Building the Perfect Program
By Michelle Myers
Story is certainly not something we lack at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Our streets are overflowing with many varied cultures and rich history. In fact, the Aquarium itself sits atop very special ground that has been inhabited by many different people for thousands of years. The Ohlone tribes lived up and down our coast from Salinas to Big Sur. A prominent Chinese fishing village was located on the same site as our Ocean’s Edge wing. Nearly 60 years before the Aquarium was even a thought, the Japanese-owned Sea Pride Cannery operated where our Open Sea wing stands today. And just next door lived one of the most famous, or infamous, residents of the area. Still standing today, as a tribute to its owner, is the laboratory of Ed Ricketts. Here, he and John Steinbeck would drink and discuss life amidst the Sicilian influx and the rise of Cannery Row. The difficulty we face in creating a program is not in finding a story, but more so in identifying the right story. It seemed to make perfect sense that if we were to do a story about the bay, it would need to incorporate the influences of those cultures that made this area what it is today.
This “perfect” idea proved to be a challenging task on many levels. Most importantly, we wanted to be sure that we could provide a genuine and accurate representation of the Rumsien Ohlone, Chinese, Japanese and Sicilian cultures we were to feature in this presentation. To do this, we enlisted the guidance of a team of locally-sourced experts whose families all had a significant impact on the growth of our city. Each person shared his or her family’s stories which explained the cultural influences to current fishing practices and subsequently the building of the Monterey area. We knew that the authenticity these people brought from their respective cultures was something we wanted to feature. So much so, that they not only lent their stories to shape our production, but they lent their faces and voices as well. We realized there were no better people to share these stories than those who had grown up hearing them at their dinner tables and family gatherings. They all graciously accepted leading roles in our show by allowing us to record their ancestral history and those clips became the building blocks of our current script.
Feeling quite accomplished that the concept was chosen and the script was coming together, our celebration was unfortunately short-lived. We knew that our work had just begun. We had to start the tedious process of crafting everything needed to showcase the fishing styles of the various cultures: props, costumes, boats, portable media, etc. Again, we brought together a team of experts representing many different departments within our organization. The main players in-house included Interpretive Media for the digital assets, Audio Visual Integration for the technology to run them, Exhibit Design to create a visual cohesion throughout the production, Exhibit Technicians to create the physical props and Public Programs to develop the casting needs and staging. That doesn’t include the companies, museums, composers and local historians outside of the aquarium that helped us to collect footage build historic boats, create themed music and develop costumes. It truly took a village to get all the pieces of the puzzle in one place and again the hard work was still yet to come.
Up until the day our actors stepped foot on our stage, this show was still very much hypothetical. The word stage is used quite loosely in our context. As we are a science and research institution, we were not built specifically to house theatrical performances. We have dabbled in the arts for some time knowing their importance in bringing story and empathy to science and research; however, this was the largest scale theatrical production we had ever worked on. Being brought in specifically for this project, one of my main roles was to get the production on its feet so the pressure was on! We certainly don’t have what is thought of as a traditional proscenium theater space. Instead, we have an outdoor amphitheater on our deck that overlooks the Monterey Bay and features a man-made tide pool area. It is unquestionably a gorgeous space, but it is not without challenges. First and foremost, we were given the very specific directive for the production to “complement not compete.” This space is often referred to as our biggest and best exhibit. We regularly have seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales and sea otters that pass by and the fear was that we may detract from the natural beauty if we were to add a bunch of bulky stage settings. Luckily, our show focused so heavily on the bay that it became a natural backdrop. One problem down, three-hundred and ninety seven to go! We had no house doors to close to limit traffic in and out. We had no dressing rooms hidden in close proximity to the stage. We had no curtains to close for scene changes and because of that no wings for actors to prep. Most of our challenges had simple, albeit creative solutions. However, the most ominous challenge of all, we had no lighting and no way to easily draw focus.
Our show consisted of actors on the stage space in the amphitheater, actors in the tide pool in boats ten feet below the stage and portable monitors playing historic footage flanking the sides. This was a recipe for chaos and confusion. Enter the directorial team! Lacking all of the typical tricks that directors have up their sleeves (i.e. sets, curtains, lighting, etc.) to steer the audience’s view, we knew we had to be very thoughtful and specific with our staging and blocking. We used the characters themselves to grab and give focus. If a character was exiting stage left, the boat would enter from the same side. If something important was on the screen, we would hold a character’s entrance just a few more seconds. If characters were suiting up to free dive for abalone, we would change the physicality of the character on stage to turn away from the audience and direct his or her attention on the action below. The majority of the three weeks we had to train our ten actors before the show officially opened, was spent honing in on the perfect blocking which was tweaked constantly throughout our twelve week run. The rest was spent trying to figure out how to row and navigate a fourteen foot replica of a Chinese sampan in a small tide pool. This was certainly my first time developing historical boat choreography which is a skill now prominently displayed on my theatrical resume.
Turning the Tide: The Story of Monterey Bay officially opened on June 20th, 2015 to rave reviews. As we had hoped, it drew very diverse and very large groups. The production’s popularity and success became exceptionally evident from the sheer number of people that attended each show. We realized that our amphitheater space, which held a hundred or so people, was not enough. Day after day, we saw people lining the railings around the deck and even watching from the balconies overhead. We knew the development process would continue long after opening day so we could continue to grow the experience throughout its allotted three year run. After a successful summer collecting statistical and anecdotal feedback, we brought together a remedial team to discuss. One of the most obvious needs was the necessity to expand our stage space so we could play to the entirety of our audience. With people lining the railings up and down the deck, we were no longer playing to the audience in front of us. We now had audience on three sides which essentially meant changing our makeshift proscenium into a full thrust stage. Through the help of the interdepartmental team, we expanded our stage to incorporate stage spaces along the side railings and a third monitor that could reach people who were out of view of the two monitors flanking the amphitheater. Along with the hardware changes, we also altered blocking to play to all three sides of our thrust stage. We adjusted some of the digital visuals so as to not draw too much focus in certain high points of our action on stage. We even modified some of our script, music and character introductions to streamline and tighten the production as a whole.
Now gearing up for our fourth year after being extended indefinitely due to our success, we are still relying on countless teams both inside and outside of our organization to make this one fifteen minute, seasonal production a continued success. Each year, we challenge ourselves to identify new ways to better our performance and the overall development system we employ. Amidst the current remediation of Turning the Tide, we have also recently begun the process of assembling a development team to look forward to the possibility of new theatrical programming in this space. Our hope is that we not only educate our audience about the diverse community of people and animals interacting all around them, but that through that knowledge we can continue to use theatrical interpretation as a dynamic way to drive our mission: to inspire conservation of the ocean.
This article can be found in Winter 2018 - "Finding the Story: Creative and Collaborative Processes" (Volume 28, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michelle Myers brings stories to life as the Supervisor of Programs at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As a member of the Actor’s Equity Union and graduating with a degree in Theatre from The Florida State University, she was able to forge a very unique path into the world of zoos and aquariums almost ten years ago. Using her passion for the arts and her admiration of the environment, she brings her own style and flair to the science of EDUtainment.