At the “IMTAL at 30” annual conference, held virtually in November 2020, Founder Catherine Hughes opened proceedings with a keynote address that invoked memories while looking ahead to our future as museum theatre professionals and as an organization. Printed here is a written version of those remarks and Catherine’s Postscript.
By Catherine Hughes
Greetings to those reading this from the United States, Australia, and Europe and hello to everyone from wherever you are reading. I was touched to be asked to speak at this conference, celebrating 30 years of an organization that has created a community of museum theatre practitioners who have buoyed each other in dark times, challenged each other in good times, and inspired each other always. One of the goals I remember having at the beginning when I was forming IMTAL was to show people that there were others that thought as they did, that they were not alone in this idea that theatre could have a place in museums, that they weren’t crazy! That community has sustained many of us working in the field over these 30 years. To find a group of people who spoke the same language, used the same idioms, and shared similar dreams was at the same time exhilarating, comforting, and challenging. We formed a community, within which we could then argue over definitions and best practices, to spur us on to be better.
Many people have heard me declare myself a missionary for museum theatre, which is what I became, spreading this idea at conferences and roundtables, and in writing. Happily, I discovered I wasn’t alone. I discovered a merry band of museum theatre that spanned the globe. The original organizations that came together to form IMTAL included the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney; the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec; The LA Children’s Museum; the Science Museum in London; and the Museum of Science, Boston. Over the years, there have been many dynamic personalities that have driven IMTAL forward, and I am thrilled to see many of them in leadership positions in museums now. Some of them joined us for the recent conference. 30 years on, we have much to be proud of in the field. The power of our collective programming has affected and changed many a mind, young and old.
I have a story of a young mind and an old one changed. Years ago, I performed a play at the Museum of Science called The Bog Man’s Daughter by Jon Lipsky in an exhibit on bogs. I performed it 4 times a day, usually at least 4 days a week, for a year. I did it a lot. I often saw repeat visitors. One was a young mother with a toddler and a daughter around 5 years old. They came so often the girl began to mouth my lines as I said them, dance when I danced. I would sometimes have to ask her to say the words silently because not everyone else knew them. Many years later, her mother contacted me. She’d found me in Ohio as I was finishing my doctoral studies. She was hesitant and asked if I would remember them. Immediately, I knew who she was. We had mutually affected each other. She told me that her daughter was graduating from high school and she’d never forgotten her time watching me in The Bog Man’s Daughter. It had made a deep impression and she wanted me to know. I was surprised and touched to have her find me so many years later.
The second story is from when I was collecting data for my dissertation. I was at the Kentucky History Center and Greg Hardison, a master museum theatre creator, was performing Into the Veins, a play about coal mining. A staff member had announced the play in the mining exhibit and invited people to come watch. There were a couple benches indicating a performance/audience area. I was observing how people chose to watch or not. There was an older man in the exhibit reading text panels and he looked over, but then turned back to read. In the first scene, Greg played a young boy getting water from a stream for his coal miner family. As the scene continued, the man kept getting a bit closer, but still faced the exhibit. Just as it was ending, he had turned around and was now part of the audience. When a staff person invited everyone to move to another part of the exhibit for the next scene, this man joined in. In the second scene, Greg now played an Italian immigrant who had been injured mining and now worked in the Company store. He saw the visitors assembled and began talking in Italian, gesticulating and asking questions. After a minute, he switched to an accented English and said, “Ok, you no speak English, we’ll talk in Italian,” thus setting up the fiction that the visitors were now new Italian immigrants. He went on to tell us how to fit in as new immigrant miners. The old man stayed. For the third and final scene, Greg became a union organizer at the opening of a mine shaft. He stepped up onto a wooden box and began a rousing speech, assuming those before him to be miners and miners’ families. After the play was over, I asked the older gentleman if I could interview him. He agreed, and I asked him why he decided to watch. This is what he said: “I never thought it’d be factual at first, but after I listened for a while that’s actually the way it was. I thought it was just kind of a play.” He went on to tell me about a friend of his who had been a coal miner, but who had now passed on. He was shocked to realize some of the conditions miners faced and wished he’d asked his friend more about what he’d endured. The work we do poses questions, provides access to new information or reminds of us what we already know, and can often lead to a feeling of connectedness or community. Over thirty years doing this work, I have found this anecdotally as well as in formal research. You might not always realize the effect your work has had on the audience. You might not be lucky enough to collect rich data afterward, and hear time and again the surprise in people voices when recounting how they were drawn in by a performance. It was so dynamic! It was really good! And my favorite, I never knew that!
When it is good, when all the pieces come together, museum theatre in whatever form -- scripted or improvised, musical, comedy, or tragedy -- has the power to transport the audience from the walls of an exhibit or historic site to another time, and another place. And that experience stays with the audience. It goes straight to long term memory, coated in emotional response. My dissertation was a visitor response study exploring how people made meaning from their museum theatre experience (Hughes, 2008). What I found was that affect or emotion, and cognition, worked together to create strong and long-lasting memories. It was a balancing act. Too much of one without the other did not work the same way.
My research led me to build a 4-point rubric for museum theatre, which I use in my work and my teaching. Good museum theatre, that is able to strike that balance, must be in some way 1. emotional, 2. thought-provoking, 3. participatory, and 4. offer multiple perspectives. Begin with essential questions: What is justice? What are the social implications of science? Who gets to tell their story in history? And make sure you have a reason to be there, in front of an audience. Make sure they know who they are and what they can do. Need their help, need something from the audience.
I have wondered if I have anything to say that could bring hope, inspiration or comfort to the field in this terrible time. Museums have been decimated by the pandemic, many limiting their live programming indefinitely and laying off actors. Independent museum theatre contracts have disappeared. The future is foggy at best. The present moment is not for the faint at heart. But of course, what we all know is that museum theatre people are not fainthearted. In fact, they are some of the strongest, most resourceful people out there. For museum theatre professionals, it is in your nature to be tenacious, persevering, and resolute. It has always been a true axiom that theatre people are subversive. You do first and ask forgiveness later. Bar the theatre doors and we will go elsewhere to ply our craft. Just ask Oliver Cromwell or Jesse Helms. Still, while the pandemic may be without puritan leanings, its effect has been no less damning. But rise to the challenge we must.
So what can we do now, in this trying time? First and foremost, we must stay subversive. No one generally let us in the front door of the museum in the first place, right? We snuck in the back and surprise, we showed our power with our impact on the visitor. They had no idea what we could do for them.
We can take heart from the related field of escape rooms equally impacted by the coronavirus. The New York Times recently profiled how the field is reinventing itself, noting their creative spirit and scrappy nature (Soloski, Nov 5, 2020). This immersive theatre and gaming community has “entered a period of frenetic innovation. In search of pandemic-friendly entertainment, they have created and adapted games to make them available for live remote play, asynchronous point-and-click play, print-and-play, and play by telephone and mail.” According to the Times, “these new games constitute a wholesale rethinking of immersion and experience design.” Let us be inspired by and learn from them.
Christy Coleman, former IMTAL board member and now CEO and President of Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, challenged those who attended the American Association for State and Local History’s virtual conference in September by asking: How do we tell stories that matter? Coleman has been telling stories that matter for many years, beginning at Colonial Williamsburg with her work heading up African American interpretation. One thing that we can do to tell stories that matter is lean into the coronavirus and social unrest that has marked 2020.
There is a frenzy to collect oral histories and objects about the pandemic and protests of 2020. Institutions large and small, including mine, are determined to capture the compelling stories of front-line workers, doctors, nurses, police and emergency workers, teachers, students, and regular ordinary people living through this moment. They are being collected from those who lost loved ones or were sick themselves and survived. These oral histories will tell future generations what it was like to navigate economic collapse, home schooling, sickness, and separation from loved ones. Themes will emerge from these oral history collections, poignant tales of loss and surprising stories of resilience. And museum theatre must be there to interpret these oral histories. We must inhabit them and bring them to life in performances and living history. It will be a treasure trove of human experience, captured by museums, but providing the museum theatre field in particular with compelling drama and immediacy. It will be a necessary exercise in interpretation for the museum theatre maker and the
audience. Whatever discipline you are working in, think of how science has played a role, think of what art will emerge from this time, and if this isn’t history-making, nothing is. As we contemplate the inequities raised by the pandemic, documenting these and giving voice to them is crucial.
While there might be a current vacuum of activity in museums, people need arts and culture like never before. We are chafing to break our isolation, to congregate, to interpret and understand the effects of this moment. We are all trying to understand what it means to be human in 2020. Our daily rituals are disrupted. Fresh paradoxes have emerged. We are afraid of contact, and yet we crave it. There are lights in the darkness. We can look to theatre for hope. Outdoor performances are blooming. The work two theatres in western Massachusetts have done to carry on outdoors inspired a brother and sister to recently donate 2 million dollars to these companies to stay afloat this winter. Live streaming feels like theatre in many ways. It is immediate and risky. Whatever can go wrong, often does, and when an actor carries on in the face of technical glitches, we all cheer. Access to theatre has opened up paradoxically, as people can watch from home, often for free. How many of you have seen something amazing from home? I recently watched What the Constitution Means to Me. I had wanted to see this live, but never had the opportunity. And now I know why people were so over the moon about this show. In my mind, it also contained the balance of museum theatre. It brought the abstract of the constitution down to a very particular set of stories. And that is so often what we do, break down complex and remote issues into specific and familiar human stories.
There are a plethora of historically based theatre pieces out now, inspired no doubt by Hamilton, but many carrying on the tradition of theatre based on historic events, like Frost/Nixon, Copenhagen, and Sondheim’s Assassins. San Diego Rep has been streaming JQA about John Quincy Adams.
We are on a continuum. This collection of oral histories and objects that illuminate the lived experience of the pandemic and social unrest also reminds us that we have been here before. In 1918, the world was changed. In 1968, the world was changed again. But it didn’t stop.
We have to keep breathing and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Museums have been changed and will re-emerge altered, as will museum theatre. Because there is still the human need to tell stories, to hear stories.
Over IMTAL’s 30 years, members have shown the power and rightness of theatre in museums at meetings and conferences around the world. In 1993, at the Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England, a lively group of about 100 practitioners converged to tease out, argue, and challenge each other about what makes the best theatre in museums. Was it scripted or improvised? Should characters be composites or real figures from history? We had amazing examples to support each argument. At one site, Oakwell Hall, we the visitors were the ghosts; passing through the house to witness life unseen and unheard by the busy inhabitants living their lives. We went to the National Railway Museum in York and witnessed the vaudevillian humor and sudden pathos of Chris Cade and Chris Ford as they inhabited multiple roles each to tell the story of the navies who built the railway tunnels across the UK. They took us down into the darkness of the tunnels, made us feel the fear and courage it took to do this work. Later, Chris Ford shared research he conducted with school children, who drew pictures of what they had seen, and described the story. Many showed the two men tumbling down a shaft. How did they see the shaft? It was just two men with some costume pieces and a woven basket.
Let me end with the story of Clarissa, a young actress I worked with on a play about Frederick Douglass, More Light: Douglass Returns, written by Celeste Williams. It was a collaborative production between Conner Prairie and Asante Children’s Theatre. In this project, I asked the youth actors to journal through rehearsals and performances. Clarissa was playing Anna Douglass, wife of the great man. While she worried the project might be boring, she wrote that “from the first day of rehearsal I found it anything but.” She welcomed the support and guidance of the supervising adults from both Conner Prairie and Asante Children’s Theatre. Notably, she felt she grew as an artist, charged with the mission “to use my body and my voice to give voice to the people that cannot speak.” During rehearsals, she did her own independent research of Anna Douglass, and became passionate about portraying her. She wrote of how the project helped her face personal problems, of how working on her scenes helped her learn “something new about my history” and changed the way she carries herself in the world. This was Clarissa’s experience. It can stand as an exemplar of what museum theatre can achieve from within. Her performance brought Douglass’ great-great grandson to tears. In his public remarks after seeing the play, he talked of how happy he was to have the spotlight shine on Anna. Her story was generally overshadowed by her famous husband. He was moved that her voice was finally heard.
In the Q & A, Michael Mills of Heaps Good Production in Adelaide, Australia, astutely observed, while appreciating my optimism, that people can’t make a living offering free museum theatre programs. He challenged me and the group to offer ways museum theatre might monetize online content. We can see theatres charging for live streamed or prerecorded performances, though the ticket price is most often far less than an in-person ticket. Some museums are finding that schools will pay for online programming during the pandemic. However, I acknowledge that more is being canceled than is being sustained. My short answer to this query is sponsorship and grants.
In my present institution, the Howard County Historical Society, we received a grant to produce a video that could offer a virtual COVID-safe alternative to our annual Christmas at the Seiberling event. We created a 30-minute video tour of 27 individually decorated areas throughout our historic 1890s mansion, which was launched on our Facebook page, with an accompanying Photo Album that provides the opportunity to vote on your favorite. This interactive aspect was important, as people can do this in person. At this writing, the virtual tour has been viewed over 5,900 times. This far outstrips the number of visitors who have ever come in person. While viewing is free, voting is done by donating $1-50 for your favorite decorations. Though the pandemic forced our hand to create a virtual tour, we will probably offer this parallel experience next year too, as it has made it so widely accessible and available.
Later in the conference during a free-ranging discussion, I jumped in when the age-old question of who can tell a story came up. It is a central question for the field, and one that has been argued over incessantly. Answers have ranged over the 30 years of IMTAL’s existence. The field has certainly become more sensitive to the challenges of one culture telling another culture’s story, as it should be. But as Hamilton has shown us, we have more artistic freedom than we might have dreamed in historic role play. I would argue that not only does an actor not have to look like the historic character they are playing, it is perhaps more effective to not look like them. It can heighten the theatricality, promoting a more Brechtian relationship with the audience. While the strictures of living history might confine who plays which characters to carry out a sense of verisimilitude at a historic site, there is danger in believing any historic character can speak through the vessel of the contemporary actor.
We are in the business of attempting to bring history to life with full knowledge that we cannot do so entirely. We can bring about an approximation. The best that we can do, which is pretty great and difficult to achieve, is engage the visitors’ imagination to travel to another time and place, to invite them to play in that liminal space between here and there. To blur the line and convey that somehow the actor is channeling an historic character, should not be the goal.
I have always come down firmly on the “theatre is art” side of this argument. It is flexible and has many styles and techniques. We are not lecturing. We are not animatronic. We are balancing emotion and cognition, provoking, prodding, and questioning to get at some elemental human truth or endeavor. And this age-old argument will continue, as the community of museum theatre practitioners challenges and cajoles each other on best practices and the meaning of what we do.
Hughes, C. H. 2008. Performance for learning: How emotions play a part. Doctoral diss., The Ohio State University.
Soloski, A. 2020. Escape Rooms in an At-Home Era? Here’s the Key, New York Times, November 5. Retrieved 11/10/2020 from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/05/theater/escape-rooms-online-play.html.
About the Author: Meet the Keynote Speaker
Catherine Hughes, PhD, is a museum leader with more than 20 years experience in education, interpretation, museum theatre, and evaluation. She is the Executive Director of the Howard County Historical Society and Museum in Kokomo, IN.
Catherine is a hybrid museum professional, theatre practitioner, educator, and researcher who has enriched the visitor experience by empowering educational and interpretive teams to transform ways audiences can connect to museums. She has taught Museum Education at IUPUI, and Museum Theatre at Butler University. She has had senior leadership roles at Conner Prairie History Museum, developing and implementing programming, research and evaluation to expand and deepen public and student engagement. Prior to that, Catherine was Project Director for Meet the Past, a 3-year initiative to transform the visitor experience at the Atlanta History Center. She has also worked at the Museum of Science, Boston and the London Science Museum, and founded the International Museum Theatre Alliance. Catherine has consulted with a number of institutions, such as the National Museum of Australia, University of Manchester (UK), and the Center for Chemical Evolution at Emory University. Her book, Museum Theatre: Communicating with Visitors through Drama, was published by Heinemann. She has lectured and written widely on the use of theatre in museums.