expressed views in this article are her own opinions and do not reflect those of the Science Museum of Minnesota or Science Live Theatre

  • 15 May 2019 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

     Adaptation and a Solo Performer's Journey 
    By Lisa Hayes

    Stone steps, worn and narrow, spiral up to the top of the round tower, a distinctive feature of 16th century Castle Fraser. Beyond the castle’s turrets below stretches the late summer landscape of this Grampian highland National Trust property. Soon I will be performing in the museum below. I have walked into a fairy tale, one that will carry me from castles in Scotland to historic manor houses in England, performing in rooms called The Great Hall, the Music Room, and the Marble Hall. My adaptation of Jane Eyre 

    is beginning to lead me on an extraordinary adventure.

    Early in my tenure as a struggling actress In New York City I realized that the only way I would survive as an artist would be to create my own work. While reading a biography of Charlotte Bronte, it suddenly occurred to me that Jane Eyre, one of my favorite novels, was written in the first person. I set about transforming the novel into a one-woman show, a process that seemed like it would never end. Needing the urgency of a performance date, I offered to do a staged reading of the yet-to-be completed play at a historic house museum in Greenwich Village. I pared the 500-page novel down to a 50-page script and three months later I was performing my 80-minute 25-character adaptation for an audience at the Merchant’s House Museum.

    My Journey with Jane has brought many remarkable experiences. Though the UK tour remains one of the highlights of my journey, there are others that stand out. After seeing my performance, a celebrated television producer and Bronte-phile invited me to see his Bronte collection. It is impossible to describe the thrill of holding a letter written by 

    My repertoire now includes two additional adaptation-based solo performances. Nurse!, crafted from oral history interviews, revolves around a nurses strike and debuted off-Broadway with sponsorship from a nurses union. A performance of Nurse! at a conference in Turkey led to an invitation to perform at a conference in The Hague on the theme of America: War, Conflict and Justice. I used that invitation as the inspiration to create a new show. An internet search on the phrase “women and war” led me to the story of Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Marissa Roth and her haunting exhibit One Person Crying: Women and War. Using transcripts from my interviews with Marissa and Marissa’s notes from her interviews with women she had photographed, I created Finding the Light, which tells the story of Marissa’s thirty-year journey documenting women and war, using her photographs as the backdrop.

    I have begun working on a new project, adapting archival material on the 19th amendment. I am excited to see what new adventures lay ahead on a journey that began in a castle long ago.     

    This article can be found in Spring 2019 - "Adaptation! When Things Don't Go As Planned"  (Volume 29, Issue 2) of IMTAL Insights.


    Lisa Hayes
    is a long-time member of IMTAL. In addition to touring her solo shows, she is a museum consultant in interpretation and museum theatre. She is the former CEO of the Accokeek Foundation, where she led transformational initiatives around museum theatre and interpretation of Piscataway Park’s landscape through a historical, indigenous, and environmental lens.

  • 15 Jan 2019 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

     Historic Holidays without Tiny Tim 

    By Catherine Hughes

    Conner Prairie bestows longevity on its popular annual events. There are several now well into their third decade, like the ever popular Headless Horseman Festival in October. Among these, the venerable Conner Prairie by Candlelight has offered visitors since 1982 insight into how people viewed the notion of Christmas in the early 19th century. Each December since, groups of 15-20 guests have promenaded through Prairietown homes on December 24, 1836, hearing the stories of recent immigrants to the frontier and the traditions they have brought with them. For many years, these stories were exclusively white and Christian. The religious overtones were obvious, but from the beginning, it was the intention of the program developers to show that the inhabitants of the town were not in agreement as to how this event should be recognized. The secular versus the religious among them attempt to persuade attendants to their view. It was a purposeful narrative, scripted to reveal the diversity of beliefs.

    Cranky Mr. Fenton spews the righteousness of his Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian faith. He knows the Bible very well, and believes there just isn't any justification for pagan celebrations, such as those Dr. Campbell is offering that evening at his soiree. On the other hand, the Curtis family has brought with them from New York the Knickerbocker History and the legends of Washington Irving, and they share a reading of “The Children’s Friend” who arrives on Christmas Eve. German immigrant and Inn owner, Mrs. Zimmerman and sons bring Belznichol to life, along with a reading of Jesus’s birth from the book of Luke. Meanwhile, Ezra Higbee and several other rowdies celebrate with raucous songs and stories around a fire. The store owner Mr. Whitaker muses to his wife on the future of consumerism if the day is made a holiday across the nation. Generations of guests have joined in the fun each year. It’s not uncommon to hear a grandparent telling a young child of how they brought the child’s parent when they were young.

    There have been changes through the years. In 1997, a scene portraying Hannah and Shemu’el Ullman, a Jewish couple emigrating from Germany, was added and immediately received positive comments from guests. This scene continues to receive consistent high praise. The Ullmans represent a new immigrant group to Indiana. They were headed to Rising Sun to join a relative who had gone before them, but got lost on the National Road and broke a wagon wheel near Prairietown, forcing them to spend several nights there until it was fixed. The Ullmans share the story of Chanukkah.

    In 2016, a scene at the School House was adapted to include a new character, Christmas Guilford, who has recently arrived in Indiana from Philadelphia. She is a free African-American woman following her brother to a newly created farming community of free people of color nearby, the Roberts Settlement. Again, we heard from guests their appreciation for another perspective of the holiday season. Christmas, so named for her date of birth, is also keen to look over the school house as a model for the school she hopes to set up in the Settlement.

    Choices about the programming elements have been made according to the historic record, as well as popular demand and contemporary concerns, such as diversity and inclusion. When holiday programming first began around 1979, it featured wreaths and familiar Victoriana. As staff worked to bring in more historic authenticity to the holiday program, visitors resisted. The historically-accurate notion that Christmas was not widely or uniformly celebrated initially proved less satisfying to some guests. Giving slightly to popular opinion, The Curtis Family’s story, relying on their Dutch heritage, was stretched a bit more toward St. Nicholas than their Methodist faith might normally suggest.  The biography of the composite character for Dr. Campbell was made Presbyterian by birth and Episcopalian by his marriage to Mrs. Campbell, which allows his character a wider berth for discussing the shift toward more celebratory and secular holiday traditions.

    There are other festivities at Conner Prairie. Breakfasts and Dinners with Santa sell out. Our Gingerbread Village display has dwindled in recent years to a crossroads, but there is a push to revive submissions. Programming has fluctuated inside and outside over the break between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

    While Candlelight might be an old-timer, holiday programming cannot be not static. The competition is fierce. The adjacent city of Carmel began a Christkindlmarkt last year, attracting around 150,000 people. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis offers its hugely popular Jolly Days Winter Wonderland.  The light displays win awards for the Christmas at the Zoo celebration at the Indianapolis Zoo. Ongoing planning and adjustments are necessary. In order to allow larger crowds, this year Conner Prairie by Candlelight will have guests tour at their own pace, rather than in groups following a set route. In its second year, there is a short two-character play, Tales at the Holidays: Letters from the Civil War, using song, dancing and puppetry to tell the intriguing story of brave mail couriers during the Civil War. For the first time, Christmas lights will be added to the front of the Welcome Center. Feet through the door will tell if these tweaks work. Cranky Mr. Fenton, beloved Christmas curmudgeon, might decry the wish to get more people on site celebrating the season, but that just makes reveling all the sweeter. Just ask the rowdies!

    Conner Prairie’s mission: to inspire curiosity and foster learning about Indiana's past by providing engaging, individualized and unique experiences.   

    This article can be found in Fall/Winter 2019 - "Holiday Programming (Whether You Like it or Not)" (Volume 29, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.


    Catherine Hughes is Director of Museum Theatre and Research at Conner Prairie History Museum. In her work there, she has overseen operations across the grounds, been part of the team developing Create.Connect, an exhibition combining history and science, and partnered with Asante Children’s Theatre to create a performance initiative, Giving Voice: African-American’s Presence in Indiana’s History. She also teaches Museum Education at Indiana University-Indianapolis and has developed and taught a Museum Theatre course in Butler University’s theatre department.  A theater practitioner, educator and researcher, she has worked at the Atlanta History Center; the Museum of Science, Boston; and the London Science Museum. She founded the International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL), and is the author of Museum Theatre: Communicating with Visitors through Drama. She has spoken widely on the use of theatre in museums and received a PhD in Theatre Education from The Ohio State University.

  • 15 Jan 2019 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

     The Washingtons at Home: 
     Using Seasonal Programs to Tell New Stories 

    By Elizabeth Keaney

    Mount Vernon, George Washington’s iconic home on the banks of the Potomac, has welcomed over 85 million visitors since opening to the public in 1860. During the spring season it is not unusual for daily attendance to reach more than 8,000. Most of these guests are students who come to Mount Vernon in order to learn about the Washingtons and others that lived and worked on the estate. Though the Mansion is the crown jewel of the estate, Mount Vernon encourages guests to explore the entire property including the Pioneer Farm, Education Center, and Museum.

    To implement new strategic initiatives, the Visitor Engagement division has launched interpretive programs to activate spaces across the estate. One such program, Summer Solstice, 1769, was part of a larger expansion of character interpretation which highlights George and Martha Washington in the years before the Revolutionary War. The majority of guests who visit Mount Vernon associate the Washingtons with the Revolutionary War and the presidency; having a younger George and Martha Washington allows visitors to learn about the early experiences that shaped the lives of the couple who would later be considered Father and Mother of the country. The Character Interpretation department, along with the Director of Interpretation, created a “moveable feast” experience that invited guests to explore overlooked spaces specifically the Lower Garden and the Botanical Garden.

    The intended outcomes of the program included illuminating the lives of the Washingtons before they entered a national (and international) stage, and offering activities to visitors in the historic area. At the start of the program guests chose to join Colonel George Washington (portrayed by Brian Hilton) or Mrs. Washington (portrayed by Elizabeth Keaney) as they went about their morning duties. Each character interpreter moved through different sites of the historic area and met in the Botanical Garden where they engaged visitors and answered questions together.

    A few successes:

    • The majority of visitors who joined the program from the beginning stayed throughout its entirety.
    • As each character moved about the estate they attracted more guests.
    • Visitors’ questions centered on the theme of the program, which highlighted the daily duties of the Washingtons. This is quite a switch from other programs which focus on the Revolutionary War and presidency.
    • Anticipating that visitors would like to “continue the conversation” an afternoon “audience” with the Washingtons was presented and many attendees of the morning program returned for the afternoon session.

    Things to change:

    • The routes were not equal in length, which meant that one group was standing in direct sun for a longer period than we would have liked.
    • Expand the time that characters are engaging visitors together.
    • Improve communications between Character Interpretation and other departments involved in or adjacent to the program to aid in inviting passers-by to the program

    Due to the success of the program, a second performance was scheduled for October 28, 2018. Fall Harvest with the Washingtons follows a similar format with the above changes made. By thinking creatively about interpretive holiday programming, Mount Vernon moved forward with the goal of activating the historic area with immersive experiences.   

    This article can be found in Fall/Winter 2019 - "Holiday Programming (Whether You Like it or Not)" (Volume 29, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.


    Elizabeth Keaney is a Character Interpreter at George Washington’s Mount where she portrays young Martha Washington. She earned her M.A.T. in Museum Education from The George Washington University and has taught history, art, science, and, language arts in museums since 2001. In 2012, Elizabeth produced the first museum theatre programs at National Museum of Women in the Arts, and is a former board member of ITMAL-Americas. She can be reached at

  • 15 Jan 2019 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

     Lighting the Spark, Feeding the Flame 
    A Recap of the 2018 IMTAL Global Conference
    September 10-12, 2018 at the
    Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

    By Douglas Coler, IMTAL President

    I was asked by our editor, Ilana Gustafson, to write a recap of Lighting the Spark, Feeding the Flame, our recent 2018 Global Conference in Los Angeles. I was filled with ideas and inspiration from those intensely packed three days. I was there, I opened and closed the conference, I attended all the sessions. How hard could this be? And yet, more than a month after that request, and nearly two months past the end of the conference, I struggled. I have so many notes from those days that to translate them to this forum would prove utterly confusing to our readers, and in the interest of space, I’ve opted for a session by session recap.

    A few folks arrived early enough on Sunday to visit some of the wonderful museums that are situated in Exposition Park and get caught up in the festivities and traffic surrounding the Super Clasico soccer match, happening that very evening in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum (also in Exposition Park), between the two biggest teams in Mexican history, Club America and CD Chivas de Guadalajara. (We pretended the hoopla was for IMTAL returning to the west coast). The Board met at The Natural History Museum, and joined some of our fellow attendees at The Lab Gastropub attached to our home base hotel. After cocktails and tall tales, the evening was still young and some ventured off to explore the city.

    The next morning, we gathered in the North American Mammal Hall at NHMLA to kick off the conference. We were warmly welcomed by Laurel Robinson, the museum’s Director of Programs. Immediately following, we were treated to a performance of Dinosaur Encounters, presented by Craig Gibson and Jonathan CK Williams, and featuring Brian Meredith in the extraordinarily detailed T. Rex full body puppet. This was followed by a discussion of the program and a visit to get close up and hands on with more of the museum’s collection of puppets and to learn about their operation from the hard working team of performers who bring them to life. There were several times throughout the conference (this was the first) when I think we all would’ve been quite content to have the session go on for several more hours. I certainly felt joy and wonder and a healthy sense of professional jealousy, but this team earned all the institutional support they have. An amazing, dedicated group of artists, to be sure.

    This terrific start was followed by a lively workshop with Brent Blair, PhD, of USC’s Theatre Department. Brent’s session was a callback to those heady times at school/conservatory, when we were all convinced that theatre can save the world. We all knew this going in, of course, but most of us hadn’t experienced the bone-deep truth of that in many years. He followed this with a keynote presentation focusing on his involvement in Liberation Arts and Community Engagement (LACE), “a praxis that employs popular theatre in an interactive method towards the aim of socio- political transformation, popular education, and community healing.” It was, ultimately, much more than even that succinct statement, and painted a powerful picture of the work that is being done, and what yet needs to be done as we develop our programming to fit the new paradigms we’re encountering in our world.

    After lunch, Elysia Segal of the New York Transit Museum showed us in A New Train of Thought: Using Technology to Enhance Interactive Storytelling just how far one can go with simple technology and limited budget to engage the digital natives who are, increasingly, our visitors. Elysia’s creativity, joy, and enthusiasm, and her rapping skills, were on full display.

    The group was then split for concurrent workshop sessions from Conner Prairie’s Catherine Hughes and Shelsea Ochoa from Denver Museum of Science and Nature. Catherine’s session - Breaking Down the Pieces of Collaborative Museum Theatre - focused on Conner Prairie’s work with Asante Children’s Theatre and their shared desire to expand the collaborative process. A fascinating look at the dedicated hard work of defining and refining what success looks like.

    Shelsea’s Cultural Dimensions for Inquiry-Based Learning explored how being
    actively open to the cultural perspectives 
    in our communities can lead to a better museum experience for all visitors. Both Shelsea and Catherine presented thoughtful, challenging workshops that gave no easy answers but encouraged continued vigilance and awareness.

    Theatre as the Lab Rat: Exploring Museum Theatre and Theatrical Gaming as a Research Project, presented by Stephanie Long, Darius Dotch, Rita Boersma, Melanie Wermacher, and Michael Ritchie of Science Museum of Minnesota was an in-depth look at how SMM uses museum theatre to support the emerging field of gaming science. It was thrilling, and not a little bit intimidating, to learn about the many script variations, fits and starts, and technical challenges that such programming presents. The SMM team is tight-knit, and they are risk takers. Their audiences are fortunate to share in the creation of their technological, intellectual, and philosophical games.

    As the final session of the day, Aaron Bonds and Johnny Marquis of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis presented Pushing the Limits: Merging Technology, Special Effects and Creative Writing to Break New Ground in Museum Theatre. Their clear-eyed, practical approach was a reminder that exciting, memorable work starts with clear-eyed, practical planning, and successful programming is an evolutionary process.

    The long day ended with an authentic Oaxacan meal at Guelaguetza in the heart of Los Angeles. I’m going to assume that most everyone was as exhausted and excited as I was after day one.

    Day two began with a slight transportation snafu as our journey to the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum was delayed by a wayward bus driver. We arrived later than we’d expected, and yet were still treated to the amazing Ice Age Encounters, again presented by theNHM team in their other home. It’s one thing to know you’re going to see a Saber-toothed Cat puppet. It’s quite another to feel the hairs stand up on your neck when that cat saunters across the stage. These are performers who are at the top of their game. After the show, we were privileged to have Betsy Zajko, Drew McCourt, Eli Presser, Liza McNeely, and Rachael Caselli share the secrets of creating, operating, and performing this magnificent specimen. Eli also shared much more about the puppetry work that this team does, and we got hands on with some of the many creatures they work with. This was another one of those sessions that could’ve gone all day and nobody would’ve complained. Kudos to Ilana Gustafson and her team.

    After lunch, the Alleged bus driver delivered us to Bel Air and the Skirball Cultural Center. The permanent installation, Noah’s Ark, is stunning in its innovation and its simplicity. The ark’s animals are created from found objects and everyday items: gears and teapots and ropes and suitcases, umbrellas and bedsheets and mops and kitchen whisks, drums and brooms and marbles. We shared the space with dozens of children who were as enchanted as we were. And then, Belize Wilheim and Julia Garcia Combs enveloped us in their dance/movement piece, The Whole World is a Narrow Bridge. Deeply moving, intense, joyous, profound, and loving, all woven in around the animals, the ark, and us. After this, we assembled in the beautiful amphitheater and listened as an incredible storyteller treated us to the ancient Nigerian tale of the flood. Group discussion followed, and finally, reluctantly, we put our lives in the hands of our perplexed bus driver for the return to the hotel.

    Our final day was once again hosted among the mammals, and began with Keeping the Human in History: Empathy, Costumed Historical Interpretation, & Reaching Underserved Communities, presented by Stephanie Vickers of the University of North Alabama. Stephanie’s program was about WWI volunteers called the Four Minute Men. This was a glimpse into a time in U.S. history that is largely overlooked, and her performance reminded us, yet again, how powerful simple, straightforward costumed interpretation can be.

    We had concurrent sessions again for late morning. Judy Fort Brenneman of Greenfire Creative conducted her workshop Burning, Burning, Burning: The Transformative Power of Story, an interactive session that taught techniques to help “convert chaos to clarity.”

    Sue Ellen Winstead of the Littleton Museum presented You Can Do It All (with a little help from your friends), a step by step narrative of how she mounted the first theatrical production her institution had ever done, the lessons she learned, and the pitfalls she encountered.

    Our final session was presented by Lisa Hayes. Decolonizing Interpretation: Using Theatre to Facilitate Difficult Conversations began with a reading of Lisa’s short play Telling the Story of a Landscape, and transitioned into an examination of The Accoceek Foundation’s National Colonial Farm and their intention to include honest portrayals of the original indigenous occupants of the land, the European settlers on that land, and the enslaved peoples who worked that land. Who’s story is the truth? Who’s story matters? Where do we draw the line, and where does that leave those whose stories are not told? This closing session sparked an amazing, far ranging discussion of the value we place on those stories, the struggle to shine a light on underserved communities, the lives left unexamined in the process, and the responsibility that comes with historical interpretation. The discussion was everything you’d imagine a group of passionate, intelligent people would be like, and it honestly made me proud to be associated with such folks.

    The conference was everything we hoped it would be, except for the poor, misguided bus driver. It showed us that we who are IMTAL are still, as ever, a vital part of museum culture, in the U.S. and around the world. It renewed our commitment to education and sharing of ideas, techniques and technologies. The sharing of our weaknesses, of our strengths, our desires, and our fears, and it
    reminded us that 
    once the spark is struck, the flame that it creates needs to be
    fed. Feed it a regular 
    diet of compassion and hope, daily meals of curiosity and joy. Tend to it, and not only will it keep you warm, that flame will light the way.

    This article can be found in Fall/Winter 2019 - "Holiday Programming (Whether You Like it or Not)" (Volume 29, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.

  • 17 Aug 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

    Foxy Shmoxy at the Denver Art Museum with Jessica Robblee and Mitch Slevc

    A Museum Director on the
    Power of Theatre
    to Connect Guests to Art

    By Ilana Gustafson, Insights Editor

    Every year, IMTAL celebrates the cherished leaders who support the work we do. This year’s winner of the IMTY award is Heather Nielsen, Director of Learning and Community Engagement at the Denver Art Museum. Last year, her team, led by Lindsay Genshaft, won the Lipsky Award for Excellence in Museum Playwriting for their show Art Emergency: Code Red. Support for innovation often means giving a platform to do meaningful work, such as is demonstrated at DAM. I had the chance to interview Heather about her perspective on the value of museum theatre and their dreams for the future of the program. She offers an inspiring perspective and appreciation for theatre rooted in her background in Anthropology.

    Thank you so much for speaking with me and congratulations on your award.
    Of course. Thank you.

    What did you think when you found out you were nominated and receiving this award?
    Totally delighted and honored. And honestly, I credit Lindsay (Genshaft, Manager of Family and Community Programs). We’re lucky to have a woman like that who really understands and sees the potential of what theatre techniques can do in a museum context. It’s easy to support passion, in my opinion.

    How has Lindsay been able to show you that theater can enhance the guest experience with your exhibits and collections?
    I feel our collections are steeped with stories. Theatre has potential and power to unleash those stories that are embedded in these objects, while at the same time, stirring the imagination of our visitors. I think ultimately, that’s what we want to do, right? We want to create deep connections with our visitors and with the stories that our objects hold. Theatre has been a powerful way to do that kind of work.

    Art Emergency Code Red with Jose Zuniga and Mitch SlevcWhat are some ways you’ve noticed your guests’ perception of an art museum shifting with the type of programming that you do?
    I think that the experiences you can have in the art museum can be active, they can be creative, they can be participatory. So I think all of a sudden that just opens up the potential for families to think very differently about the museum and very differently about the behaviors that are accepted in a museum.

    I think one of the things Lindsay’s worked really hard to do is ask how these experiences can create social connection and bonds between family members. It’s been very interesting for me to watch how the theater pieces work at many levels. The kid is getting something out of it and the parent is getting something out of it and they can have this shared experience.

    Right. And you’ve touched on the core of what theater is; it’s storytelling, it’s a social experience, you’re connecting with other people. You seem to have a good appreciation and understanding for theater. I’m wondering what is your background in relationship to theater?
    Not much! I’ll be totally honest with you! I definitely feel that we’ve moved in this direction because we had a staff member who was very passionate, had deep experiences, had academic experience in this area. Personally, I’m an arts lover. I’m a lover of stories, but I have no background in theater whatsoever.

    But you have an appreciation for it.
    Yeah, I have a deep appreciation for it. My background is actually in Anthropology and so I’ve always had a love for the way in which culture uses art in its broadest sense. Whether that’s performance, the visual arts, whether it’s ritual, and how they use those things to explore what it means to be human. So I think my appreciation for theater is really grounded in that, appreciation for the kind of stories it can tell, the multiple perspectives, and the opportunity it gives us to empathize a bit.

     Douglas Coler presents the IMTY Award to Heather Nielsen at the IMTAL LuncheonI had a chance to see your show Code Red when I visited DAM. I really loved that you take this sort of static gallery experience and, with the story behind the images or within the images, give us a different connection. Lindsay and I talk a lot about this, she’s really pushed us to think about how this story is helping you see the artwork in a different way, helping you see the perspective of the artist, helping you see elements in the artwork.

    It’s so exciting for me to see programming like this in museums. Museums are often hesitant to take risks in ways of either exhibiting or highlighting the work. So, I’m just curious what your thoughts are on the perceived risks of doing something like theatre in a museum and some advice for leadership that might be hesitant to try something like this?
    I want to unpack that question a little bit because when you say “risk,” what are you thinking of?

    I mean to say quote-unquote “Risk.” So the perceived risk.
    Yeah, great. “Risk.”

    I know sometimes leadership is hesitant to do theater, for one, because of the logistics of using the space in that way and the perceived danger to the collections. Then also the risk of being less formal. Theatre will require you to be a little bit less formal.
    Oh, interesting. Okay, being more playful.

    Yes, being more playful. So, I’m curious what you would say to leaders who kind of come from that perspective?
    What’s interesting is those ideas of using space in unusual ways, being a little less formal, and allowing for a range of interpretations, those are things that I think we’ve had a long history of wanting to disrupt. Theater for us was a natural out-growth of the tactics we were already using to engage with families.

    So, I guess I would say that if one is a bit fearful of this, it would be very interesting to see where are they actually doing similar kind of work. Because a school tour in many ways can often use a space in unusual ways.

    Find a seed that’s already been planted and extrapolate from there.
    Let me just add one other kind of fear: what are the other people in the gallery who may want a more quieter experience going to think? And that actually did happen where during one of these performances in the gallery. Some visitors were like, wait a minute, I didn’t come here for this kind of noise. We had to figure out how we can be a little bit more proactive in letting visitors know what was happening in this gallery space. I often see those kinds of moments of tension as a place to say, okay, how could we actually support all of our visitors for success around this experience?

    Art Emergency Code Red with Jose Zuniga and Mitch SlevcSo what are some ways that you do approach that or prepare your guests for these experiences?
    We’re very transparent when these things are happening. These happen during family moments and weekends when people are expecting the museum to be a little bit more playful and unusual.

    Do you make an announcement to warn people that are in the gallery or do you just show up?
    No. Yeah, we just show up and go for it! I think that’s where this stuff contributes to the overall perception shift for visitors to museums.

    I would say, predominantly we’ve used theater in our family program, but we’ve also had theater groups perform in the galleries, perform in the freight elevator, perform throughout the building, create site-specific small vignettes. So I think our visitors, both young and old, are already accustomed to this in our museum.

    It’s almost as though you trained your guests to expect things like this to happen.
    Kind of, yeah. I think by using more innovative techniques, whether you yourself are doing them or you’re inviting partners, you’re committing to your museum being open to kind of shared authority, shared creation of experiences. Once you establish that you’re all onboard with that, it makes it a lot easier to then do the work.

    You’re not imposing this on them, you’re sharing it.
    Right, it’s a two-way experience.

    That’s great. I’m always so excited to hear someone, especially someone who doesn’t have a theatre background, be so supportive of theatre in a non-typical context. It’s been really great to hear your thoughts. My final question is how do you see this program evolving and do you have anything in the works right now?

    Well, we’re actually currently going through a renovation project which is essentially a complete renovation of our original building. When we open, it’ll include a new Learning and Engagement Center.

    We’ll have something that we’re calling a Creative Hub. In that Creative Hub is a performance area. I think that that opens up a whole new set of possibilities for more co-created programming with theatre partners. We also have a rich creative in-residence program and it could be really exciting to think about working more with actors in that program. So, for us, it’s about deepening the work that we’re doing in our family programs, but also thinking about how this work helps us connect more deeply with our creative community.

    And you’re creating space that’s conducive to these things which is really exciting. Well, I look forward to seeing that develop and will have to come back and visit.
    Yeah, right. You all have to come back!

    Maybe have another IMTAL conference out there!
    Yeah, there you go!   

    This article can be found in Summer 2018 - "Lighting the Spark, Feeding the Flame" (Volume 28, Issue 3) of IMTAL Insights.


    Heather Nielsen - 2018 IMTY WinnerHeather Nielsen is Director of Learning and Community Engagement at the Denver Art Museum. At the DAM Heather overseas all program areas including Family and Community, Adult and College, Teacher and School Outreach, and the Museum’s Artist and Studio Programs. Most recently, Heather has been the project lead on multiple IMLS funded investigations into fostering creativity among visitors and the museum as a platform for community creativity. During her time at the Museum she has grown family and community initiatives to include programs for families with young children. In addition, she has overseen the development and launch of programs aimed to facilitate engagement with Denver’s Latino communities. Prior to joining the Denver Art Museum, Heather worked as a Museum Educator at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Heather has broad Museum experience, ranging from developing and conducting in gallery interpretation for culture based exhibitions, to writing and developing curriculums and study guides around anthropology and art topics. She has conducted teacher trainings, taught graduate courses in Museum Education, and has served as a consultant on national and international museum projects. She holds Bachelors in Anthropology from Vassar College and a Masters in the Anthropology of Art, from University College London.

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