To post your news or news from your instituiton, please email the IMTAL Secretary or IMTAL Membership with the subject line "IMTAL Member News." A typical blurb is about 150 words, and non-copyrighted photos are especially appreciated! Your contributions will be posted on this page and may also be published in INSIGHTS.

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  • 10 Sep 2015 10:32 AM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)

    Once More, With Feeling, the theme of this year’s regional conference, does not, I hope, imply that the last conference was *without* feeling. (In fact, I’d rank the 2014 IMTAL Regional conference as one of the best industry conferences I’ve ever attended….and I’ve been to many.) Rather, Once More, With Feeling speaks to the rush of excitement, the sense of purpose, and the warm familial glow we all had at the conclusion of last years conference, and our deep desire to capture that combination again.

    And I am so looking forward to spending a few days with people I’ve met many times, those I’ve met only once, and those that I’ll be meeting for the first (but surely not last ) time. 

    Our attendees are representatives from institutions I’ve visited, and from institutions I’ve not yet had the pleasure of visiting. They’re writers, actors, musicians, academics, scientists. They - we - are communicators. What’s fascinating to me is that, through these people, I’ve met more people who are in some ways touched by  the IMTAL mission, individuals who support the work we do and the passion behind that work. 

    It is up to us to press forward with our mission.  To those who may have had some exposure to our myriad methods of engagement and still have been unmoved, I say give another listen, take another look…once more, with feeling.

    Your visitors will thank you. 

  • 17 May 2015 10:30 AM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)

    By Charmaine Spencer, Script Consultant for the Puppeteers of America

    Originally Published in INSIGHTS, Volume 16, Number 4, Winter 2006


    Tell me young lady, what do you want from Santa’s workshop?


    I’ve got a big black dog and he’s going to eat you up.

     True story, and a good argument for keeping those spectators silently and respectfully in their place. Breaking the fourth wall to involve the audience in a performance is a risky business.

     Sometimes there’s just no good reason for it. Besides that, if Alice in Wonderland invites a group of kids to climb up on the stage to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, the audience suddenly becomes aware that they aren’t really in the wonderland they were having so much fun believing in.

    Still, after thirty-some years as a playwright and puppeteer, I’m convinced that A) given the right venue and the right material presented in the right way, participation can greatly enhance the live theatre experience, especially for young children, and B) audience involvement can be successfully integrated into a performance. Nine out of ten audiences will respond appropriately, if they know what’s expected and that number ten bunch can be handled if performers are flexible and have some tricks in reserve.

    Over the years, with the help of Brian Way’s great book, Audience Participation: Theater for Young People, I believe I’ve figured out how to involve audiences without sending a production off it’s track. I set down this list of rules for myself and though I’m a novice in the area of museum theater, I think they apply.

    The Way book goes into detail about theater configurations that best serve a production that includes audience involvement. For our purposes I’m going to assume that the playing space allows actors to see, hear and reach out to the entire audience with ease. A gallery space, for example, or a small theater space with accessible aisles. I’m also imagining that actors will be approaching audience members where they sit, or stand. I don’t rule out the idea that a chosen audience member might be asked to step up and help with a particular task but, in my opinion, the anointing of certain individuals, who crawl up onstage and try not to look silly while the actors explain things, rarely works to the advantage of the story being told.

    For Playwrights:

    1. Any participation must be a necessary element of the story. Audience members should feel they have an important role in moving the performance along and insuring a happy conclusion. In my version of The Princess and the Pea, the Queen is on the verge of tossing the irregular Princess out of the palace when Hans Andersen asks the audience to yawn. This causes the Queen to start yawning herself. She decides she’s too sleepy to cope and gives in to her son’s entreaties. The Princess stays the night and the story carries on.

    2. Make audience members comfortable at the beginning of the show. Let them know that they are invited to participate. Let them know if they will continue to be themselves in the current time and place; or perhaps you’re asking them to be miners in the year 1915 or a battalion of ants in the Aesop story?:



    Welcome to the field. Always exciting to welcome a new group of ants. My name is Annalinda. Now, you are here to work and I expect everyone of you to pitch in. Our immediate task is to find food and move it to the storage areas indicated on your maps. Did you all get maps?

    (AUDIENCE: No) No? Well never mind, I’ll be your guide.


    3. Plan what types of participation will be required and how it will be solicited.

    A. Group response. (“On the count of three, everyone yawn.”)

    B. Specific questions. (“What color was he wearing?”)

    C. A specific question or specific request from a specific audience member.

    (“Who’s good at math? You? Then tell me, what’s two times two?”)

    D. Open ended questions (“What vegetables should we put in the soup?”)

    E. A familiar song or a simple chorus that can be taught quickly.

    ( “Fa-la-la-la-la, it’s spring”)

    4. Think of your audience as another character. 

    Anticipate possible responses, write them into the script and provide actors with alternative replies. Also allow for adjustments due to performance time and place.


    [E. Coli is a fast talking traveling salesman. Alternative words or phrases are in parenthesis.

    ”(whatever)” indicates that performers should insert whatever’s appropriate]

    E. COLI

    All right, who had breakfast (lunch) today? Cereal ?(a sandwich?). Toast? (Chips?)

    AUDIENCE (Raise hands)

    E. COLI

    (Approaches one child )You had cereal? (a sandwich?) What kind?


    Cheerios (whatever)

    E. COLI

    Cheerios? (whatever) my favorite!


    5. Check the script for rhetorical questions, like “What’s this in my pocket?” If it’s in the form of a question, somebody in the audience will answer, whether you want them to or not.

    6. Decide if the venue or age of the audience will necessitate a prologue 

    such as: “As the audience you have a job to do. Your first job is to sit quietly and listen so everyone can hear and enjoy the show. Now, there may be some times when the actors will ask for your help. If they ask, go ahead and speak up and they’ll let you know when it’s time to get quiet and listen again.”

    Actors might also be given the option, if the group seems extra lively, to set a signal for quiet.

    (“Whenever you see anyone wave like this, that’s the time to be quiet again.”) Also, especially if kids are sitting up front and parents are in the back, actors can be given the choice to tell parents that it’s perfectly all right to leave their seats to if their children need help with their behavior.

    For Actors and Directors:

    1. Include the entire audience whenever possible. Focus on various segments at a time and move focus often so everyone feels included. Allow audience members to call out responses to open ended questions. Acknowledge as many as possible.

    2. Never embarrass an audience member. Never force a response. Ask a general question, watch for open faces.

    3. Keep the pace of the performance at all times. If participation is reluctant, say something like, “Let’s try that again and put a little more juice into it” but don’t try to force things, be ready to answer for yourselves and move on.

    On the other hand, if participation is too lively, steer the audience back by: 

    1. Using a line like: “Thank you, that’s great,” or “I’ve got it, let’s see what happens next.” or 
    2. B) Turning back into the story and continuing. Children eventually realize they’re missing something and get quiet. Be ready to repeat or rephrase important information that may have been mis

    4. Use blocking and focus to establish a clear line between “Now we’re talking to the audience and now we need the audience to listen.”

    5. Be ready to improvise. “I’ve got a big black dog and he’s going to eat you up” stopped the show, but only for a moment. The actor ad-libbed “Well, I hope not, I’m sure I’d give him indigestion” and moved right on.

    Charmaine Spencer is script consultant for the Puppeteers of America. She’d be happy to hear from IMTAL members on the subject. Check out her web site:


  • 18 Apr 2015 9:31 AM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)

    (Another article from our INSIGHTS pre-2001 archives, this one by Loren Silber, that followed IMTAL's very first International Conference.)

    It is a daunting task to sum up in one brief report IMTAL's first international festival and conference, "Museum Theatre into the Millennium," held in Boston this summer. An experience as rich and diverse as this one cannot be encapsulated in a few paragraphs, but this article will attempt to outline the basic structure of the event and some of the activities that transpired. First, congratulations are due to everyone who visualized, organized, and carried out the event, especially Catherine Hughes, Sheli Beck and the team at the Museum of Science where most of the conference took place. They all deserve a special round of applause for their massive expenditures of energy and skillful planning. The event exceeded expectations and we all came away loaded with new insights, information, and an exciting vision for museum theatre's role in the millennium.


    The conference began with a very basic question posed by speaker Chris Ford of the National Railway Museum, UK. He asked, "Why are we here?". Why had over 80 theatre and museum professionals from places as distant as Bermuda, Panama, Canada, the UK, and at least 19 states in the US gathered together in Boston for four days in the middle of a hot and humid July? He suggested that we had come to Boston because we all believe that museum theatre should be a primary method of interpretation in museums and that our purpose in gathering was to figure out how to convince others that we are right! The question then became how to achieve this seemingly monumental goal. Answers did not come all at once, but over the next four days, a plan, a vision, a route towards major recognition and support was mapped out. There were many different paths to choose along the way; many sessions, roundtable discussions, performances, speakers, and social functions to select from, but each contained a clue, sometimes many clues, toward a way of bringing theatre into mainstream museum culture. In looking back over the events of the four days, I see several clearly defined ways in which we learned how to achieve this goal.


             1. We must understand museum theatre in all its many forms and know when and how each form is most effectively used. Being able to watch the amazing array of performances (at least 14!) held at the Museum of Science, Children's Museum and U.S.S. Constitution Museum was a great start towards this goal. Talking with artists about the style and content of their performance was not only informational but inspirational. Theatrical forms we viewed included first-person interpretation, short scripted plays written expressly to enhance exhibits, interactive children's shows, puppetry, one person biographical plays, and musicals.


             2. We must evaluate and assess our work with both qualitative and quantitative data. Museums and educational institutions need to see factual data on how museum theatre is affecting factors like museum attendance, students grades and test scores and revenue. Several of the roundtable discussions and sessions/workshops dealt with this issue and we were able to learn from session leaders like Dale Jones of the Institute for Learning Innovations how to go about presenting the value of our work in concrete terms to those who need hard proof. In another session, The Science Museum, London contributed the results of their evaluation report, "Enlightening or Embarrassing?" and its affect on their drama program.


             3. We must know how to communicate to museum staff about our vision and the practical steps we will use to achieve it. Nothing could have illustrated this better than the "amusement" presented by some of the IMTAL board, which depicted the confusion created when a couple of extremely artsy and flamboyant theatre people team up with two stuffy and highly intellectual curators to produce a play about King Tut's Ball (as in orb, not dance). You can imagine the rest. In this case, a short theatrical piece taught us a lot about the inaccurate and sometimes slightly mistrusting ways museum and theatre people view one another and how necessary it is to improve communication, and learn one another's languages. The board's "amusement" turned out to be a perfect example of museum theatre presenting a controversial issue in a highly entertaining and educational manner!


             4. We must handle the business side of museum theatre efficiently and professionally. Ever wondered about mini-grants? intellectual rights? Equity rules? shared copyrights? We must educate ourselves about contracts, budgets,

    grants, marketing and all aspects of the business side of putting together a show. There were an abundance of events centered on this part of our work and we learned a lot of practical information from well-seasoned colleagues coming from a variety of backgrounds, who shared their experiences, resources and methods for success with us.


             5. We must deliver a superior product to visitors and those who ask us to enhance their institutions offerings. This can mean several things. We must utilize the best playwriting skills for our medium with writers who understand the specific dictates of theatre performed in museums. Jon Lipsky, resident playwright at the Museum of Science, Boston was a great example. He conducted discussions and presented performances which demonstrated the kind of masterful writing needed to make museum theatre not only factually accurate and educational, but emotionally riveting and thought provoking. We must also carefully select and train actors who can develop and understand the specialized performance demands needed for our purposes. Andrew Ashmore and his team from the Museum of The Moving Image in London showed us an ideal picture of how this can work by demonstrating for us their highly systematic (and fun!) audition and training process which they use to find the most suitable performers for their in- house company of 18 first-person interpreters. And especially in the case of historical recreation, technical aspects of theatre like costuming, lighting, and set design, need to be addressed with the highest accuracy possible. Workshops centering on working with material resources were very helpful sources of information on that topic.


             6. Finally, we must work with the community to develop supportive bonds, take advantage of resources, and reach out to new segments of the population, bringing them into the museum environment. We can take our examples from sites like Astors-Beechwood Mansion which works closely with the Cultural Tourism Department in Newport, RI and the Science Museum of Virginia's theatre program which has, under Artistic Director Larry Gard's guidance, formed partnerships with the local theatre community to create a mutual support system and bring mainstream theatre productions into the museum setting. Programs like The Health Museum of Cleveland's Curtain Call Youth Performance Ensemble and The Lower East Side Tenement Museum's "Origins Theatre Project" in conjunction with City Lights Youth Theatre in New York City work with young people from the area to create performances relevant to the museum's mission, school curriculum requirements, and the students own personal development and sense of achievement.


    No one can accomplish these tasks alone. We must work together to achieve major recognition and acceptance in the museum world and of course, one of the primary goals of the conference was to get people together to network, talk, plan, and share resources. Luckily there was plenty of schmoozing time for these kinds of activities at special meals, a reception sponsored by the American Alliance for Theatre & Education, a resource marketplace, and the unforgettable Victorian Ball and Dinner at The Astors' Beechwood Mansion, where we were able to hobnob not only with one another over food and 19th century entertainments, but with the famous "Astor Family" so colorfully interpreted by the resident theatre company there. By day four, the initial seemingly simple question, "Why are we here?", had become about much more than just our reasons for attending the conference. The question had really expanded to the point of asking ourselves why we do this work in the first place. Perhaps no one addressed the question as eloquently as keynote speaker Rex Ellis, (Chair/Curator of Cultural History at the National Museum of American History) who reminded us that we are here because we all have a story to tell and that the way to knowledge and collective healing is through the telling of all our stories. We, as members of a profession, which strives to educate and enlighten the public, are caretakers of those stories and it is our job to make them heard. What better way to draw people in and tempt them to listen than by telling our stories in the most personal, captivating ways possible, ways that spark interest and a desire to discover more. I believe that is what we do as museum theatre practitioners and "why we are here".


    At the time of publication, Loren Silber was a museum educator in New York City and Secretary of the IMTAL Board. 

  • 17 Mar 2015 9:30 AM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)
    (Another in our series of INSIGHTS articles. This one was published in INSIGHTS, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 2007)

    By Catherine Hughes

    The following is a synthesis of findings about museum theatre from existent evaluation and research reports. These reports (primarily internal, qualitative and naturalistic, using surveys, interviews, and tracking and observation) have helped clarify and define what “museum theatre” is, but more work needs to be done in the research and evaluation of museum theatre. Though those working in this field might agree that museum theatre has a powerful effect on visitors, we lack a substantial body of data to support these assumptions. This is a call to substantiate our claims with research, and move reports toward publication in professional journals.

    Resoundingly, visitors responded positively to pioneering museum theatre efforts.

    These early evaluations found that theatre programs have the power to attract visitors, as well as keep them watching. Of those who saw the National Museum of American History’s play, Buyin’ Freedom, 25 % stayed to ask questions of the actors (Munley,1993). A visitor tracking study (Cuomo & Hein, 1994) found that visitors stayed in an
    exhibition on bogs longer when the play was being performed, whether they appeared to be watching it or not. Later in follow-up phone interviews, 35 % of respondents mentioned remembering the play most clearly. So, whether they were aware of the playas they visited the exhibition, or sat and watched the entire performance, the play itself
    became a part of their memory. More than one study found that visitors were provoked to return to an exhibition following a play, and were observed discussing artifacts in relation to the play.

    In an evaluation of all its interpretive programming (volunteer carts and stage shows), the Minnesota History Center (Litwak & Cutting, 1996) found that visitors were significantly more likely to stop at stage shows than carts.

    The Science Museum in London (Bicknell & Mazda, 1993) found that 83% of visitors surveyed said they spent more time in an exhibition because of a gallery character performance. This study determined that children were highly attracted to performances,which had the effect of allowing a socially acceptable means of access for many adults.

    The Canadian Museum of Civilization underwent an evaluation of its drama program (Rubenstein & Needham, 1993) and found that Ninety-five percent of those surveyed felt that the live interpretation enhanced their visit, with 45 % specifying that the performances brought the museum or history to life.

    Collectively, what is documented in these evaluations is positive response that translated into more time spent in a particular exhibit area, and by inference it can be posited, more time spent considering the subject of the exhibition. A pre/post-test study of visitors to “Treasures of the Tarpits” at the Museum of Science in Boston documented
    that visitor behavior changed in beneficial ways for learning in response to performances (Baum & Hughes, 2001). People slowed down, re-examined, and conversed.

    Furthermore, many visitors also expressed a self-perception of learning. They felt they had learned.

    A triangulated, qualitative study (Black & Goldowsky, 1999) of 745 students from school groups in grades 6-12 who saw a play about the social and ethical implications about the Human Genome Project, went beneath the surface of positive or negative response, investigating to what extent students might be able to reason about the implications of this scientific endeavor. They were also interested in how conflict
    between the characters in the play affected the students’ experience. This study had a wider scope as a piece of research rather than pure evaluation. In an open-ended post-performance survey question, 87 % of the students were able to articulate how the Human Genome Project might affect their lives or the lives of others. This was a 59 % increase from the pre-performance survey. Connecting the science to personal experience was echoed in interviews with students. Conflict in the play allowed for different perspectives to be heard. It also made it more realistic for some. The realism evoked through conflict provides a potential avenue for emotional response. If the students found the conflict believable, they might be more apt to identify with one of the characters and feel empathetic toward them. This study supports the notion that performances are appropriate vehicles for presenting complex, controversial subject matter to students.

    At the University of Manchester, the Performance, Learning and 'Heritage' project team is engaged in a three-year study that has included data collection from four museums /historic sites. The methods they are using to collect data include filming audiences, observation, focus groups, short interviews, and follow up interviews. One aspect of this project that surpasses most previous studies is its longitudinal reach. They
    have been talking with visitors nine months after seeing performances. Consequently,their findings will hold long-term ramifications. It will be exciting to see what theydiscover. Dissemination of the final report will occur at a conference in April 2008 and through their website:

    My own qualitative study of performances in museums focused on how visitors made meaning from performances and whether their orientation toward a performance in a museum, for enjoyment or for educational purposes, influenced their experience. In the summer and fall of 2006, I collected data following performances at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort, KY and the Museum of Science in Boston, MA, In all, I
    have data from 198 pre-show surveys, 163 post-performance surveys, 15 post-performance focus group interviews, and 35 follow-up interviews four to five months post-performance. In addition, I interviewed the producers, writers and actors of these performances about their goals and objectives. I am presently finishing preliminary analysis.

    Museum theatre is a fascinating and frustrating subject of research. Fascinating in how visitors react – emotionally, provocatively, with animation and awe. People express surprise, shock, offense, stimulation, but rarely indifference. It is frustrating in its ethereal qualities that are so difficult to capture into words. It is similarly frustrating to measure
    such qualities quantifiably. However, the struggle to capture it is necessary in order to fulfill museum theatre’s potential and to continue to expand the field.


    Baum, L. & Hughes, C. (2001). Ten Years of Evaluating Science Theater at the Museum of Science, Boston. Curator 44(4): 355-369.

    Bicknell, S. & Mazda, X. (1993). Enlightening or Embarrassing: An evaluation of drama in the Science Museum. London: National Museum of Science and Industry.

    Black, D. and A. Goldowsky. “Science Theater as an Interpretive Technique in a Science Museum.” Presented at the meeting of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching, Boston, Mass.: March 1999.

    Cuomo, S. & Hein, G. (1994). Mysteries of the Bog evaluation report. Cambridge, MA: Program Evaluation and Research Group, Lesley University.

    Litwak, J.M. & Cutting, A. (1996). Evaluation of Interpretive Programming. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota History Center.

    Munley, M. (1982/1993). Buyin’ Freedom. In C. Hughes (Ed.). Perspectives on Museum Theatre (pp. 69-94). Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.

    Rubenstein, R & Needham, H. (1993). Evaluation of the live interpretation program at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. In C. Hughes (Ed.). Perspectives on Museum Theatre (pp. 905-142). Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.

  • 17 Feb 2015 9:00 AM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)

    (This is another entry in our recent series of articles from past issues of INSIGHTS, the IMTAL Newsletter. This one, by Jonathan Ellers, is from Volume 12, No 1, Winter 2001-2002)

    A creative dramatics exercise I participated in at the ‘99 IMTAL conference had a large group of us pretend to be water molecules in a saucepan of water sitting on a stove.

    The exercise was fun and memorable, so I appropriated it and adapted it for my own use in teacher workshops. Here’s how it begins:

    The participants gather close to one another in the middle of a room. I encourage them to imagine they are water molecules sitting in a saucepan of water at room temperature. Invariably, the”molecules”stand there for a moment blinking at me--waiting for an instruction to DO something-- waiting for the temperature to rise so they can begin doing...whatever water molecules do.

    At that point I remind them that while water in the pan may look like it’s standing still, it is in fact, slowly circulating. I suggest the molecules then begin circulating slowly through the saucepan, always keeping physical contact (cohesion!) with another molecule.

    There’s lots more to the exerciseundefined boiling, evaporating, condensing and freezing--but you get the idea.

    I mention this only because it struck me the other day the water-in-the-saucepan activity is not an inappropriate metaphor for what I’d like to see IMTAL not only encourage but benefit from.

    We pay our yearly dues to become “molecules in a saucepan.”And, for the very most part we stand there, blinking for a moment, waiting for the periodic firing-up of the stovetop,the receipt of the latest newsletter, the announcement of a conference or workshop etc. so we can DO something. Then, in a structured setting for a prescribed period of time we begin circulating. We find out about one another, share experiences and learn from one another.

    Afterward, we return to room temperature and wait for the next time the stovetop heats.

    The thing we forget (or at least I do) is this: what is unique and satisfying about being a water molecule is the easy but ceaseless sense of contact and motion one enjoys even when all appears still. That’s why it’s cool to be -of all the molecules on Earth -a water molecule.

    That’s what I think it might be nice if we in IMTAL think of ourselves as water molecules in a saucepan. Water molecules maintain just a little motion and a little contact all the time. It hardly takes any individual effort at all. But each little contact makes tiny little currents through the whole saucepan. And those little currents make the saucepan an ever-changing, dynamic place to be. And isn’t that really the point of paying our dues? To be in a saucepan that is ever- changing and dynamic? Who wants to be in a saucepan that’s boring?

  • 17 Jan 2015 6:00 AM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)

    (From time to time in this space, we are publishing articles from past issues of INSIGHTS, the IMTAL Newsletter. This article is by Larry Roberson, who at the time of publication circa 2001, was the new Community Programs Manager at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, Missouri.) 

    When I was invited by IMTAL to take part in a session at the recent Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) Conference, I thought there might be some mistake. I work at a History Museum. We don't do science and technology. However, it was to be a session on museum theatre, and since we have been pretty active in using theatre at the Missouri Historical Society, I agreed to participate.

    Still, I was afraid I might be like Jerry Seinfeld in the commercial where he goes to England and no one laughs because they don't use the same language in the same way. Do those of us at history museums speak the same language as our colleagues in science museums? Would I, like Jerry, have to undergo a crash course in how to interpret my language?

    The answer, from my experience at the ASTC conference is emphatically - no. I found an audience speaking not only in the same language, but having the same conversation. Our goals, our methods, and our challenges are indeed very much the same. Just like our science museum colleagues, those of use who are using theatre in history museums are struggling with ways to grab and hold the attention of our audience, whether that audience is students or adults. Just like science museums, we are finding that theatre can be very effective in telling difficult or controversial stories. Just like science museums, we are struggling with ways to convince sometimes reluctant administrators that spending several thousand dollars on something as ephemeral as theatre is the best use of always scarce resources. Sitting on the panel, and listening to the excellent questions and comments from participants, I was struck by the fact that I had heard much the same questions and comments at last year's American Association of State and Local History conference.

    I was further struck at how much farther along the path of understanding theatre many science centers are than history museums and sites. It seems to me that science centers have much more readily embraced the notion that theatre in museums can be--yes, I'll saying the f word--fun. This is important as more and more visitors look to their museum experience to be a combination of education and entertainment. Theatre can be that. Especially with young audiences, theatre should be that. Done well, theatre engages all our senses in the process of learning--it is visual, auditory and kinesthetic, and most of all, it is wonder-ful.

    But can we measure wonder? The question arose from a participant. We are all struggling with ways to measure the successes we have had. In most of the quantitative evaluations I have seen, theatre does very well. At the Missouri Historical Society (MHS), we have done random surveys of teachers who have seen Meet Me in St. Louis, our World's Fair vignettes, as part of their gallery tours. The theatre component is consistently rated a 9 or 10, and about sixty percent of those who responded said it was the best part of the experience. And yet, this doesn't explain the ways in which theatre captures the imagination and inspires the soul. I don't know that we will ever address this more that anecdotally. If quantified surveys remain limited, they are at least something to show to administrators and funders.

    I heard another question in the IMTAL session that I also heard at the AASLH conference. In essence, the question asks whether museum theatre should play the emotion card. How much emotion is too much for visitors? Behind this question, I think, is the fear that we are not really teaching science or history if our museum theatre is about people who are in real and compelling situations. If the play deals in emotion, do audiences leave thinking about our facts and concepts or the passion of the actors?

    But isn't this the very reason we are using theatre--to grab and hold the attention of our audience? And if our theatre is well crafted, isn't then our audience thinking about the science or the history in relationship to the compelling story? I believe that if our audiences get involved in the story, they are of necessity going to be involved in what we are trying to teach. The same things that make good theatre at our professional playhouses make good theatre in our galleries--a compelling story, well acted and directed. If our theatre is not compelling, there is no reason to do it. To compel visitors to engage is why we're here--that is the language of theatre.

  • 17 Dec 2014 2:30 PM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)
    (From time to time in this space, we are publishing articles from past issues of INSIGHTS, the IMTAL Newsletter. This article by Dorothy Napp Schindel  was originally published as the feature article in INSIGHTS  Volume 8, number 8) 

    For the past two years I have had the unique and wonderful opportunity to direct two different productions of Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York City. This play, which runs each fall from early October through Thanksgiving weekend, recounts the story of an American Indian teen-ager living in New York City whose parents help her understand her Native heritage. Visited by the "Spirit of the Past" and transported back in time to observe the trials and tribulations suffered by her ancestors at the hands of newly arrived Europeans on the New England coast, the girl learns first hand why some Indians treat Thanksgiving as a day of mourning and fasting. During an interactive section of the play, the audience is placed in-role as Pilgrims, and the American Indian characters teach them survival skills such as planting, spear fishing, and corn grinding, so they may learn to survive in their new land. The play gives audiences a fresh historical perspective on the first Thanksgiving from the Native point of view, and reveals the American Indian belief that they every day is a day of thanksgiving as they continually strive to give back to the Earth. Some of play's messages are controversial and often at odds with that which is taught in our elementary schools.

    Creating a theatre piece for a museum dedicated to the interpretation of a culture foreign to one's own can be a daunting experience. When I was approached to direct Harvest Ceremony, I was already aware of the tension concerning who should and who should not profess to be the voice (whether writing, directing, or performing), of the Native experience. I am theatre professional and Jewish-American woman, and hence, an outsider. Without or with prior training in the history and customs of a culture, this can cause one to feel both intrusive and inadequately prepared to take on such a challenge.

    This topic, an on-going sensitive issue among Native and non-Native alike, had resulted in heated debates at a recent museum theatre seminar held at NMAI. It was generally acknowledged throughout the American Indian arts establishment that much of Native American history had already been distorted by non-Indians who professed to be experts on the Native experience. It was hoped that once and for all this practice could be stopped and the American Indian artist be given every opportunity to express his or her visions and voices outright, with little interference from the non-Indian world. In light of this, I was a bit taken back when during the seminar I was asked if I would have an interest in directing a script at NMAI dealing with the story of Thanksgiving from the Native American perspective.

    I eventually accepted the job and my fascinating journey began. In light of the controversy, there were many problems to be faced. In fact, upon hearing of my hiring in 1997, some people from the community wrote to the Smithsonian administration in Washington D.C. to ask why a non-American Indian director was chosen outright, without first opening the search to the American Indian community at large. This controversy was short lived. However, this year a search was purposely opened to anyyone, with a panel comprised of representatives from the American Indian and NMAI communities entrusted to make the final decision. The position was publicized and I was asked to apply along with others, so that the process could be fair and open to all. It is interesting to note that prior productions of the script in 1995 and 1996 had been produced under the creative leadership of American Indian directors. Following these productions, the play's Native author, Marty Kreipe de Montano, manager of the Museum's Resource Center, as well as others in the education and public events departments, felt that the show, although popular with audiences, did not come close to realizing her or NMAI's visions. In fact, the two disparate interpretations were both accomplished without the involvement of the playwright, who decided after becoming disillusioned with the unfolding processes of both productions, to let the directors re- invent the script as they saw fit. I was brought on board in the hope that a professional re- working of the play, in close collaboration with Marty would improve production values, and make the play more accessible, meaningful, and aesthetically fulfilling for the thousands of school and public audience members who would attend.

    Everyone had good intentions of wanting to create the best possible artistically realized piece. Yet early in the process in 1997, I realized that in order to fulfill this assignment successfully, I would have to compromise a number of artistic standards. At the outset I was aware that the script needed re-writing. It cried out for conflict and characters who could hook the audience into emotional involvement with the story line. It was with great trepidation that I suggested that not only Marty engage in re-writes, but that my partner Jennifer Fell Hayes, a professional playwright - born and bred in England, work along side her in fleshing out the script. Happily, based on my presentation to administrators at the Museum, Jennifer's consultancy was approved. Marty, a master story teller, but not a playwright, agreed that this would be an advantage in helping her to put her thoughts and concepts into a clearly resonated format. With the introduction of a non-Indian playwright, it became more important than ever that Marty's plot line and images remain as intact and recognizable as possible. Marty's voice had to be clearly defined and clearly heard. Any new elements had to be added and/or changed with great sensitivity.

    As we embarked upon the project, it was paramount that I be accepted by a completely American Indian cast and the active cultural community around which the museum evolved. It soon became apparent that we could not initiate changes without worrying about Native opinions. These opinions, coming from many people from disparate cultures and backgrounds, were based upon centuries of factual and spiritual knowledge that I was only beginning to research and comprehend (the Smithsonian sent me to Plimoth Plantation for a three day research trip, among other things). In museums, especially one with a mission to present cultural accuracy like the National Museum of the American Indian, the process of creating a theatre piece can be quite different from one which expresses solely the vision of the artists. The process must include the vision of the museum as well, with special adherence to choices dictated by the museum's administration. Since American Indian cultures are a conglomerate of hundreds of different tribal voices, even museum staff have difficulty in making decisions relating to cultural accuracy.

    I was given a definitive set of parameters before beginning the rehearsal process in 1997. Firstly, it was required that each actor possess active tribal affiliation documentation and/or be of verifiable descent. People of known entity in the community were preferred! Professional training and acting ability were to be secondary to authenticity of origin, cultural interest and involvement. Secondly, it was important to focus the audience's attention on modern societal, political and economic problems, playing down the expected traditional dancing, singing and mask presentations which have always captured the hearts of school children. These aspects of performance, I was counseled by the Museum's Education Director, often sent the children singing and dancing into the hallway, with little realization of how the modern American Indian's life meshes and/or is at odds with today's society. Thirdly, it was most important that those in the audience be aware that American Indians are still alive and that they are members of modern, diverse, evolving cultures. Reminiscent images that may conjure stereotypical vestiges should be avoided at all cost. So we were asked to avoid anything that may be construed as cliched, such as certain dance movements and stances. Again, what is considered stereotypical is very subjective, which lead to debate even among the Museum staff, cultural interpreters and actor-teachers.

    Some American Indians feel that many school audiences are not prepared adequately by their teachers to respect or understand the nature of the traditions that they are seeing. Some feel that the portrayal of Native dancing and movement (sometimes purposely blown up and theatricalized to give the essence of the real thing) on stage is not accurate enough for educational purposes, or perhaps there is a need to get away from traditions for fear of fostering cliched images that American Indians themselves are trying to escape. Often, what we consider to be American Indian, is no more than a fixed shadow of something that passed before our eyes or ears on television or in the movies. And many Native Americans, like so many of us who are members of minority populations, are besieged with conflicting notions of who they should be or how they should be perceived by others, since they have problems erasing these troubling and inaccurate images from their own lives. This is directly related to why we did not ask the audience members to play American Indians during the interactive section. Although this was considered, it would have set them up for possible stereotyping, and so this plan was abandoned in favor of placing them in-role as Pilgrims. Lastly, it was important to Marty that we leave intact some sections that were inserted by the 1995 and 1996 directors. The script became a hybrid of many different influences and styles.

    In the end, the 1997 production was accomplished very conservatively. Jennifer's additions to the script created needed motivations, conflicts, a speaking chorus, the interactive section, and some important new characters, such as Pilgrims. Most importantly, the "child" in the script became a rebellious teen-ager, so that the students in the audience would have a hook to pull them into the story. "Matty" wanted to be like her peers. She wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving, and could not understand why she couldn't have turkey, pumpkin pie and all the trimmings.

    We all worked very hard to pull the new script together, but it was attained at a price! The interactive segment that was created was never realized as an integral part of the play, namely because it was "stuck" in the middle, without the benefit of a natural progression. Consequently, the audience was merely told that they were Pilgrims, with no vehicle for placing them in-role and working towards belief and engagement in the activity, no-less reflection on concepts. As much as we would have liked to re-write the play so that proper motivations could lead up to the interactive sequences, this was an impossibility, as were other things, such as the inclusion of mythological and related images and material to manifest a traditional feeling.

    The production, despite all, was well received by the audiences and teachers. Evaluations suggested that much new information was learned from attendance at a performance. Even so, when I took the position again in 1998, I felt compelled to stress the need for a more artistically sound project that more suitably met the expectations of sophisticated public audiences who frequent the museum throughout Thanksgiving weekend. In addition, I wanted the production to be able to engage school audiences so that they would feel emotionally motivated prior to the participatory section and be able to reflect on their actions afterwards. Also, it was important to satisfy the artistic integrity of the creative team. A more traditional flavor needed to be added, without fear of stereotyping.

    So in this most recent production, professional actors were sought, found, and hired. Those hired were not necessarily part of the established NMAI "community", but rather new individuals who widened the social circle, while rising to the expectations of the audiences and fleshing out the characters in ways that had hitherto been impossible. Further re-writes and cuts ultimately led to a more logically realized, emotionally intense interactive segment and a tighter plot progression. The play has come a long way. Still, its growth had to be (and will continue to be ) accomplished in slow increments, through great sensitivity to those who accepted us into their fold, trusting us to honor their traditions and understand their apprehensions. Born on eons of misrepresentation and misinterpretations, the American Indian artistic voice is only beginning to be truly heard and understood. As collaborative partners, I am convinced that American Indian and non- Indian together can continue to enlighten, inform and empower one another in the pursuit of art and truth.

    Dorothy Napp Schindel is the Administrative Director of DramaMUSE Associates, a company that creates drama based programs and interactive theatre productions for museums. She is co-author, with Jennifer Fell Hayes,of Pioneer Journeys: Drama in Museum Education, recipient of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education's 1995 Distinguished Book Award. Dorothy holds two degrees in theatre, plus an M.S. Ed in Museum Education Leadership from Bank Street College in New York City.

  • 19 Nov 2014 8:02 AM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)

    I'm lifting this article by Meredith Deliso in its entirety from the amNewYork web site, because it should resonate with all of us who attended the IMTAL conference, and with those of us who use improv in our institutions. To read it in its original state, please go here. 

    Jen Oleniczak wants teachers to get out of their heads.

    As founder of The Engaging Educator, a New York-based company that offers professional development classes, she regularly leads workshops in improv and movement that help professionals gain confidence and be better listeners.

    Improv for professionals is nothing new -- "In teambuilding, they're playing improv games," says Oleniczak -- but her focus on the arts and in the classroom is fledging territory.

    "When I started the company, I realized there was a gap in that kind of training, especially with teachers," says Oleniczak, a comedian and educator who founded The Engaging Educator two years ago this week and has given a TEDx talk on the topic and will be presenting at South by Southwest's Education Expo next year. "You learn the material, the pedagogy, the how to, but that flexibility training isn't necessarily built into anyone's curriculum."

    Through classes at places like Brooklyn Brainery and Shetler Studios, as well as workshops at museums and universities, Oleniczak works with teachers of all grade levels and areas. She also goes into schools and works with students.

    "I like to say that improv is a drug that doesn't make your teeth fall out -- you don't want to stop doing it," says Oleniczak. "It's so fun and so silly. It forces you to get out of your head."

    During a typical class, students might participate in an improv game like Zip, Zap, Zop, a lightning-speed communication exercise wherein people gesture to one another and, one by one, they say the words "zip," zap" or "zop" on repeat until someone inevitably messes up.

    "You're creating this vulnerability and being self-aware and really listening to other people," says Oleniczak. "That doesn't always happen in everyday life."

    Improv skills can help professionals across fields, but Oleniczak sees it especially helpful for teachers as a way to take risks.

    "A lot of my work really revolves around the idea that failure is bad," says Oleniczak. "With teaching, we don't take risks -- we're teaching to the test -- but you have to have some flexibility. If you're constantly trying not to fail, we never actually succeed."

    For more info and a schedule of upcoming classes, visit

  • 15 Oct 2014 6:35 PM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)

    Recently, there have been some welcome stories in the mainstream press about museum theatre practice: Express published a short feature on The Congo Code at the Milwaukee County Zoo, (see, The Chicago Sun-Times had a notable blog entry from theatre critic Hedy Weiss about our recent IMTAL conference, (see ) and Indianapolis Fox 59 visited Conner Prairie to get a glimpse at the Headless Horseman! ( 

    Have you or your institution been featured in your local media recently? Let us know! Any story is great for the movement, and always helps you make your case when looking for senior management and financial support.

  • 06 Oct 2014 8:38 PM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)

    Several of our presenters in Chicago mentioned books that can help you and your institution get a better handle on museum theatre practices. Others in attendance were actually the authors of a couple of those books, and the following is a list of the available texts, along with a some of our recommendations. (Note that if you make a purchase through the links below, IMTAL will receive a small percentage as an Amazon Associate.)

    Tessa Bridal (Sunday Pre-Conference Workshop)

    Exploring Museum Theatre

    Effective Exhibit Interpretation and Design

    Catherine Hughes (Monday session "Opening Doors")

    Museum Theatre: Communicating with Visitors Through Drama

    Greg Allen (Tuesday Keynote)

    100 Neo-Futurists Plays: From Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (30 Plays in 60 Minutes)

    Michael Gellman (Tuesday Keynote, Thursday session "Process Theatre")

    Process: An Improviser's Journey

    Josh Sigal (Tuesday session "Class Act: Using Basic Theatre Techniques to Invigorate the Learning Experience"

    The Viewpoints Book

    Heather Barnes and Natalie Shipman (Tuesday sessions "Improv 101" and "Improv 202")

    Improvisation for the Theatre (3rd Edition)

    Theatre Games for Rehearsal: A Director's Handbook

    Douglas Coler (Wednesday session "An Actor Walks Into an Exhibit...")

    Speak With Distinction: The Classic Skinner Method to Speech on the Stage

    Tara McGowan (Wednesday Session "Asian Picture Storytelling Performance in the Museum")

    Kamishibai Man

    The Kamishibai Classroom: Engaging Multiple Literacies Through the Art of "Paper Theatre"

    Natalie Shipman (Thursday session "White City...Then and Now)

    The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

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