Member Spotlight: National Constitution Center

Front of Museum

Nora Quinn, Director of Theatre Programs, and Robin Stamey, Theatre Programs Manager, answered a few questions for us.

Tell us about your institution:

The National Constitution Center, located on Independence Mall in Historic Philadelphia, is the first and only institution in America established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” Devos Exhibit HallThe Constitution Center brings the United States Constitution to life by hosting interactive exhibitions and constitutional conversations and inspires active citizenship by celebrating the American constitutional tradition.

Our non-partisan mission is best expressed in our three goals: to serve the nation and the world as the Museum of We the People, a national Headquarters for Civic Education, and America’s Town Hall. We illuminate the constitutional debates that affect the lives of all Americans by hosting constitutional conversations on Independence Mall in Philadelphia and across a range of media platforms, and we inspire active citizenship by celebrating the American constitutional tradition. Our three goals can be summarized in three words: Visit. Learn. Debate.

As the Museum of We the People, the Constitution Center features hundreds of interactive exhibits, engaging theatrical performances, and original documents of freedom. As America’s town hall, the National Constitution Center hosts constitutional debates across a range of broadcast and digital media platforms. As a national and international center for civic education, the Constitution Center offers cutting edge constitutional seminars, discussions, course materials, and interactive and digital resources for students of all ages.

How do you use theater in your institution?
From the National Constitution Center’s opening day, Theatre Programs have been used to enhance, interpret and personalize the story of “We the People”. As a part of the Visitor Experience & Education Department, we create and produce work in house, using professional actors and theatre artists.

We have three main programs; Freedom Rising, Living News, and the Gallery Theatre Series as well as other specialty programs, ranging from readings and commissioned work to theatre/exhibit hybrid productions.

Freedom Rising, our award winning 17-minute multimedia solo performance, serves as a gateway to our Main Exhibition by telling the story of the Constitution from the early 1700s through the present day. Actor Millicent Sparks in Freedom RisingThe show just celebrated its 10 year anniversary and 50,000th performance this past July. Freedom Rising is performed by a company of over 20 actors, 363 days a year, 14 times a day in a 350 seat, 360 degree theatre at the heart of the museum. The performer moves throughout the space, creating a vibrant multimedia experience for the audience as they're transported back to before the American Revolution, through to the crafting of the Constitution and to the present day and ends by asking them to explore how they will contribute to the American story.

Living News is a 25-minute, 3 actor show that focuses on current constitutional issues. It is geared towards 7-12th grade students and performances coincide with the school year. With 20 performances a week, a script that is constantly updated to be as accurate as possible, and 5-7 topics covered in the show, Living News encourages audiences to see history as personal, relevant and continually informing the present. Fighting for Democracy Company photo, Aime Kelly, Taysha Canalas, Janaice Rowland, Lee Colston, DebbAfter the performance, all audience members are invited to a town hall discussion, guided by a Theatre Programs staff member and the actors, to explore and develop their own points of view on the constitutional issues affecting them, both on a small scale and nation-wide.

Mike Dees in Through Their Eyes, Art of the America Soldier exhibitionOur Gallery Theatre Series uses solo performances to amplify 
original and travelling feature exhibitions at the Museum. Working with the Exhibitions Department, a fully integrated set is createdwithin the exhibition as a performance space for a solo actor portraying a character important to the themes of the exhibition. 

The in house Theatre staff writes, directs and designs all aspects of the performance. Each piece is generally performed 5 days a week and up to 10 times per day. These productions are then archived and available to tour to other museums who host similar feature exhibitions.

We produce and occasionally present a variety of readings for Civic Holidays and are currently working on creating commissioned scripts for the Missouri History Museum. Previous commissioned work has also been created for Scholastic, Inc.

Finally, between 2010 and 2012, we created a theatre/exhibit hybrid project, called Fighting for Democracy, which took an existing exhibit from the Japanese American National Museum and incorporated a world premiere script, original sound design and unique immersive projection design. Performances were held for all visitors 6 times a day for the duration of the 4 month exhibit, right in the center of the exhibit in a specially designed 90 seat theatre. (L-R) Janice Rowland, Justin Jain and Akeem Davis in Fighting for Democracy, June 2013, SmithsonianThe production took two years, three weeks of intensive ensemble workshops, five weeks of daily rehearsal, sixteen actors, fifteen National Constitution Center staff and an artistic and design team of nine. The exhibit focused on seven individuals who stood up for their rights and the rights of others during WWII. The performance brought those individuals to life and their stories to students and adults, in a way that has never happened before.

What programs or productions are you working on right now?

Both Freedom Rising and Living News are always in the midst of scheduling, evaluation, rehearsals and auditions for new company members. Living News also has the exciting aspect of being as current as possible, keeping us on our toes with script changes and updates as the conversation in America changes.

This year, we are specifically evaluating and revising our existing programs. We are creating a multi-year plan for revisions and updates for Freedom Rising, as well as a new format for programming in our black box theatre for the summer months. We have also begun working on partnerships with our fellow IMTAL members and other museums where we can share our process with other institutions to share resources and learn from each other.

We are always excited to work on readings and solo performances for special events and continuing to incorporating performance in to programming for Civic Holidays.

Is there anything else you would like the members of IMTAL to know about your museum theater program?

We always strive to produce the most professional pieces of theatre and performance. It is important to us to be connected and involved with the Philadelphia theatre community and to always use professional actors and artistic teams. We employ up to 35 local actors and designers per year and use an ensemble and collaborative based creative process, allowing us to integrate performance in to the Center’s educational programming when appropriate. Most programs are work-shopped in house, ranging from four months to two years of process and many of our programs have runs that span many years.

Janice Rowland and Summer Campers in The Voting Vine LineWe are thrilled when we are able to reach a group of students or adults with theatre in a museum setting. It is a unique way of illuminating history and the story of those that have shaped history in a way that a traditional classroom doesn’t always accomplish and we are beyond pleased that this has been a part of the National Constitution Center’s approach since the beginning.

For more information, please click on the banner above to visit the National Constitution Center's web site.

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