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

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

     Mitigating Failure Through 
     Unscripted Expertise:
    a polemic 

    By Molly M. Ritchie

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    Improv is not considered “legitimate” theater.

    Sound familiar?

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

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

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

    What’s next?

    I advise this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

     Adaptation and a Solo Performer's Journey 
    By Lisa Hayes

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

    is beginning to lead me on an extraordinary adventure.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

     Historic Holidays without Tiny Tim 

    By Catherine Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    By Elizabeth Keaney

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

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

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

    A few successes:

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

    Things to change:

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

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

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


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

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

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

    By Douglas Coler, IMTAL President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    By Ilana Gustafson, Insights Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  • 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.

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