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Articles from previous issues will be added over time.
  • 17 Aug 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

    The Potter, the Peddler, the Farmer’s Daughter, the Blacksmith, the Printer’s Daughter, and the Hunter bring Old Surbridge Village to life in Midwinter Mischief.

    An Immersive Journey with the
    Characters of Old Sturbridge Village

    By Ilana Gustafson, Insights Editor

    The winner of this year’s Lipsky Award for Excellence in Playwriting is P.J. Griffith for his epic immersive show, Midwinter Mischief. This script, created for the Old Sturbridge Village, is written entirely in Anapestic Tetrameter. It’s a playful and interactive show where the guests follow a scheming peddler on a mile-long journey through a 19th century village where they meet a cast of colorful, historically-based characters. It’s an ambitious undertaking that is accomplished with thoughtful skill and reverence to historical accuracy. I had a chance to email with P.J. to find out more about the process for creating his masterful story.

    Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did your life path lead you to your current role as a script writer for Old Sturbridge Village?
    I am an actor with a passion for working in immersive, site-specific theater. Beyond being in American Idiot on Broadway, I was in the immersive theatrical project Sleep No More at The McKittrick Hotel, helped create the For the Record series in Los Angeles as well as Shaken Not Stirred in NYC. 

    I have been going to OSV since I was a kid, having grown up in central Connecticut, and was cast as “Brom Bones” in the immersive Sleepy Hollow Experience that utilized OSV at night in fall 2016. During the day, I spent a lot of time walking the museum, soaking in as much information/interesting stories about the time period as possible. Midwinter Mischief took shape after hours of conversations with the historical interpreters who inhabit the village on a daily basis. It was the product of my curiosity and fascination with the strange, unknown specifics of daily life in early America.

    What was the script development process for Midwinter Mischief from inception to performance? Was it a collaborative process with the performers or did they get a fully developed script before going into rehearsals?
    I was tasked with distilling the winter experience at OSV into a two- hour adventure where guests could emotionally connect to the content and collections of the museum. It was an exciting and well-supported task as I was given pretty much free reign of the village‘s resources—from its costumes to its historical buildings to its arms collection to its culinary staff to its animals.

    I wrote a full script over the course of a few months and sent it out to the heads of each department, who willingly picked it apart like 5 dramaturgs, punching holes in any plot-lines or language that were not true to 1830’s rural New England. After a few more drafts, it was handed out to the 30+ historical interpreters who would be playing the roles in it. Some were nervous because they weren’t used to memorizing text or speaking in verse, others jumped in with unbridled excitement. Everyone had their input and we developed each scene over a few weeks of rehearsals so it t well in each of the 13 spaces and made sense coming out of the mouths of each character.

    The Schoolkeeper at Old Sturbridge VillageWhat is the thought behind the choice to write the script entirely in verse? Midwinter Mischief is a fable written in Anapestic Tetrameter—a style made popular by Edgar Allan Poe, Clement Clarke Moore and Lord Byron in the first half of the 19th century. I thought it would be an interesting way to tell stories in a poetic form that would grab the audience’s attention immediately and pull them out of their day-to-day reality, spending of their disbelief into a different world.

    How has it been received by the guests of OSV?
    They have really loved it—from young kids through the older members of the museum. I tried to appeal to all of their senses on a cold winter’s afternoon. It was a piece that was driven by curiosity of what might be lurking around the next turn and tries to overwhelm their senses, not just listening to stories seeing scenes play out, but asking the audience to touch, taste, smell and feel winter in 1830s New England.

    The audience was always one step behind a wily peddler who is bartering and scheming his way through the village to pay o his tab to the tavern keeper. I think everyone in that part of the world could relate to an underdog hustling to pay the bills. The experience also ended with a huge party in the tavern after finally catching up with the peddler, complete with period food, booze and live music.

    You ask some lucky guests to play characters in the performance. I’m curious how guests respond?
    Guests were given very specific characters when they arrive at Bullard Tavern. These “mischievous” characters all could have been drinking at the tavern in the 1830s, from John C. Colt (a notorious rake and brother to industrialist Samuel Colt, whom Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story about) to Prudence Crandall (a Connecticut abolitionist who opened a controversial school for African-American girls).

    Throughout the 2-hour adventure, guests were called by name and asked to take on tasks in different scenes, from throwing clay to dipping candles to stuffing a sausage to helping work a two-handed saw. Most loved it and dove in head-first. If they were too intimidated to get their hands dirty, they quickly convinced someone else in their party to cover them.

    I love how the interpretation of the village and 19th century life is carried by the story. What do you believe to be the value for guests experiencing history in this way?
    I think it gives guests a good feeling of where a lot of principals of our modern life began—a lot of luxuries and technology we take for granted in 2018 evolved from desire to solve problems in the early 19th century. Refrigeration, sanitation, medication, heating, the industrial process, the modern educational process and nationalism all have roots in that era.

    What have been some of the challenges and triumphs of the show?
    The weather became a challenging element. Volatile New England January and February could sometimes be too cold or too warm for an experience that was both in and out doors.

    In one scene we utilized adorable baby oxen as a major plot point, but they could be REALLY fussy, especially when they sensed it was lunchtime. We had no real idea what this show would feel like over a stage that spanned over a mile until we put an audience into it. We adapted and evolved as we learned. The whole piece was like a giant clock with each gear dependent on the one it was connected to working. We played with the timing of each piece and the movement of the audience to make sure it went as smoothly as possible throughout the day. We staged the experience again in early 2018, learning from audience feedback of what they liked and what felt like it was a little too much. We had to cut the baby oxen and replaced them with a musket-firing scene.

    In general, what are your thoughts on how theatre can help people connect to history?
    I think theatre is a great opportunity to give people an emotional connection to history. History is just an interconnected web of people’s individual stories that are far more interesting than just memorized dates, locations and outcomes. By taking away the “imposed reverence” of “Historical Figures” out and looking at them as real human beings making difficult choices, there always seem to be parallels with what we read in the news and what any given person is dealing with on any given day. It is evident, now more than ever, that history has a tendency to repeat itself.

    What other projects do you have on the horizon?
    I’m currently in rehearsals for the world premiere of a new musical about “The Five Points” in NYC during the “draft riots“ of the 1860s called Paradise Square that will be making its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theater later this year. I’m also in talks for a new projects with Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and the Cheney Homestead in Connecticut. I am always looking for interesting new spaces to tell interesting new stories in...   

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

    MEET THE LIPSKY WINNER:P.J. Griffith - 2018 Lipsky Award Winner

    P.J. Griffith is a writer/director/performer from New York City with an extensive background in theater and television, working on both sides of the proverbial camera. He specializes in creating site-specific, immersive theatrical experiences. As an actor, P.J. first gained experience in “immersive theater” playing principal roles in some of the country’s most critically-acclaimed and financially-successful immersive productions, including Sleep No More and Bond: Shaken Not Stirred in New York City, For the Record: Baz Luhrmann in Los Angeles, Descent in Sarasota and The Sleepy Hollow Experience in Massachusetts. P.J.’s other recent theater credits include “St. Jimmy” in American Idiot on Broadway, “Leon Czolgoscz” in Assassins at Yale Repertory Theater and “Jett Rink” in The Public Theater’s premiere of Giant. P.J. received the 2010 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Featured Performance for Set-Up & Punch at The Blank Theater and the 2017 New York Musical Theater Festival Award for Outstanding Lead Performance for Georama. He can be seen on television in guest starring in roles in episodes of Blue Bloods, Gotham, Jessica Jones, The Good Wife, The Mysteries of Laura and Without a Trace, as well as in the feature films Easter Mysteries and The Dark Knight Rises. He has worked on the production staff Comedy Central Presents, Phenomenon, MADtv and VH1 Storytellers.

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

      A Meeting of the IMTAL Minds!  
    IMTAL Luncheon @ the AAM Conference
    Phoenix, Arizona - May 7th, 2018

    By Douglas Coler, IMTAL President

    Arizona weather can be lovely at certain times of the year—and early May is usually one of those times. Attendees at the Annual AAM Conference and Expo were greeted with daily temperatures that hovered around 106 degrees F (roughly 41 degrees C for those of you in the rest of the world). Those temperatures are not unheard of at the height of summer in Phoenix, and although one should always expect the unexpected in any desert, the oppressive Spring heat doesn’t explain the comparatively low turnout for the conference, or for our annual award luncheon. After all, most of us had to make reservations some months in advance, and I’d wager, few us consulted the Farmer’s Almanac prior to making travel plans.

    Chalk it up to climate change, perhaps. Those who chose not to come were spared the the unrelenting heat, but they also missed an opportunity to share a meal and some memories with us.

    On Monday, May 7, in a quiet dining space at the Sheraton Grand Phoenix, a dozen members of The International Museum Theatre Alliance met for lunch, and to honor our IMTY and Lipsky Award recipients, Heather Nielsen and P.J. Griffith (much more about them elsewhere in this issue). We spent the first roughly ninety seconds on round-robin introductions, then moved on to an impromptu “state of the organization” report and also announced the location and dates for our 2018 conference, hosted by the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, this September 10-12.

    I introduced Heather and presented her with the IMTY Award, and Vice President Todd Norris introduced playwright/actor P.J. Griffith and presented him with the Lipsky Award. Both Heather and P.J. were lovely speakers, and we were delighted that they chose to be with us in person. We all enjoyed ourselves, so much that the scheduled 75-minute event stretched to more than 90 minutes, and we were all still deep in conversation when the hotel staff arrived to gently shoo us away. We hadn’t thought to assign an official photographer, however, so the luncheon, the presentations, the speeches, and the laughs are consigned only to the memories of those in attendance.

    It was definitely worth the possibility of heat stroke. Next year’s luncheon is at the AAM Conference in New Orleans, where it will not only be damnably hot, but uncomfortably humid as well. I hope that you’ll join us.   


    As of May 2018, the International Museum Theatre Alliance has 127 members (61 of which are institutional memberships) across 12 countries, 19 US states, and the District of Columbia.

    Attendance at our previous two regional conferences was:
    2016: Denver/Littleton, CO - 63
    2017: Mystic, CT - 33
    (The discrepancy can be traced to Denver having many
    one-day attendees from the 4 institutions that hosted us.)

    That means that roughly 25% of our members attended our last conference, an extraordinary figure for an organization our size!

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

  • 30 May 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

     Exploring New Worlds: 
     Using Technology to Expand Imagination 

    By Dave McLellan

    Museum theater professionals get the most interesting of requests and our Kohl’s Wild Theater program from the Zoological Society of Milwaukee is no exception. In 2013, we were asked to develop a STEM-based theatrical program for middle school audiences that would feature our zoo’s fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In 2016, we were asked to make a show about the solar system; a strange request when you consider that we are a very earth-oriented institution. But, being the museum creative types that we are, we didn’t shy away from these challenges. In fact, these two projects had a lot in common because they used audio-visual technologies to enhance storytelling in ways that would otherwise be impossible.

    Before I jump into the technological journeys, I need to state clearly that technological gizmos are not required for great storytelling. In fact, I almost always prefer the creative use of simple objects to encourage active participation and imagination from the audience. But sometimes imagination might not be enough, or even worse, could do a disservice to the message you are trying to share. My best example is the show about fieldwork in the Congo – The Congo Code. Our institution is a leader in bonobo conservation and does extraordinary work to study and protect the species in their natural habitat. The reality is that bonobos are the rarest of the great apes due to intense poaching. Letting young audiences imagine the risks associated with that part of the world could result in legitimate fear or concern that would disengage the audience. How do you teach about life-threatening violence in an age-appropriate way?

    Our creative hook was gaming. We researched stories such as Jumanji and The Hunger Games. We learned about the use of video games in traditional education. We considered violence in video games and what would be age appropriate for a middle school audience. As an artistic team, it was decided early on that a video game would provide the best world to safely navigate the real-life threat of poaching that our conservationists experience in the field. To achieve this effect, we knew that we couldn’t rely on simple props alone. Instead, we created a 7-foot screen with a rear projector that served as the majority of the set. The audience’s imaginations were still in charge as we led them to believe that we were in a gaming space. We still used simple objects such as pixilated icons that were operated by puppeteers. In fact, the bonobo in the story was portrayed by two puppeteers with pixilated costumes to represent their involvement in the game. But the inclusion of technology gave us control of the world. We used live cameras to differentiate between real-life and the game. One character of the show was grounded in the real world and projected into the video game screen. Others were live actors playing characters as functions of the game. Using cameras, projections, and sound to express the world of the play made a complicated subject accessible. At the end of the show, we led a talk-back with the audience that included the real video footage of our conservation teams in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Audiences could see the real-life version of the game on stage, a presentation that would be otherwise impossible without investment in technology.

    Flash forward a few years to our challenge of going into space. The first question to answer was how to tie space curriculum to our institutional mission of conservation. The solution was to examine Earth’s unique capacity to support life in comparison to the other planets. After a few failed script drafts, we realized that we needed to travel to all of the planets. Otherwise, we would only talk about space which would get very boring very fast. To solve this problem, we drew upon the technologies we developed from producing The Congo Code. The key elements were a rear projector and a live camera. But this time, it wasn’t an all-inclusive screen defining the world of the play. In this new show, the projections served as a large computer monitor on the control deck of an imaginary spaceship. With the use of projections, we could show images of what the spaceship was passing. We could pull up images of Earth and animals featured in the show. We even made the computer into a character that could interact with the actors on stage. The result was our show, The Monarch: A Space Adventure.  With the use of simple technologies, we could expand the imaginary journey to experiences that would otherwise seem juvenile.

    The technologies we employed in 2014 and 2018 were the same, but the way we managed those assets changed greatly between the two shows. First and foremost, we learned that to successfully use this technology, you need staff support to manage it. The more gadgets and gizmos you add, the more possibility that something could go wrong. If you only have your acting team on hand to resolve the issues, the entire experience can be disrupted. We now operate all of our shows with a stage manager who is trained to troubleshoot malfunctions during a performance. Secondarily, you need a partner that has a great understanding of the technology and the ability to adapt it to your needs. Museum Theater, by its nature, has to be adaptable to non-traditional spaces. To make technology work in that regard, there needs to be a developmental process to work out bugs. Many of our technological accomplishments have been possible through a collaboration with Chris Guse, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who specializes in audio-visual technologies in theater. We have been able to utilize Chris’s expertise in development, implementation, and post-launch to deal with technical issues at every phase.

    At the end of the day, the goal is to tell a compelling story that delivers a clear message to the audience about your institution’s mission. If used correctly and with specific intent, technology can bolster Museum Theater’s potential. For us, technology opened opportunities to dive into surreal worlds of our imagination and launch us into outer space.  But if we didn’t have the support mechanisms to adapt and maintain the technology, the entire operation could be derailed and would defeat the point of doing theater in the first place. With the right mix of imagination, creativity, and technical expertise – anything is possible.  

    This article can be found in Spring 2018 - "The Future is Now: Tech in Museum Theatre" (Volume 28, Issue 2) of IMTAL Insights.


    Dave McLellan currently directs Kohl’s Wild Theater, a program from the Zoological Society of Milwaukee in partnership with Kohl’s Cares. Since 2011, Kohl’s Wild Theater has produced over 22 original plays and musicals to be performed at the Milwaukee County Zoo and on tour throughout Southeast Wisconsin. In June of 2018, Dave will transition to become the Director of Guest Experience for the EarlyWorks Family of Museums in Huntsville, AL.

  • 30 May 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

     Museum Theatre: 
     small, Medium, or SUPERSIZE? 

    By Todd D. Norris
    Associate Vice President of Interpretation and Family Programs,
    Children's Museum of Indianapolis

    During each new training class for incoming interpreters, Josh Estes, STEM & SPX Galleries Interpretation Manager, likes to tell our new hires that every day, we are hosting an amazing party for our guests. He is right. During our guests’ stay with us, we will use every trick in our arsenal to educate, amuse, delight, stimulate, reveal, spark, grow, and engage them, regardless of age. We are called a Children’s Museum, but we are actually a Families’ Museum. Our exhibits and programs are designed purposefully to engage the entire age spectrum, from toddlers to seniors. We also recognize that there are more and more choices for families to spend their recreational and educational dollars on, so the responsibility is on us to provide experiences that they won’t find anywhere else. Experiences that they want to see over and over again. Experiences that turn them on to ideas they hadn’t considered before – and all of it presented in the highest quality, most engaging formats possible. That’s why we give so much attention to the technical aspects of our museum theatre.

    The Interpretation department at TCM is fortunate to have great institutional support at the highest level, and we are fortunate that we are usually provided resources to execute our assignments. But we also realize that bigger is not always better, and that the right tool for the job is crucial to success. We create museum theatre at several levels, depending on different factors including content, performance area, family learning goals, and run time of the exhibit. The technical requirements vary, but we take all of these factors into consideration to make sure that the small programs are supported in a way that allows us to deploy other resources for larger scale productions. Some of our shows are designed to attract guests to the museum or to a specific exhibit, some are designed to elaborate on themes presented in the galleries, and some are designed to explore related content that floor space or label limits restrict.

    Like most institutions, many of our programs are built on formulas that have been time-tested for success. Occasionally, we have the opportunity to look for new solutions to technical challenges. What I hope to do is share some recent programs of varying technical sophistication, which I hope will serve as a springboard of ideas for both seasoned and brand new practitioners of Museum Theatre.

    One of the most moving sets of programs we have offered is My Story, the three character monologues that were presented in our National Geographic Sacred Journeys exhibit which opened in 2015. We developed three composite characters, and each one shared their particular story about a pilgrimage that had life changing impacts. One of the simplest formats, a character monologue, did not require heavy technical requirements, but we wanted these simple, powerful stories to shine, so the appropriate tech elements for these were as follows:

    1. Track lights focused directly onto the playing area
    2. Costumes that were appropriate, but not eye-catching
    3. Small images on easels for reference
    4. One large backdrop for each piece, in this case a vinyl curtain hung on a rod that could be pulled out for shows or tucked behind a wall when not needed.

    Of these four elements, the standout “wow” was the backdrops. We chose vivid, dramatic representations of the Western Wall, the Labyrinth of Chartes Cathedral, and bright red Torii Gates. They grounded the pieces visually, and gave the actors a large visual to refer to, but as important and successful as they were, I believe that the lighting – just a couple of adjustable track lights—were more crucial to the actors’ success. It can be surprising how often non-theatrical organizations will present pieces in shadow. Good directors and designers know that if an audience can’t see you, they can’t hear you. If they can’t see the performer’s eyes, they are less likely to connect with the character and the story. In addition, the space usually needs more light than initially we might think. There is a reason spotlights are effective. They focus the eye where the action is. Sometimes, just a small bump in area lighting is enough, particularly in a space not designed for performance, to guide our eyes to the performer, which makes their jobs just a little bit easier. In this image, notice how sharply the sides and top of the space recede into darkness of this multi-purpose room. This particular actor is extremely tall, so we were pushing the boundaries of keeping his face lit, but he and the other five actors who performed these monologues were seen clearly, so they could deliver their compelling stories to receptive audiences of all ages.

    Our large-scale programs take place in our large, open Sunburst Atrium. This atrium connects our welcome center, food court, museum store, and Dinosphere exhibit, and is the central hub of the museum. In the last six years, it has also gradually evolved into a performance venue for audiences of 10–500. One selling point of the museum to members is that we are always changing and developing new experiences. That means that we are also expected to develop new Atrium Shows, which requires increasing ingenuity and resourcefulness from my team, as we have forced this space to mature in its technical capacities far beyond those for which it was designed.

    In many ways, our newest Atrium Show, Sports Legends Spectacular! is one of the smallest of these programs. The goal of this short, seven-minute pep rally is to get our guests pumped up to go outdoors and explore our new 7.5 acre, three-gallery expansion, Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience. This is our shortest Atrium Show, and uses one actor as a cheerleader. We use two staff as “backstage techs,” to run the music, and to coach the families, as there are seven audience participation moments written into the script. The technical elements for this production are:

    1. Intelligent lights programmed to provide a ballyhoo effect
    2. Recorded voice and music throughout the piece
    3. Lighting to brighten the stage area
    4. Split background banner for the audience “rookies” to burst through
    5. Fog machine
    6. Oversized prop trading cards and jerseys for audience recruits
    7. Clipboard for recording “rookie” names for announcements
    8. Cheerleader costume, pompoms, and cheer flag

    One of the aspects we consider when selecting equipment for a show is whether we will be able to reuse that same equipment for other programs, which saves money in the long run. A few years ago, we created a fairytale Atrium Show, and because of large hats, wigs, and set placement, the actors’ faces were always in the shadows. My team was able to work to hang two lights that had the effect of warming the actors’ faces just a bit, so they could be better seen. The Sunburst Atrium is a large, open space, and when the sun is bright, it isn’t always a noticeable difference, but on overcast days, it makes a world of difference. A bit of an investment for a subtle, but crucial result. Those lights are now a part of all the Atrium Shows, as they bump up the quality in a subtle, but meaningful way. We 

    have used fog machines in several of our Atrium Shows, in our DIY Circus gallery program, and our theatre, so our investment in those units has paid off many times over. The intelligent lights were the major new addition for this show, but after this show finishes its run, if we don’t need them for the next one, they will be moved to the theatre, where we use intelligent lights in almost every production.

    When the Children's Museum of Indianapolis featured the Terra Cotta Warriors in 2014, we were tasked to create an experience that would encourage attendance and also spark the curiosity of our young guests to want to learn more about these ancient wonders. We had great success with bringing the fossils of our juvenile T. rex, Bucky, to life, so we sought to do the same with one of the warriors. We knew that we needed a higher-quality costume than we could produce in house, or that was available commercially, so we partnered with the costume design faculty and students at Butler University. The class worked from their professor’s design to build and paint an amazing costume that continues to surprise and delight audiences each time we present this magical program. In the picture at left, a child looks at a replica of a Terra Cotta Warrior.

    In the picture below, you see our archaeologist, “Dr. Schloss,” with our version of the standing warrior at a local television station. Butler did a pretty good job, don’t you think?

    This show is the most content-heavy of all our large shows, so to get across all the points, the following tech elements were used:

    1. Vinyl backdrop
    2. Customized “crate” with hand truck containing colored lighting
    3. Replica weapons: sword, crossbow, spear
    4. Large photo close-up of statue with paint
    5. Lab coat costumes for actor and child assistants
    6. Camera with flashbulb
    7. Clipboard and pencil
    8. “Jade tablet” prop with embedded LED lighting
    9. “Jade tablet fragment” for audience plant
    10. Recorded music

    We were fortunate to be able to take advantage of some staff creativity for this project, as our Interpretation Operations Manager, Johnny Marquis, had excellent ideas about building the tablet, embedding lights in it, and constructing the crate and adding the lighting. He was able to fabricate the tablet out of foam and LED lights, and was able to work with our in-house production team to build the crate. This show provides six opportunities for audience participation, covers at least five content-points, and still provides surprises, laughter, and WOW moments to audiences. One of the best parts of this project has been that even though the Warriors have long since marched on, this content still connects directly to the subject matter in our archaeology gallery, so we continue to be able to offer this show for years to come.

    The simplest programs require an actor, and audience, and a place to present. Assuming the actor can be seen and heard sufficiently, that is all that is needed. Many museums, including the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, present simple, effective programs using little more than these essentials. But, as exhibitions, audiences, and expectations evolve, those of us who create museum theatre have an obligation to meet and exceed those expectations. This is not to say that large budgets and resources are requirements for compelling theatre, but rather a reminder that the consideration of the most basic technical elements, sound and light, can enhance a good presentation, which can ignite a spark of curiosity in the audience, and from there, we can build on our successes to bring our audiences along with us to new levels of experience, and greater heights of exploration.  

    This article can be found in Spring 2018 - "The Future is Now: Tech in Museum Theatre" (Volume 28, Issue 2) of IMTAL Insights.


    Todd D. Norris is the Associate Vice President of Interpretation and Family Programs for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Prior to moving to Indiana in 2013, Todd held several positions at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation including Training Specialist, Manager of Evening Programs and Performing Arts, and Senior Manager of Performance Interpretation. In addition to his administrative duties at both institutions, he has written, directed, produced and performed many programs and plays for them. Todd has an MFA in Acting from the University of Louisville and a BA in Theatre Performance from The University of Findlay. He has taught and directed at several schools including The College of William and Mary, Christopher Newport University, Alice Lloyd College and Wright State University. He is an associate member of the theatrical union, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, and continues to work as a freelance director. He is also an avid amateur musician, having performed at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia and with the MasterWorks Chorale of the Louisville Orchestra. Todd is currently the Vice President of IMTAL.

  • 30 May 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

    Technology of Puppetry 

    By Eli Presser

    A group of children recite lines from the Book of Going Forth by Day (commonly known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead), they hope to guide the shadow puppet of a recently deceased woman through the trial of having her heart weighed on the scales against the feather of truth. Occasionally she passes the test unscathed.    

    A collective scream surges through a small theater as an adult Smilodon fatalis roars. The host is surrounded by the audience at the performance’s conclusion

    A timid hand rises to meet the snout of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex. Expressions of pride, terror, and curiosity flash rapidly across their face.

    A crank is turned for the first time, bringing life to a series of levers, which in turn animate the wings of a miniature pterosaur. The newly minted mechanical engineer responsible is ten years old.

    An anthropomorphic Mountain Lion sits for an interview with an advocate of Community Science. Is the Community Scientist flirting with our feline representative? Surely not…

    Every week the staff of the NHMLA (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) Performing Arts Program use puppetry and its associated arts as a means with which to explore the museum’s collections and touring exhibitions. The Performing Arts Program began in 2008 as a temporary measure intended as a stopgap during the renovation of our Dinosaur Hall.  We began with two life sized juvenile dinosaur puppets (typically referred to as “full-suit puppets”) built by the skilled fabricators of the Australia-based creature effects and performance company, Erth, in collaboration with museum Paleontologists. It soon became apparent that these programs offered an irreplaceable guest experience. In light of this, the program was not dissolved following the Dinosaur Hall’s completion but was instead expanded. In the years since our formation, we have diversified our programming both in subject and medium. Current programs run the gamut of puppet related disciplines: animatronics, toy theater, shadow theater, digital animation, rod puppetry, mask theater, and automata have all been used as means of interpreting museum exhibits. Our collaboration and subject matter have grown in scope as well. In addition to our work focused on dinosaurs we have developed performance experiences that interpret biomechanics, community science, Egyptology, marine biology, living history, and Pleistocene paleontology.

    As our subject matter, medium, and audience has expanded, so too has our interest in exploring those tools and techniques that might be added to our repertoire. We now use professional lighting, sound, and projection equipment for our performances.  These technologies assist us in creating a strong context for the work we create, but for the purposes of this article I’d like to focus on the technology as it relates to the mechanisms and methodologies of our specific puppetry practice.

    Puppetry is an old art form with roots in early animistic traditions. Over the millennia it has served as a vehicle for worship, popular entertainment, fine art, and political subversion. The 17th and 18th century playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote highly regarded dramas for the bunraku puppet theater, the mechanisms of which continue to inspire roboticists to this day. In the 1920’s Lotte Reiniger would adapt shadow puppets for film, creating the first animated feature film and setting the stage for the animated films of Walt Disney. In the 1980’s puppetry would became a fundamental contributor to pre-digital special effects. Many of the current generation of military remote controlled robots use interface systems adapted from those systems originally used to manipulate animatronic puppets.  The methods and mechanisms of puppetry are as varied as the cultures from which they were born. It is, at its heart, an art of crafting the illusion of physiology and physics. A puppet show may seek to animate the movement of planetary bodies with equal efficacy as it might animate a cat. With this history in mind I think puppetry serves as a useful, if simplistic, means of viewing the evolution of technology. With puppets as with industry, the promise of new technology is usually a promise of old technological innovations - reimagined or recontextualized, miniaturized or enlarged. The puppets we use at NHMLA are no different. The steel cables that run the length of our animatronic smilodon fatalis are simply a lateral counterpart of the strings of a marionette. The sound system that gives our tyrannosaurus its growl is built of a car stereo and a guitar effects pedal. The mechanical components and systems that allow our triceratops to emulate the movement of a quadrupedal animal were harvested from bicycles and orthopedic forearm crutches. It is my belief that at nearly any moment the technological solution to a problem exists somewhere in the world as a tool or component designed for an entirely unrelated objective.  

    This article can be found in Spring 2018 - "The Future is Now: Tech in Museum Theatre" (Volume 28, Issue 2) of IMTAL Insights.


    Eli Presser is a Chicago-born puppeteer living in Los Angeles. He began his study of puppetry under the mentorship of Redmoon Theater and Michael Montenegro in 1996, completing his formal studies with Janie Geiser at the Cotsen Center of Puppetry Arts. Over the course of Eli's career he has had the privilege of working alongside a variety of prominent artists including Norah Jones, Kanye West, Joey Arias, Richard Foreman, John C. Reilly, and Bill Viola. His most recent contributions to puppetry have been as co-writer and director of "Kafka in Wonderland" with half past selbur schuldand as lead puppeteer on "The Mill at Calder's End", conceived and directed by Kevin Mcturk. In his current role as Technical Coordinator for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's Performing Arts Program, Eli continues to work towards the creation of performances that fulfill the public's need for artistry, education, and inspiration.

  • 26 Feb 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

      Puppets: Undomesticated  

    By Julia Garcia Combs

    As an artist and educator, when faced with a question or a problem I always return to the source. Recently the Education staff at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles began a process of investigating the original intention of the puppets aboard the permanent exhibition Noah’s Ark at the Skirball. Through discussion, rehearsal and practical implementation with our visitors, we are experimenting with how best to engage visitors with the puppets and bring the exhibition to life in authentic and imaginative ways.

     For a little bit of context—“Noah’s Ark at the Skirball” is an award-winning, permanent interactive installation at the Skirball Cultural Center where visitors are invited to become part of the story itself. As a Cultural Center with a core mission of being “a place of Welcome” for all people, we open the story to interpretation from visitors. We focus on the metaphor of a community coming together to weather a storm in search of a second chance to build a better world. Educators bring the galleries to life through imaginative play, inquiry, oral storytelling, music, dance and puppetry. We use the arts to teach social and behavior skills to our youngest visitors and to communicate valuable themes and messages to everyone aboard Noah’s Ark.

    The ark is filled with animal sculptures made from recycled and repurposed materials. There are 386 static animals, 12 animals with partial moving parts, and 24 extraordinary animal puppets designed by Brooklyn-based artist and puppeteer Chris Green. Our puppets serve as an extension of the space, kinesthetically energizing the exhibition. They are a bridge between story and reality, between the make-believe animals and the human animals that roam the ark. Visitors may be collecting food in the Ark’s kitchen when a Fox (made from a shoe, teacups and a rolling pin) emerges from a dark corner, curious about what might be on the menu. A snow leopard stalks by, pausing to survey the area. A hummingbird flutters by in search of nectar, and a Langur Monkey swings from the rafters. As visitors respond to the animals, a delicate interaction ensues.

    Recently Chris Green, the creator of the puppets, returned to the Skirball to lead a workshop for all current staff. As the Puppet Lead, it was an opportunity for me to soak up knowledge to pass on to a new generation of puppeteers. It was an opportunity to develop my ability to teach and train puppeteers, and to grow in my own work as a performer. As I listened to the intention and back-story of each animal, the artist’s philosophy of work, and tips on technical operation of the puppets, we discovered that our team as a whole had subtly departed from the original intention of puppetry in the exhibition.

    Chris Green reminded us that the animals he created are wild animals, not domesticated. He described the original idea of “animal sightings” as a source of surprise and awe. Over the years we shifted to an approach that was perhaps a little friendlier to our visitors, our foxes behaving like domesticated dogs and our chickens stopping for long moments to allow toddlers to touch their beaks. Green spoke of kinetics, relating to or resulting from motion; of a work of art depending on movement for its effect. He emphasized the movement through the space as opposed to direct interaction with visitors. Watching him work we could see his deep commitment to the purpose of bringing stories to life through objects. He reminded us that by not giving the visitors everything they want we are actually giving them a gift, it is an act of generosity, teaching patience and respect.

    I came away from the training feeling inspired, but also wanting to acknowledge that we on Noah’s Ark had moved away from the original intention of the artist. We realized that we had some difficult work ahead to break our habits. It is our instinct as educators to be kind and generous to everyone we encounter, but we have to remember that our objective while puppeteering is to create a sense of authenticity in the movement and behavior of wild animals. As puppeteers it is an opportunity to be more aware of our surroundings, reacting to stimulus as an instinctual creature might respond.

    One of the greatest strengths of our education staff is our ability to receive feedback and work as an ensemble to improve our practice in service of the visitors’ experiences. We began to discuss the idea of engaging our visitors with the puppets, yet leaving them wanting more – it became an opportunity for those teachable moments we are all in search of. Intrinsic in the Noah’s Ark exhibit are messages of conservation and taking care of the environment and through this new approach to puppeteering our animals we have the opportunity to teach respect for wildlife. We can also teach a sense of respect for others as we remind children to give animals their space, rather than allowing the approach of ownership one might feel over a domesticated animal.

    By taking the time to ask ourselves to look at our process, we serve our staff and visitors simultaneously. In changing our point of view, we have increased visitors’ intrigue in the Noah’s Ark puppets. Suspension of disbelief grows as our puppeteers find new ways to explore on the ark. New and unusual interactions occur that inspire a sense of awe, awareness and respect. These puppets are a rare opportunity for visitors to witness a unique art form and for us to challenge ourselves as educators. By returning to the original intention of the artists’ work we are finding new ways to fulfill the education department’s mission to teach through the arts, build human connections, and foster empathy, thereby bringing new life into our facilitation and in turn, to the visitors’ experience.  

    This article can be found in Winter 2018 - "Finding the Story: Creative and Collaborative Processes" (Volume 28, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.


    Julia Garcia Combs is a performing artist, full-time Educator at the Skirball Cultural Center and an Ensemble Member with the Rogue Artists Ensemble (a collective of multi-disciplinary artists who create Hyper-theater, an innovative hybrid of theater traditions). At the Skirball, she develops and facilitates programs for the renowned children's space, Noah's Ark serving as Puppet Lead, training and coaching staff in the art of puppetry. 

    “Sometimes it takes a long time to play like yourself.”
    - Miles Davis

  • 26 Feb 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

     Then and Now: 
     Finding Our Way Through Storytelling 

    By Jenny Gillett

    The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City is a historic home and museum that tells the personal stories of American immigration. I remember hearing a lot about the Museum and its immersive approach to teaching history, so one summer on a visit to New York, I made a point of checking it out. 

    Knowing the tours tended to sell out, I went on the website and selected a tour that reflected my family heritage. My mother's family is Italian-American, so I booked the "Hard Times" tour. Our educator guided us through the space, originally built in 1863 and occupied continuously until 1935, introducing us to real families that lived in 97 Orchard St. One of them was the Baldizzi family, who immigrated from Sicily in the 1920's. Adolfo, the father, was a carpenter like my grandfather Salvatore, who immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1929. I was struck by the similarities in this family's story and my own family history, was moved by hearing tales of their struggle, and was captivated by audio recordings of some of the family members recalling their memories of the tenement. This history felt like a part of my own story.

    Fast forward a few years and I’ve moved to New York and find myself working as an educator at the Tenement Museum. The first tour I started teaching was Hard Times, completely by coincidence, but it was easy for me to learn and lead as I felt connected to its story in a personal way. This intimate connection to history, using the actual stories of residents to help illustrate the larger experiences of immigration, makes the Tenement Museum successful at illuminating countless family journeys to the United States. 

    In order to construct these stories, the Museum relies upon several methods of research and exploration. For example, on the Hard Times tour, we also feature the story of Julius and Natalie Gumpertz, a German-Jewish family that lived at 97 Orchard Street in the 1870‘s. To tell the story of this family, we engage in storytelling based upon primary sources - census records, birth and death certificates, court records, and more. From these records we discover information such as when they lived in the building, their professions, whether or not they were educated and whether they sought financial assistance in times of trouble. We have limited knowledge, but what becomes more important is what we can learn from these past experiences that may be cyclical, and may apply to immigrant stories today.

    I love the moments on my tours when visitors engage and share their own family traditions and stories. For example, when I lead the Irish Outsiders tour I often share Irish music and food traditions, followed by traditions from my own Italian-American family. On a tour this past Christmas Eve, several families shared their own Christmas Eve food and family traditions, from Peru to Austria to the Middle East and more. Learning about traditions we share over time creates a larger idea and conversation, and may illuminate the many values we actually share. 

    In addition to documents that clue us in to family stories, with our later families such as the Baldizzis, we use recorded oral histories from residents that grew up in the building. The museum’s newest tour, Under One Roof, located in our second Tenement building at 103 Orchard Street, features three families and takes us into the 1970’s – using interviews with living relatives who have so kindly decided to share their experiences. This provides an even closer look at the lives of our residents, and an even more significant way for visitors to connect.

    Another way the Museum engages with its visitorship is through its digital initiative, Your Story, Our Story, or YSOS. YSOS invites Museum visitors, both school groups and the public, to contribute images and stories of family heirlooms in order to explore a connection to their heritage. In addition to contributing their own story, visitors can browse thousands of other entries and explore thematic links between contributions. YSOS provides a unique opportunity to examine cross-cultural and cross-generational similarities in our family stories. For students, it provides the opportunity to learn more about their own families, and shows us all how we may honor our own ancestral journeys.

    When my grandfather passed away last year, I shared his story and a photo of a trestle table he had built on YSOS. My grandfather Salvatore, later called Sam, came to the United States when he was only nine years old. His family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania to work at the General Electric factory. He fought in World War II, then met my grandmother Elvira and they settled down and raised four children together. He worked as a cabinet maker at General Electric, but was also an artist, creating beautiful pieces of furniture, turned candlesticks, inlaid dishes, and other family heirlooms that we still treasure today. 

    Now, when I tell the story of the Baldizzi family, and how Adolfo was a carpenter and cabinet maker himself, I think of my own grandfather and my own family's journey. I am proud to share my story with our visitors to the Tenement Museum, and hope that the experience visiting and engaging in storytelling with us will help inspire reflection and reverence for their own family stories as well.  

    This article can be found in Winter 2018 - "Finding the Story: Creative and Collaborative Processes" (Volume 28, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.


    Jenny Gillett is an educator with a performance background in puppetry and movement. As an educator, she focuses on teaching through the arts, and is especially interested in causes rooted in humanitarian work and social justice. She currently works as an Educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and as a Teaching Artist in New York public schools through Wingspan Arts. Previously, she has held positions at the Skirball Cultural Center where she facilitated the Build A Better World Program, at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan where she led the Museum’s Shelter Outreach Program, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County where she presented educational curriculum using performance and puppetry, and at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum where she operated a life-sized Saber Toothed Cat puppet built by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. She holds her M.A. in Educational Theatre from New York University.

  • 26 Feb 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

    Collaborative Construction:
     Building the Perfect Program

    By Michelle Myers

    Story is certainly not something we lack at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Our streets are overflowing with many varied cultures and rich history. In fact, the Aquarium itself sits atop very special ground that has been inhabited by many different people for thousands of years. The Ohlone tribes lived up and down our coast from Salinas to Big Sur. A prominent Chinese fishing village was located on the same site as our Ocean’s Edge wing. Nearly 60 years before the Aquarium was even a thought, the Japanese-owned Sea Pride Cannery operated where our Open Sea wing stands today. And just next door lived one of the most famous, or infamous, residents of the area. Still standing today, as a tribute to its owner, is the laboratory of Ed Ricketts. Here, he and John Steinbeck would drink and discuss life amidst the Sicilian influx and the rise of Cannery Row. The difficulty we face in creating a program is not in finding a story, but more so in identifying the right story. It seemed to make perfect sense that if we were to do a story about the bay, it would need to incorporate the influences of those cultures that made this area what it is today.

    This “perfect” idea proved to be a challenging task on many levels. Most importantly, we wanted to be sure that we could provide a genuine and accurate representation of the Rumsien Ohlone, Chinese, Japanese and Sicilian cultures we were to feature in this presentation. To do this, we enlisted the guidance of a team of locally-sourced experts whose families all had a significant impact on the growth of our city. Each person shared his or her family’s stories which explained the cultural influences to current fishing practices and subsequently the building of the Monterey area. We knew that the authenticity these people brought from their respective cultures was something we wanted to feature. So much so, that they not only lent their stories to shape our production, but they lent their faces and voices as well. We realized there were no better people to share these stories than those who had grown up hearing them at their dinner tables and family gatherings. They all graciously accepted leading roles in our show by allowing us to record their ancestral history and those clips became the building blocks of our current script.

    Feeling quite accomplished that the concept was chosen and the script was coming together, our celebration was unfortunately short-lived. We knew that our work had just begun. We had to start the tedious process of crafting everything needed to showcase the fishing styles of the various cultures: props, costumes, boats, portable media, etc. Again, we brought together a team of experts representing many different departments within our organization. The main players in-house included Interpretive Media for the digital assets, Audio Visual Integration for the technology to run them, Exhibit Design to create a visual cohesion throughout the production, Exhibit Technicians to create the physical props and Public Programs to develop the casting needs and staging. That doesn’t include the companies, museums, composers and local historians outside of the aquarium that helped us to collect footage build historic boats, create themed music and develop costumes. It truly took a village to get all the pieces of the puzzle in one place and again the hard work was still yet to come. 

    Up until the day our actors stepped foot on our stage, this show was still very much hypothetical. The word stage is used quite loosely in our context. As we are a science and research institution, we were not built specifically to house theatrical performances. We have dabbled in the arts for some time knowing their importance in bringing story and empathy to science and research; however, this was the largest scale theatrical production we had ever worked on. Being brought in specifically for this project, one of my main roles was to get the production on its feet so the pressure was on! We certainly don’t have what is thought of as a traditional proscenium theater space. Instead, we have an outdoor amphitheater on our deck that overlooks the Monterey Bay and features a man-made tide pool area. It is unquestionably a gorgeous space, but it is not without challenges. First and foremost, we were given the very specific directive for the production to “complement not compete.” This space is often referred to as our biggest and best exhibit. We regularly have seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales and sea otters that pass by and the fear was that we may detract from the natural beauty if we were to add a bunch of bulky stage settings. Luckily, our show focused so heavily on the bay that it became a natural backdrop. One problem down, three-hundred and ninety seven to go! We had no house doors to close to limit traffic in and out. We had no dressing rooms hidden in close proximity to the stage. We had no curtains to close for scene changes and because of that no wings for actors to prep. Most of our challenges had simple, albeit creative solutions. However, the most ominous challenge of all, we had no lighting and no way to easily draw focus. 

    Our show consisted of actors on the stage space in the amphitheater, actors in the tide pool in boats ten feet below the stage and portable monitors playing historic footage flanking the sides. This was a recipe for chaos and confusion. Enter the directorial team! Lacking all of the typical tricks that directors have up their sleeves (i.e. sets, curtains, lighting, etc.) to steer the audience’s view, we knew we had to be very thoughtful and specific with our staging and blocking. We used the characters themselves to grab and give focus. If a character was exiting stage left, the boat would enter from the same side. If something important was on the screen, we would hold a character’s entrance just a few more seconds. If characters were suiting up to free dive for abalone, we would change the physicality of the character on stage to turn away from the audience and direct his or her attention on the action below. The majority of the three weeks we had to train our ten actors before the show officially opened, was spent honing in on the perfect blocking which was tweaked constantly throughout our twelve week run. The rest was spent trying to figure out how to row and navigate a fourteen foot replica of a Chinese sampan in a small tide pool. This was certainly my first time developing historical boat choreography which is a skill now prominently displayed on my theatrical resume.

    Turning the Tide: The Story of Monterey Bay officially opened on June 20th, 2015 to rave reviews. As we had hoped, it drew very diverse and very large groups. The production’s popularity and success became exceptionally evident from the sheer number of people that attended each show. We realized that our amphitheater space, which held a hundred or so people, was not enough. Day after day, we saw people lining the railings around the deck and even watching from the balconies overhead. We knew the development process would continue long after opening day so we could continue to grow the experience throughout its allotted three year run. After a successful summer collecting statistical and anecdotal feedback, we brought together a remedial team to discuss. One of the most obvious needs was the necessity to expand our stage space so we could play to the entirety of our audience. With people lining the railings up and down the deck, we were no longer playing to the audience in front of us. We now had audience on three sides which essentially meant changing our makeshift proscenium into a full thrust stage. Through the help of the interdepartmental team, we expanded our stage to incorporate stage spaces along the side railings and a third monitor that could reach people who were out of view of the two monitors flanking the amphitheater. Along with the hardware changes, we also altered blocking to play to all three sides of our thrust stage. We adjusted some of the digital visuals so as to not draw too much focus in certain high points of our action on stage. We even modified some of our script, music and character introductions to streamline and tighten the production as a whole. 

    Now gearing up for our fourth year after being extended indefinitely due to our success, we are still relying on countless teams both inside and outside of our organization to make this one fifteen minute, seasonal production a continued success. Each year, we challenge ourselves to identify new ways to better our performance and the overall development system we employ. Amidst the current remediation of Turning the Tide, we have also recently begun the process of assembling a development team to look forward to the possibility of new theatrical programming in this space. Our hope is that we not only educate our audience about the diverse community of people and animals interacting all around them, but that through that knowledge we can continue to use theatrical interpretation as a dynamic way to drive our mission: to inspire conservation of the ocean.   

    This article can be found in Winter 2018 - "Finding the Story: Creative and Collaborative Processes" (Volume 28, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.


    Michelle Myers brings stories to life as the Supervisor of Programs at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  As a member of the Actor’s Equity Union and graduating with a degree in Theatre from The Florida State University, she was able to forge a very unique path into the world of zoos and aquariums almost ten years ago.  Using her passion for the arts and her admiration of the environment, she brings her own style and flair to the science of EDUtainment.

  • 26 Feb 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

      Mary Walton: 
     Mother of Invention 

    Bringing a Hidden Figure to Life Using Primary Sources

    By Elysia Segal

    I first “met” Mary Walton in the summer of 2015 after she’d caught the eye of one of my supervisors who was conducting research for a “women in transportation” lecture. She was a vague reference, practically a footnote in the history of women in science, but was mentioned as having played a role in quieting the elevated railroad, the precursor to the subways that today run in a web of organized chaos underneath the streets of New York City.

    Located within a historic, decommissioned subway station from 1936, the New York Transit Museum is an immersive and interactive space unto itself, and the Journey to the Past program, offered to 1-3 graders, brings to life the social stories found within its collection through an encounter with a figure from the past on board a historic subway car.

    For the past six years, I’ve had the opportunity to perform for this program, however at that point we had never presented actual people from history, rather, our characters were more loosely based on things such the idea of a female subway “conductorette” from WWI and a character from a storybook who was trapped on an elevated train during the Blizzard of 1888. These figures allowed for flexibility and fun, and certainly touched upon community workers and historical events, but lacked authenticity relating to the stories we wanted to tell. Our department had just begun an initiative to overhaul our programming to better meet educational learning standards and to highlight more history and STEM in our collection, so this was a perfect chance to break the mold.

    When tasked with creating a program that told her story, I immediately felt a responsibility to ensure that I presented her tale, in full, and honored her legacy. After all, she was a real-life person. What if her real-life descendant visited the museum one day? I held myself accountable for hunting down her truth and crafting a well-rounded individual… and then I realized just how little had actually been published about her. Oh dear.

    As creators, we sometimes face this challenge of crafting authentic, historically accurate impressions of seemingly invisible people. Mary Walton was one of these “hidden figures” of history: a commonly overlooked heroine in her field. How then would I construct a meaningful piece of theatre which honored her life if no one has since written about her? How could a mere quote here and there open the door to a whole personality?

    Initially, many of the materials I found about Mary were poor and lacked much detail. Some were actually simple school reports written by children or a sentence here and there in an anthology about women inventors. Many also, unfortunately, merely repeated incorrect dates and information, I later came to find. I had to go much, much deeper to uncover not only more about her, but also about the things around her that informed who she was. This is where good research skills (and access to good resources) became essential.

    I began with genealogy. After digging through census records, I was able to rather quickly find her exact residence in NYC around the time that she performed her railroad experiments. Her home from that time no longer stands (the land is now part of a 17-story condominium which has housed the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Marisa Tomei and Isaac Mizrahi!), however it perfectly explains her annoyance with the incessant rattling, clanging and screeching of the trains.

    I also called upon a number of scholarly databases for years of archived newspapers and journals from the era, as well as any other sources I could find that mentioned her. Surely a woman patenting an invention at that time would receive some press? I was in luck. Many referenced her tactics (such as riding on the back of the trains to observe sounds), the way she looked, and of course great details of her invention, itself (including her original U.S. Patent, No. 237,422). Many also referenced young Thomas Edison’s failed attempts, which additionally opened the door for me to research his early work on sound aboard these trains. I uncovered an abundance of information, everything from his somewhat practical approaches (some of his earliest “phonantograph” recordings were of the noises of the elevated trains), to the more unusual, such as watching paper move and even biting a block of wood to feel the sound vibrations. There are, additionally, numerous accounts of the passengers watching him and hearing about these bizarre experiments and thinking him quite silly… surely Mary thought no different, especially since he abandoned the project after only six weeks of research to no avail. I’ve always loved to think there was a bit of rivalry between the two of them (one quote I found even nods to this idea), and even if they never met, she certainly didn’t hide her unfavorable opinion about him!

    After all of this contextual research, I was able to construct a timeline of events and began to understand a bit more about her: who she was, how she carried herself, and how she may have spoken (both from quotes and simply the language of the newspapers of the time). I was also able to find a few rather lengthy quotes from her from varying sources about different aspects of her life, such as her upbringing (“My father had no sons but believed in educating his daughters. He spared no pains or expense to this end.”) and, of course, her experiment. The more I read, the more I discovered her personality, and could then compare it to the extent to which women were commonly educated at the time, as well as how they carried themselves and were perceived, in order to understand where she fit within society.

    She was smart, and though she did not have a formal science education, she was scrappy and resourceful. She read everything she could and used logic and reason to solve her problems (for example, she got the idea of using sand from an instance when her father was able to quiet the clanging of a blacksmith’s shop near her childhood home by setting their anvils in sand). She was also quite stubborn, had a wonderful sense of humor, and was something of an early feminist. In one quote, she mentions that years prior she had made “what has proved to be a valuable invention.” Her husband was so delighted with it that he showed it to one of his friends, who then promptly stole the idea as his own and reaped the benefits. “This time I determined there should be no man in it,” she is quoted as saying. Later, when patenting her railroad idea, her son even recommended she do it in his name. “People will think you a strong-minded woman, mamma!” he’d said. “Make your own inventions, my son,” she replied, “and have your name put to them.”

    There she was, and what a lively personality compared to the meek and fragile feminine ideal of the Victorian era!

    Next I had to marry her tale to the goals of the museum and learning standards, themes like “then and now,” “innovation,” “community,” and “transportation.” Many of these were an obvious fit, and for others I was fortunate to not have to reach too far. Like all Journey to the Past characters, this piece is performed inside of one of the museum’s historic train cars, in this case, a wooden BRT Brooklyn Union elevated car from 1907 (the oldest in the collection). This location has allowed me to highlight elements within the car itself—the seats, the handholds, etc.—allowing students to more easily imagine what it might have been for Mary Walton, Thomas Edison, or anyone of the era to actually ride inside an elevated car.

    My manner of dress and affected speech would also instantly inform the kids that I was not of this time. I made a point to reference the steam engines that pulled the trains above the ground, the woven rattan seats they sat upon, the horses down on the streets that were spooked by all of this dreadful noise... all of these things that were markedly different than the modern, electric subways that they ride today.

    Since the program was about an inventor and her innovation, I played up her process, the steps she took from start to finish: the scientific method. She noticed a problem, observed, hypothesized, experimented, and discovered a solution. It made it even more powerful that she wasn’t a formally recognized scientist (or a man!), as it demonstrated that anyone can make a difference in his or her community.

    I also had to consider my target audience (in this case, 1-3 graders), so in addition to simplifying a bit of the language and more complicated words, I also decided to incorporate a new, hands-on element that we’d never used in storytelling before: a workshop! Mary was a tinkering scientist after all, so I thought it would be fun to have the kids conduct a sound-absorbing experiment right alongside her, helping her come to her conclusion in real-time. She carries a number of small jars, each containing different materials—feathers, ribbons, shredded newspaper, even “horsehair” (the kids go nuts!)—as well as a small bell for each. She explains that she’s trying to determine which best “absorbs” sound, shaking a small jar of sand as an example… might they like to help her with her experiment? Oh, the excitement when they realize they get to take part in a historical science fair project!

    The kids are given the chance to observe, make a guess, shake and compare until they’ve narrowed it down to the very best: cotton! She decides to proceed with cotton and sand in her proposal to the railroad, all thanks to their help.

    The program ends with an educator showing her actual patent, pointing out the cotton and sand within the track diagram as well as her actual signature underneath the word “inventor.” There is instant payoff—the kids are both astounded to hear that her story is real, as well as so excited to see that she used the very thing that they helped her discover, thereby validating themselves as scientists right alongside her. I’d love to think that the real Mary Walton would be thrilled that her legacy serves to inspire more young minds, many of them girls, to become problem-solvers.

    I have since had the opportunity to repeat this process for another incredible story from our collection, that of Marshall Mabey, a tunnel-digging “sandhog” who, while constructing a tunnel in 1916, survived a “blowout” of pressurized air and was shot up through the riverbed. I have also created a new (moving!) interactive show about the mysterious opening day of Alfred Ely Beach’s 1870 Pneumatic Railway (considered to be the first actual subway in New York) which is constructed almost entirely out of primary source material!

    There are so many fascinating and overlooked stories and angles of history waiting to be unearthed within the pages of an old newspaper or census record. As more and more organizations begin to offer their materials online, these primary sources are literally at our fingertips. I encourage writers to dig deeper and use primary sources in their projects as a springboard or as supporting content: It will not only honor the truth and legacy of your subjects, but also enrich the offerings of your institution.  


    Mary Elizabeth Walton was an early environmentalist and citizen-scientist. In 1879, she kept a boarding house on 12th Street and 6th Avenue in NYC, right next to newly constructed Gilbert Elevated Railway. For months, these elevated trains provoked noise complaints due to their roaring steam engines and screeching brakes which echoed throughout the neighborhood. A young Thomas Edison had even been commissioned to try to solve this problem, however he abandoned the project after only about six weeks. Mary, citing the dreadful noises (and more personally the need for money!), took it upon herself to perform her own experiments to discover the cause—and solution—for the noise.

    After just three days of observation, she noticed that the tracks seemed to amplify the sounds of the trains due to the wooden support boxes that they sat inside, similar to the way the sound post works within a violin. She built a model of the tracks in her basement and discovered that by lining the support boxes with cotton and sand, the noise could be significantly reduced. After patenting the idea, she presented it to the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad Company (who were at first, of course, quite incredulous that a woman might be able to solve such a scientific problem), and was ultimately awarded $10,000 and royalties for life. Not bad for a lady, eh?

    This article can be found in Winter 2018 - "Finding the Story: Creative and Collaborative Processes" (Volume 28, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.


    Elysia Segal is an actress, historical interpreter and writer who creates engaging historical theatre to educate and inspire diverse audiences. Her interactive pieces, crafted largely from primary source material, tell important, often overlooked, stories and bring history and science to life. She has researched, written, and performed as a number of characters at the New York Transit Museum, as well as created educational family shows on topics ranging from “electricity” to an “Epic Rap Battle” on weather preparedness and sustainability. She has also written and performed for other organizations such as the New-York Historical Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Sons of Norway. A graduate of NYU, Elysia currently serves as a board member of IMTAL and is also a member of AAM, ALHFAM, NYCMER, Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA. Contact Elysia about her work here!

  • 26 Feb 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

      Six Characters 
     Discovering da Vinci 

    By Douglas Coler

    When I was told that Discovery Place Science would host Da Vinci’s Machines (on exhibit November 2017 to May 2018) I was hopeful for the theatrical possibilities that it presented.

    Da Vinci’s Machines is a 5,000+ square foot exhibition that features recreations of some the designs in Leonardo da Vinci’s surviving notebooks.  Some are full sized (a self-propelled cart, and theatrical knights automata) , most are scale models of machines da Vinci designed but, as far as is known, never built (his battle tank, his diving apparatus, his flying machines). Scattered among them are copies of his most famous paintings and drawings (The Last Supper, Mona Lisa, Lady with an Ermine, Madonna of the Rocks, and others).

     I initially wanted to present Jon Lipsky’s The Masque of Leonardo, written for a da Vinci exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Science in the early 1990’s. I’d read the piece, posted on his web site and made available royalty-free by his estate, and for a time, I considered it an ideal companion to the exhibition. It is a challenging, beautifully written short play that our adult audience would very much appreciate. It also calls for a bit more technical support the I had personnel for, so we put it aside in favor of monologues.

    We’d had a notable success with this model at Discovery Place Science  with Van Gogh Alive!, 101 Inventions That Changed The World, A Day in Pompeii, Guitar, and Shipwreck: Pirates and Treasure.  Most of those were done with contracted actors or educator staff, however. Last January, DPS decided to hire InterActors, a part -time staff dedicated solely to theatrical interpretation. That team of four - Christian Payne, Devin Walker, Adaline Pann, and Philip Robertson - present scripted programs throughout the museum, in galleries, in labs, in lobbies, in our Discovery Theatre, and at civic events, and in our traveling exhibitions hall.

    I assigned Hannah Simmons, a theatrically trained Educator who has written many of our programs, to find suitable characters for our InterActors to portray in the exhibit. Hannah’s great gift is her ability to, in a short amount of time, distill her research into compelling monologues. We prefer, when possible, to present the actual person and not a composite character, so Hannah and I settled on some historic figures fairly quickly. We knew we’d have Leonardo himself. We settled on Ludovico Sforza, da Vinci’s great patron in Milan, the man who commissioned The Last Supper; Michelangelo, his young, talented, arrogant rival; Pope Leo X, who housed da Vinci at the Vatican; Alessandro de Medici, the last hereditary Duke of Florence, grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent and who as a boy, was privileged to watch da Vinci at work for his father, and Bianca Sforza, niece of Ludovico, future Holy Roman Empress, and subject of the drawing known as la bella Principessa. 

    Composite characters work very well in most cases, particularly if you have them interacting for more than ten or twenty minutes at a time. We did consider this approach, but given that our InterActors have other shows to perform throughout the day, we opted for a set schedule of three monologues, one each at 11 am, 1pm, and 3 pm. If a particular InterActor had some clear time before their next, non-da Vinci show, they could opt to mingle in the exhibit after delivering the monologue.

    Our Exhibits team built us a small stage, and to keep the aesthetic consistent,  we used the spare wood and canvas dividers from the exhibit as our back drop. This also serves as a projection space for a fifteen minute documentary that plays on a loop between performances. The InterActors control lighting and sound before their entrance from backstage, and reset the film at the conclusion of their monologue.  The stage is situated at the second ‘turn’ in the hall, which allows for seating space and standing room for around 50 people.

    The rehearsals were undertaken a few weeks before opening. We are usually time constrained, as the InterActors are limited in their weekly hours and must still perform the other programs for which they were engaged, so rehearsals were a scattershot affair, but as all are monologues, it was easy enough to catch time and get every one sufficiently prepped. The InterActors are also required to continue reading and research for the duration of the exhibit’s stay.  In addition to the four InterActors, we have a talented volunteer docent with a  museum interpretation background, Christopher Emerson, who joins the team as Pope Leo X. Chris also wrote much of his own material.

    We’ve kept the costuming simple, favoring a suggestion of Renaissance clothing as opposed to detailed recreations, which were beyond our budget. Hand props are simple (a bird’s wing, scrolls, a book, a bottle and wine glass, an embroidery hoop, sculpting tools). A small plain stool and wooden trunk sit on the stage and serve for all settings and time periods.

    All the actors have Italian phrases sprinkled throughout their material. As Leonardo, I affect a slight modern Italian accent, which gives a sense of ‘otherness’ without overpowering the story. Michelangelo, too, adopts such  an accent, but the absence of an accent for some does not seem to disturb our audience.

    Audiences have responded enthusiastically. We’ve found that while many of our audience do want to see Leonardo in particular, they are surprised and delighted to find themselves in the presence of the Dukes, the Pope, the young Empress, and the hot-headed Michelangelo, who spends a good part of his time questioning the talent and reputation of da Vinci. (Leonardo, in turn, decries Michelangelo and his ilk, who declare passion as their guide and hold study and practice in low regard.) The six characters offer the visitor a chance to see different sides to the man da Vinci was, and how those contemporary views differ from, but also inform and enlighten our opinions and knowledge of him some 500 years later.  

    This article can be found in Winter 2018 - "Finding the Story: Creative and Collaborative Processes" (Volume 28, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.


    Douglas Coler is Coordinator, Shows and Floor Programming, at Discovery Place Science. In this capacity, he oversees the InterActors and the writing and production of programming at The Discovery Theatre, The Stage, The Rain Forest Theatre, and on-floor interactive demonstrations, as well as support programming for traveling exhibitions. He joined Discovery Place in 2008 as Presenter, and has also served as Dramatic Programming Specialist prior to assuming his current duties. He was an Associate Director for the national touring company Chamber Theatre Productions, and has served as Guest Director at Stonehill College in Easton, MA. He serves as Discovery Place’s representative with NISEnet (The National Informal Science Education Network), and is the current president of IMTAL.

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