I met Harriet through LinkedIn in the Oral Performance group and we both agreed Plinth should explore the world of museum theater and oral performance. Thankfully Harriet was available to be our guide and share with us an insightful look in to this genre of performance art and the educators and performers behind it.
Thomas: Hi Harriet, good morning!
Harriet: Good morning to you.
T: Thanks for taking some time to chat. I’m excited that coincidentally you work primarily in Baltimore. We haven’t had a good opportunity to talk about Baltimore or Museum Theater on Plinth.
H: Baltimore is becoming more and more extraordinary I believe as an arts center – like a convergence and renaissance at the same time. When I grew up there some time ago – it felt like nothing was happening, and if I were to pursue my career – which was then specifically in the area of dance and theatre – I needed to leave, which I did. One of life’s ironies – that I moved back after 12 years as a professional performing artist touring within and without the country.
T: It’s a huge incubator wrapped up in a small amazing package. I can’t say enough about Baltimore. It has the most unique vibe and is extremely inspiring.
H: Yes. And I believe it made a big and good impression on AAM conference goers this past spring.
T: I have a bunch of questions for you. The museum and theater partnership is a new one for me and I hope we can educate some others that might not be familiar with this great concept too.
Could you tell us about the Heritage Theater Artists’ Consortium (H-TAC)? How did you come to create it?
H: The Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium began in 1994. In 1993 I was hired as an actress to participate in a three-women performance work for the MD Historical Society. The project was based on actual women of Maryland – where the script used first person materials, letters, diaries, publications, etc. and it resonated with me. All my life I loved theatre, history, visual arts, and it all came together for me that this would be an exciting pursuit. I did not know that there was such a thing as museum theatre and it was just getting more developed in this country with organizations like IMTAL. (International Museum Theatre Alliance). Today I am a Board Member-at-Large with IMTAL and was involved in putting together the pre-conference in Baltimore for our Global Conference that took place in the D.C. area in fall of 2013. It was to be at the Smithsonian, but the dates coincided with the government shut down, so we had to move the conference. But that did not stop the enthusiasm of all of the conference goers from around the world who attended.
T: Museum theater is an interesting concept and might not be known to many people, bringing life to historical objects and people, it seems like a perfect relationship and a great opportunity to teach in a new format for people who don’t enjoy reading wall text. It’s much more engaging.
H: Absolutely. It can bring history alive… helping the “walls” and objects to talk. Providing another aspect or point of view that helps take the visitor on another journey – another way of telling the story. It seems today, so much is made in museums about telling the story – and museum theatre in its many variations can do that so seamlessly for persons of all ages and levels. It can be visceral and personal. It causes conversations, discussions, more interplay…more of an interactive learning experience that can range from fun to serious topics.
T: Your performances span a great deal of history. Jewish, African-American, Baltimore/Maryland history, Civil War, Maritime…the list goes on. Is there a topic that resonates most with your audience?
H: I have been fortunate to have the opportunities that take me into various communities, places and times in history – i.e., stories of immigration, civil rights movement, American history, science, etc. I can’t really say which topic would resonate the most with an audience. But I do believe that the oral history performance work that I do is usually very intense since it gives the person who really lived their story to share it using a performance medium. So depending on the talents, nature of the topic, it lifts up a veil and brings people into a world they had not known or could not enter. The Q & A period is one of my favorite parts of the work since it gives “permission” to the audience to share their stores – so something very unique and special is shared in that space. I have witnessed some extraordinary stories and shared moments. We are all storytellers, but not always get the chance to share. And everyone has a story! Everyone!
T: I imagine it’s a very powerful experience. Different from a traditional theater performance, when you’re in a museum, you’re surrounded by the objects that give that connection to people experiencing the performance. I have an awful pop culture example, but when I saw the Transformer movie, I was visiting Los Angeles at the time and we had to see it at The Dome in Hollywood and they had full scale replicas of the Transformers outside the theater. So we saw the movie in this epic space, then saw the objects from the film directly after. Shameful example I know, but it shows the relationship between the space, the performance and the object, which really created a unique experience.
H: This example shows how something resonated with you above and beyond the viewing of a film when you saw these related objects.
I think what is most important is that people can relate to what they are seeing whether it’s something prehistoric or from pop culture. If it has no value to them, personally, then why would it interest them? This is why museum theatre is so powerful since it helps to make the “human” connection between – for example in a living history performance in a gallery setting with objects around and watching or interacting with an actor (well versed in the subject matter and history). There is something unique and special that happens – as if the visitor is going back in time and meeting the character and the object(s) relating to the time and experience becomes more relevant.
T: Do you write all the performances? What’s your process for creating these stories? What are some principles behind the performances? How is it different than if you were creating the same story for a non-museum space?
H: My experiences are different – depending on the project. For example, in some instances I have done the research and written the script. Another project- I may work with a playwright and we go back and forth while the work is in process. So as the director I take the words off the page and work with the actor(s) and playwright until we hone it for an audience. it is wonderful working with a living playwright since you can have this conversation. Sometimes I am the director and dramaturge where the person is writing the story (i.e., oral history performance) and then I coordinate the writing and dramatic elements that support the story such as use of props, songs, poetry, movement, staging, etc.).
T: Do you think theater performances in museums are a growing component to their programming?
H: I would like to think so. I think that we are moving in that direction for some museums. I have seen some interesting kinds of work in museums that normally would not do as such. We have to remember that those who are coming from a museum culture may not feel comfortable in introducing theatre elements. But the movement to tell the story I think has opened up some avenues that did not exist before and were more traditional. I have worked within fine arts museums as well as history, childrens museums, science museums and it seems that the fine arts is moving in that direction, but slower. I also want to share that I believe that there is more exploration in the area of docents and use of storytelling and theatre techniques. This brings up another whole area, but an important one since who has the most hands on time with visitors in a museum? – the docents/tour guides. Museum theatre people can be of much support within this trend.
T: Docents are a huge opportunity to tell those stories. I didn’t put that together. What are you working on now?
H: I agree about the docents and I would enjoy working in this area more since it really can make a difference in connecting people to museums and exhibits. Regarding what I am working on now there are some intriguing projects include one for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture whose theme for their upcoming exhibit is how people relate to their flag. As someone from Maryland you may be aware of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 is a dominant theme in museums and communities there for the last several years. In this situation I am to bring together people from different backgrounds and direct a oral history performance around their relationship to the flag(s) and stories. Another project I have been asked to do is with the Jewish Museum of Maryland that is about this little known historic figure who as a young person fought at Fort McHenry and later in life during his Mid-Eastern travels is claimed to be the first American to tour the Nile Valley. His name was Mendes Cohen – a fascinating character and at this time the script is being written by Jonathon Scott Fuqua.
T: What project would you like to tackle if you had the opportunity?
H: What a great question. I have been thinking about this lately and have a curiosity to know about those who come to this country from various ethnic/racial backgrounds and want to know what it was like for them and how has their lives been changed. Their children’s lives….I guess i am always intrigued by the immigration stories. I watched a swearing in ceremony of people who come to the United States and then wonder what happens after that. I would like to follow their stories from before and after. On another completely different note though – I am working on something I have put on the back burner for a long time – a history tour of Baltimore theatre – and working to make that happen with Baltimore Heritage. Quite a fantastic history indeed that needs to be told. http://www.baltimoreheritage.org
T: Baltimore alone could keep one very busy and the immigration story would fascinate a lot of people. I imagine there is a lot of opportunity for immigrant stories, as there have been in the past, but a present day story would be interesting.
How do museums find oral history performers to work with their collections?
H: Finding the people for an oral history project can be one of the most challenging things and it takes a wide net in some cases to find people. For example, last year I directed an oral history project dealing with the civil rights movement and wanted to find different voices in the community. You can read and view some of the results (including digital storytelling) at the website: foralltheworldtohear.org
T: I imagine http://www.imtal.org is a good place to explore if museums are interested?
H: I would suggest also my website www.h-tac.com that includes more illustrations of various oral history performance projects. I worked with The Beacon Newspapers, a senior adult monthly publication, local senior adult organizations, schools, other local and regional publications, word-of-mouth, etc. to find approximately ten individuals suited and available to commit. The remarkable group that came together from this assorted effort was worth the experience. Also, I have to personally interview each person to see if they are a good fit, if they can realistically make the commitment that is necessary i.e., meetings, rehearsals, the performance dates, etc. An additional reward is the bonding that comes out of complete strangers for the most part coming together and having an intimate ongoing – free speech – experience about serious issues which is often times lacking in society. By the way, even though the project ended (funded by the MD Humanities Council and toured to about six different sites) there are still requests for the program and performing this February at the Howard Community College through my company.
There was so much more I could say, but for the sake of some kind of brevity, I do hope people in the museum world think of museum theatre with an open mind, see it as another way to tell the story, enhance exhibits and become an attractive medium to engage their audiences of all ages.
T: Me too. I think it’s a wonderful compliment to museum collections and I think museum theater is a brilliant tool to discuss our history within a context that helps us understand and create that deeper connection.
Thank you so much again for taking the time to chat with us. Our readers will surely appreciate learning more about museum theater.
H: Thank you, Thomas. It has been my pleasure. This was fun and I am glad we met. Much success to you on your work and projects. You are doing good things for the museum industry.
T: Thanks Harriet for saying so, you too! Keep up the good work! We’ll do our best to promote your work and the work of so many others on behalf of the museum world. Have fun and enjoy your trip here in California. It’s a beautiful place! Talk to you soon and all the best back in Baltimore.
Pathways to learning even more about Museum Theater:
IMTAL Regional Conference – Chicago, IL, Sept. 14 – Sept. 18, 2014
Harriet Lynn on LinkedIn
Harriet Lynn on Maryland Humanities Council
Oral History Program at the National Center for Creative Aging
Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium on Twitter