Making Cultural Connections Through Museum Theatre: An Experience

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.

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