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Film: How Can a Museum use Theatre Effectively?

Many museums are using theatre as an educational or interpretative tool, but how can a museum use theatre effectively?

In this presentation Karen Vickery shares the bold and daring forays into museum theatre that the National Portrait Gallery have taken and challenges museums to think about how performance could work for them.

Presenter: Karen Vickery is at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and she’s going to be talking about their bold and daring use of theatre in the galleries. I could tell you an awful lot about Karen and what she does and their expertise in formal and cross-generational learning but I think it’s much better to let Karen speak for herself, so Karen.

Karen Vickery: Hi everyone, thank you very much. I guess in a … first of all actually I would like to acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land on which we meet, they were the [Ngunnawai] people and acknowledge their leaders past and present. It’s very nice to have this reminder here at the front.

I suppose that what I wanted to talk about really in the context of a conference that is all about risk is that I feel that the National Portrait Gallery took an enormous risk when they appointed me 5 years ago, as a refugee from the performing arts, as someone who had come from an entire career in the theatre and had incidentally dabbled in museums and art galleries along the way throughout that period. But, my primary activity had been as an actor, a director and a lecturer in theatre history. So, that’s the background I have.

I guess what the Portrait Gallery perhaps saw in me was the potential to explore how these two worlds could meet and that’s an area that I have been very much engaged in with my colleagues at the National Portrait Gallery. I really, really appreciated Elaine’s talk. I know that so many of us did, about complexity and multiple possibilities, entertaining multiple ideas at the same time and, although I know, ironically, I’ve been madly simplifying the whole concept of complexity ever since in my head, it has struck a chord with me and I am sure that those of you that heard my colleague’s from the MCA talking about their artist-led performance programmes at the Art Bar and indeed our colleague from the National Gallery of London, Gill Hart talking about imbedding the movement artists within the galleries, we will see that there are many threads of commonality.

To summarise really what it is we’ve been exploring and researching in museums here at the National Portrait Gallery has been using performance artists and commissioning performance specifically as another lens. Another way, another entry point for our visitors in terms of the exhibition programme. Really, what we’ve been inviting, a variety of performing artists from musicians to dancers to dramatic artists to respond to the themes, ideas and imagery in an exhibition and to present that performance within the context of the Gallery in a way that we negotiate.

The element of risk is that one actually loses, I suppose it could be seen as a loss by some, the sense of holding onto the really carefully curated concept of an exhibition and using the traditional gallery talk etc. to explicate that. And, that by inviting another artist to respond to what they perceive you might have achieved in an exhibition, you’re inviting something that you can’t predict.

I am very fortunate in that the powers that be at the National Portrait Gallery have been extremely supportive and I think the key to managing that particular risk is absolutely about communication. It is about communication from the word go, it’s about communicating with the registration team that one is fully aware of risks to the works which is primary, to the buildings team that “yeah, we’re not going to dig a hole in the floor” and we’re not going to allow our artists to do that. To deal with the risk management guy who is just wonderful and to say “yep, these artists are going to take some risks but they’re fully insured and so are we”. To deal with all those things and risk management is a huge part of the process of inviting other artists into the space in a non-traditional manner.

What has become very, very interesting for us is to look at the way in which audiences have been responding to this programme which we have been playing with over time. So I will take you through it.

This is an image of a performance called ‘Walking and Falling’ which was in response to an exhibition that was related to Anzac Day and the centenary of Anzac. We invited QL2 which is a local dance company in Canberra, artistic director Ruth Osborne who has extraordinary talent to create a 20 minute dance work which would take place in our foyer area, also known as The Gordon Dalling Hall and there were no tickets for this, it’s not in a theatre it’s something that will confront you if you happen to come into the gallery at that particular moment. So, it’s a performance that comes upon people as a pleasant or not so pleasant surprise, depending on how they might respond.

In this performance it was a highly narrative piece of work that the artists came up with but this was one of the earlier pieces that we did and it was really important to connect the artistic director and choreographer with the curators so that that conversation could begin relatively early in the curation process and to introduce them to the work and the works that would be on display. Really, what grew out of that was an extraordinarily moving narration for which they won a Critics’ Circle Award, at that time. That was beautiful and there’s another image of that performance.

Here is James [Spatula] who I think I saw in an image in another presentation in the gallery in London, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. James is an extraordinary artist and he is Canberra and Melbourne based so some of you may be familiar with his work. I highly recommend him, he is extraordinarily creative.

We commissioned James to create a response to the gallery itself as part of Design Canberra which is a week of demonstrations of design and James responded not only to the materials of the architecture at the National Portrait Gallery, but also to the notion of sculpting. The work was fairly extraordinary and we will probably invite him back to do it again and see how much further he can possibly take this piece. You can see there the extraordinarily image of James.

I will share with you a couple of responses from the public because I think they speak better than I can and being theoretical around it all:

  • One person said “I love this building. It’s good design. I can see why they would be inspired by it”.
  • Another visitor “We’re here from Port Fairy in Victoria, that is just such an interesting interpretation of the space. I am an architect and so that was commissioned, this is great”.
  • Someone else “It’s very slow to begin with but I like that as it calms you down in this space and that puts me in a very good place for going to look at the art”. So that was a very interesting comment.
  • “That was so beautiful it has brought tears to my eyes, I just have to leave”.

So, while someone else is getting ready to go and look at the art because of the work, someone else is going to leave but you can’t win all the time. And, once again with QL2 with whom we do collaborate a lot, other moments which is a response to a photographic exhibition which explored young masculinity with a number of artists on display called “Tough and Tender”. What the artists in this performance chose to do was to think about the moment before and the moment after the image. So they took their inspiration directly from the photographs and the images to extrapolate who these people were.

Some comments from the public:

  • “amazing, beautiful, tough and tender”.
  • From a child, “he has a broken heart, will he be okay mommy”?
  • And, “oh that was gorgeous, we came just in time it was so obvious that it was responding to Tough and Tender”.

So, whilst we are not prescribing an art historical perspective on the exhibitions through these performances, what we are exploring together with our curatorial team is something that we talk about a lot when we are designing our exhibitions at the Portrait Gallery and that is the centrality of emotional resonance which is important to us as an organisation in every exhibition. It seems to me that the performing arts respond to that particularly well and can assist us as one of a suite of other kinds of public programmes that we run, that can open up that possibility for our audiences.

I am going to share with you a case study. I am going to share it in the form of a video, it means we are in a cinema, I thought ‘why not’ for goodness sake plus I can bring some colleagues with me and you can see the nature of collaboration. Thanks Chris.

Female Voice 3:   “I thought it was incredibly insightful and bought an extraordinary relevance to the works. We are all negotiating this strange, paradoxical world every time we get dressed in the morning.

Karen: The autonomy of the audience of the audience and the performance and the whole experience was really real.

Female Voice 3:   You guys didn’t take a risk not only on theatre itself, but you took a risk by having young people coming in and create a theatrical work.

Speaker: I’d actually [sing] Can Bring You Theatre at Work and the way in which they primarily work is through a form of improvisation in which the students or the participants have a voice. Why were you excited by the idea?

Female Voice 3:   I was excited because it was a very conceptual exhibition so basically the concept of [unintelligible 00:12.03] came out of finding every work in our collection that in any way referenced a sense of undressing. That kind of explication as drama was just perfect. It’s not a traditional theatre piece so we needed to make sure everybody was on board with that and they were really –

Speaker: – ah absolutely –

Female Voice 3:   they were like, remember that day we had the paper out and they were like we wrote down things we want –

Speaker: – we could do –

Female Voice 3:   – yeah, and we want to include and they want to be challenged and they want to be bold and brave.

Speaker: So we began the process of collaboration and we came up with the idea of beginning with the workshop led by you as the curator of the exhibition. How did that change your thinking actually having to prepare a workshop for these young actors to understand the work they were going to look at and to open up ways in which they could respond? Did that have any kind of connection with the way you ended up curating?

Female Voice 3:   It was crucial to how the show came together. So what I did with the actors, there were about 12 young actors, I gave them examples of pairs of works from the show. What happened was, they would say things like “’aked is accidental and nude is planned’ and looking at something like the [unintelligible 00:13:20] Blackman as a nude model, they were saying ‘well no, she’s naked. When she’s painted she’ll be nude but, at the moment she’s still naked and so, someone is dressed when they are clothed to the point that they have to be for whatever they’re going to do’. So those strange sort of calibrations our minds, that instinctive reaction and then trying to nail down what it is that we’re reacting to was crucial”.

So, particularly when we got to those more difficult questions of sort of exposure and confidence and vulnerability and that strange shifting ground, so when we looked at portraits like the David Walsh, some of them felt he had this nerdy innocence and they almost felt sorry for him because he looked so uncomfortable. I don’t think we showed them all the images and some of them you put up they got amazing reactions like ‘oh my god yuck, why…’ and it was really interesting pulling apart why we had those reactions to those pieces. Why they were really extroverted or was it because we were prudes or introverted in our responses to that. So that really kicked off our process from then on in terms of how we dealt with the paintings and how we dealt with the ideas I think behind our responses to …

Female Voice 4: I admire you for being comfortable in your own skin.

Speaker: Because there was so much in each portrait, they conveyed so many ideas, so many juxtapositions of form, of personality, of emotion, we couldn’t really see how we could represent them so we realised, from that moment, that we would take a different approach and have our own response. What is it for us to be in our skin and how do we feel in our own skin through performances.

Female Voice 3: Yeah, and identity, really looking at the title itself of the exhibition, they had degrees of undress, what are degrees of undress? What even is that and played with that quite physically in the space putting on a lot of clothing, taking off a lot of clothing and really looking at what their feelings were in that moment and how exposed they felt or how safe they felt according to what was around them. Yeah, different responses to that revealing of the body or you know, exposure of self, yeah it was fascinating.

Speaker: One thing I did with the notes from the workshop was use them as part of a projection that was in the gallery space as they performed particular parts of the movement in their piece serendipitously, the perfect word would appear behind them. You know the two things jelled.

Female Voice: 3:  We were asking our cast to be in their underwear outdoors and that was a difficulty that we put them through –

Speaker: – but it added so much to the performance –

Female Voice 3:   I really enjoy the opening scene I suppose, what we call ‘B test’ which is kind of a scrambling to find for me what is my identity, what is my skin using the soundscape that is quite urgent and overpowering and directional that performers have to find their skin and then it is about from there [unpairing] and revealing even more.

Speaker: The whole piece was very much informed by the [unintelligible 00:17:35]situation work and we went from really going from two fifteen minute performances in the gallery to a one hour cycle that we took over 4, we took 4 hours each day and it was such a physical work and emotionally draining work that there was a moment I remember in one of our pieces in ‘Punching’ and there was one session that we did where a man literally stood in amongst the whole group as they were punching and Alison and I were worried, fearing for his fate as this very physical punching sequence happened. But you know, if there was a small 2 year old crawling around at your feet as you were stomping, the stakes were very high in the performance.

Female Voice 3:   And also the consideration of being in the gallery. The way we structured the piece became very much about the space that we were in and how the flow of people would work.

Yeah, because we went on this journey of feeling comfortable in our skin and then to feeling like we overloaded, we’re not even in our own skin and then how do we actually find our own skin and so it did become about identity and then feeling brave enough to be exactly who we are by the end of the performance and we had so many comments on that bravery that our audience saw. That these young people, you know some of them were, one of them was 16 up to 25 and that was so brave to stand there in their underwear at the end of the performance and say ‘this is me and I am totally okay with who I am and what you see’.

Male Voice:  Here it is, here I am.

Speaker: What was really interesting too was watching the audience watching each other watching the performance, watching the artworks. It was a complex dynamic. Some people were really uncomfortable because they don’t expect to encounter a performance in an art gallery in that way, other people revelled in it. So that was very interesting as well. One woman who actually was here for a conference saw the performance during her lunchtime, followed them into the exhibition and was moved to tears. The idea of exposure of the self and the level of risk and vulnerability that is required to be truly oneself in one’s skin, not just to disrobe but to reveal, I think that was the most arresting component of what they did and I think it was the most enriching component of what they did in relation to the way in which this collection of portraits speaks to us.

Female Voice 3: That really came to a climax at the end of the performance, a turn around, standing against the title wall and speak directly to the audience and to each other.

Female Voice 4: The hardest thing for me right now is to straighten up with my tummy and my backpack and my blocked nose and my fat lips and this voice, straighten up and be –

Female Voice 3: It was incredibly moving and you could see people’s reactions to that to the extent of … you know and even when they spoke to each other it was just perfectly balanced. One of them saying to the other ‘can we please leave now?’ basically. It was really beautifully done and that really made it an incredibly well rounded and satisfying piece of drama.

Female Voice 4: I want to walk away and I want to do it again and again and again, Josh hurry up.

Speaker: In that sense, for me it was putting performance and the exhibition together, it was very powerful for a lot of people.

Female Voice 3: It also allowed us to connect with the wider community which was amazing.

We had over 750 people come and see these performances which was enormous for CYT. We had so many people who accidently saw us, so they’d come to see the exhibition and then we happened to be there performing. Had a man come up to me one day and say ‘I’ve never seen a theatre performance and I didn’t know that this is what could be. I’ve never been really interested in it but this was amazing. We’ve given our guys some new training as to what theatre can be, getting them to really think more about the fact that theatre doesn’t have to be in a museum theatre, it doesn’t have to be in black box theatre, it doesn’t have to have stage lighting, it can actually be anywhere and what does that mean in terms of the messages we can get out to the community and in terms of the connection and can have with the community?

Really having an openness and taking a risk and saying ‘oh let’s give this a go and seeing the potential of what can be created because what can happen can be unthinkable really and I think that’s what we created. Something that we’d never imagined and that was really powerful”.

Video ends.

Speaker: Okay, thank you.

So, just to summarise, the title of the presentation today is “When is Museum Theatre ‘not Museum Theatre’ and the reason I said that is not out of any smugness or complacency. I think smugness and complacency are the enemy of creativity and the enemy of accessibility and invitation. What it means is that in the theatre we call museum theatre something that is old fashioned, dusty and boring. It is certainly not what I think the examples of museum theatre that we’ve been exposed to during this conference display in any way, shape or form.

So, I hope that gives you an insight into some of the way in which we have been exploring museum theatre and I would be very happy to take a couple of questions if anyone has any, thank you.

Presenter: Thank you Karen. So, does anybody have a burning question they want to ask? I’ll ask one question just in case people are cogitating what their particular question might be. The way that the performances and the exhibitions has developed, initially it looked the idea for the exhibition and the content came first and then the drama, is there any intent to switch that and go from drama to deciding what that inspires in an exhibition?

Speaker: Quite honestly no, not at the moment. I would love to see that happen and I think if there is a curator who might make that possible it would be Penny who is the curator you saw here. She’s particularly adventurous in her approach which is not to say that our other curators aren’t but it … you have to find individuals with whom you’re going to practice to do this type of work.

We have had successful collaborations. Each of the exhibitions that I have shown you different photographs from have been with different curators and they’ve all been wonderful to work with. It’s simply different ways of working. We have not actually elicited an exhibition from a performance at this stage. I can imagine that we could and the closest we’ve come to a truly collaborative piece of performance and exhibition happening together is this one and I think Penny expressed that that the performing artists influenced the way in which she began to think about curating the show in some areas.

We have commissioned an individual portrait and a movement piece at the same time, we have done that because we have a very active commissioning process at the Portrait Gallery as I am sure a lot of you are aware. A lot of living artists and living sitters are adding to the collections so we have done that, but not yet a whole exhibition.


In this presentation filmed at MuseumNext Australia Karen Vickery talks asks how can a museum use theatre effectively?

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