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Using Live Theatre to Bring Stories Alive

Hamilton, Evita, Inherit the Wind, and The Laramie Project, these are just a few examples of award-winning plays based on real people and events in history. Audiences flock to these productions, captivated by stories of the past. What better place to mine these stories than our cultural institutions, who are tasked with preserving them? The research is completed, the artifacts available for viewing, the stories known, all that is left to add is the drama.

museum theatre

How Can a Play Highlight an Exhibit?

In 2018 the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum (London, Canada) did something they had never done before. They presented a full-length play, turning a meeting room into a theatre space. Left Behind, was a drama about a WWII Spitfire pilot and an Afghan War veteran. Part of the Museum’s mission is to foster a deeper understanding of the Regimental experience, within the context of Canadian history.   When the theatre company approached Georgiana Stanciu, the Executive Director, with a play highlighting the experience of Canadian soldiers she did not hesitate. “We are always trying to reach new audiences. Our largest, major visitors are from the military, so we need programming outside of the box. It was a longshot, but we achieved our goal.” That goal was introducing new visitors to the museum.

A portion of the audience were regular theatre patrons, of whom many had never been to the museum. It was their first exposure to the facilities and their collection. In opposition, for the theatre group, there were military members who admitted they “never go to the theatre.” It was the subject matter and the museum’s connection that drew them. The collaboration was a win-win for both groups.

Regardless of a museum or cultural institutions’ focus, there is a play that can highlight what they do. Think of The Diary of Anne Frank showing in conjunction with The Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (London, UK) or the ballet The Red Shoes performed at The Bata Shoe Museum (Toronto, Canada). These are just a few ideas that could link exhibit and theatre, but it is possible to personalize a work further by commissioning a piece using an institutes’ own exhibits.

Artistic Director, Callie Nestleroth, wrote and produced a play for The Swiss Cottage Library (London, UK) utilizing the character Cathy from Wuthering Heights. For her the library’s large atrium with natural light gave the feeling of the Yorkshire Moors. According to Anna Faherty (in her July 7, 2019 article “Why do stories matter to museums and how can museums become better storytellers?”) all you need to do is “look inside a museum and you’ll find stories about the foundation of the institution, the history of the building, the collection, individual objects and the people who made, used, sold or owned them.”

Commissioning a play is a chance for an institution to give marginalized voices a platform. A play does not have to be from the viewpoint of the powerful but can be told from the perspective of those who watched the events unfold. According to Stephen Ward, media ethicist, “History-coverage tends to reinforce the established mainstream view regarding stories including racial minorities.” A play can break that cycle by giving voice to obscure and invisible characters.

museum theatre 2

Why a Play? 

Increasing an institution’s profile and attendance, while working within ever stricter budgetary constraints, is a challenge for everyone but mounting a dramatic production can be a viable option. As well, the benefits of using a play format for storytelling is in the flexibility of the medium.

The subject matter can be catered to a museum’s collection. Is there a specific story that always captures the publics’ interest? Is there a new exhibit to be rolled out or an old one that needs to be brought back to life? Whatever the case, a talented playwright can bring out the inherent drama and the production can be accommodated to specific needs. Anything from a fifteen minute, one-act piece for school groups, integrated within a tour, up to a full-length production marketed as a stand-alone event.

For budget considerations, ticket sales for a full-length play can offset some costs. As well, many areas have theatre grants available. Working with the theatre group on these can increase chances of success. For Left Behind, a letter of support from the museum detailing the collaboration aspect of the production was sufficient in securing a grant from the local arts council. Depending on the play’s subject matter, local sponsors may also be possible. In return, they would receive a free ad in the program, on posters and a complimentary ticket or two to the production.

Cultural institutions and theatre groups are logical collaborators, as both are experts at stretching budgets and using what they have at hand to produce the highest quality experience for their patrons.

Challenges

Depending on the space in a venue there can be a number of challenges to mounting a production. Many large institutions have event spaces with a stage, seating, lighting and sound system perfectly suited to a theatrical performance. For those without, a little creativity can work just as well. Ask any actor or director and they will tell you stories of performing shows in non-traditional locals. Dinah Watts, a Canadian actor and director recalls performing in bars, an outdoor archway and – every actor’s right of passage – Shakespeare in the Park. No theatre person will be put off by a lack of stage. Many Fringe Festivals have a category called “Bring Your Own Venue.”

museum theater

Also, site-specific theatre is commonplace. This is where a show chooses a site outside of a traditional theatre, such as the Charleston Stage Company performing in a bank lobby and using the subjects from a wall mural as inspiration for the script. Left Behind was performed in the military museum’s public meeting space. Some of the challenges Dinah Watts faced as the director was “the lack of lighting, L-shaped seating configuration and having to create a backstage area.”

For Callie Nestleroth, there were several logistical obstacles to overcome, “The show uses sound pumped from speakers live in the space. We could do this during opening hours for a short fifteen-minute performance, but the full finished piece could only be performed in the library, in the evening, after it has closed.” This brings up another issue. Can the set be left up for several days or does it need to be dismantled after each performance?  There may be also safety concerns if the production is staged in and around exhibits. Is the institution and theatre group adequately insured?

When collaborating on an original piece there will always be creative differences to overcome. The question is how much input should the institution have in the final piece? Georgiana Stanciu has her own view on that. “You don’t want to influence the creative process but be specific, creating a framework,” she explains. Callie Nestleroth had a similar experience with how much say the library wanted, “[The library] saw a shorter version of the show along the way and were happy to support the progression of it. “

Whatever the space, subject matter, or budget challenges, theatre professionals will rise to meet these. It is the nature of their work to adapt, conform and overcome. For example, Shakespeare has been performed on a plane, in a subway, a cemetery, supermarket and a hospital, to name a few. Whether it is a lobby, a courtyard or exhibit hall, given access to any kind of space theatre artists will make magic.

How to find a Playwright? 

This may be one of the easier aspects of play production; that is, where to find a playwright. Most countries have a Playwright’s association, such as the Playwrights Guild of Canada, Playwrights Association of New Zealand, or Writer’s Guild of South Africa. There is also likely to be an association at the state, province or territory level. Locally, most cities large enough to sustain a museum will have some type of arts council or group that can be used as a resource.

There are several different ways to approach this endeavour. Putting out a call for playwrights to submit ideas is one. If run as a contest, it may be possible to get some press coverage on the museum’s newest venture. Another option is to connect with a playwright, through an association, professional contacts or finding one whose work you enjoy.

As for subject matter, a specific exhibit or historical figure can be the focus, or the writer can be let loose within the institution to see what inspires them.  A playwright alone will not give you a finished production, only a script. Once again, every city, regardless of size, will have a theatre group. Medium to large cities will have a myriad of them. If not familiar with the theatre world it will be quickly apparent that everyone knows everyone. Chances are the playwright will also be a director or an actor with connections to the entire theatre community.

Marketing Opportunities 

The benefits in mounting a production can manifest in marketing opportunities. It can be difficult to get the press interested in covering cultural events so to get their attention, a hook is needed and there are several ways to do this with a play.

Linking the show to an anniversary or current event already in the news, increases chances media will take notice. For example, Left Behind, a war story, was performed a week before Remembrance Day. The press looks for side stories when reporting on events and anniversaries. The added “hook” for the production was that it was the first time the RCR Museum had a play performed on their site. Using a legacy character, especially one with ties to the community, gives the pitch originality and having support of children, grandchildren or ancestors of a character can add legitimacy and the human-interest aspect the press seeks.

The theatre group can also bring new audiences. The playwright, director, and company will have as much motivation for success as the museum and therefore discussions should include the use of their marketing channels as well. Working in tandem increases your reach, which is what Bo Thomas, stunt and fight coordinator, and theater professional, who collaborated with the Tøjhus Museet (Danish War Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark) realized, “Most of the marketing was handled by the Museum, but we also did our own kind of marketing, Facebook, Instagram etc. At one point we had about 250 people per show. Some were regular patrons, but according to the museum two-thirds were first time visitors, just because they came to see the show.”

For marketing purposes shows in rehearsal, specifically in costume, produce dramatic pictures for the press, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Actors and directors also make lively interview subjects for radio and television interviews.

The play’s subject matter can also drive audiences. For Callie Nestleworth’s play at the library “we specifically marketed this show towards youth audiences studying the Brontë’s in English at school, which are the audiences that libraries are keen to reach.” For Left Behind, a block of tickets was bought by a support group for military members and families dealing with PTSD.

Full collaboration between the cultural institute and artists can multiply the turnout potential, as well as expose each group to the other’s patrons. A winning scenario for each side.

Is It Worth It? 

In 2006 the movie Night at the Museum was released. Subsequently, the American Museum of Natural History, which was the setting for the film, realized a 20% increase in attendance. Not everyone can be as fortunate to have Hollywood come knocking, but it is possible to bring in a little Broadway.

Mounting a theatrical production in a cultural institution has a number of challenges, but there is also the potential to reach new audiences. Commissioning a play based on an exhibit or specific collection is one of the most dramatic ways to bring your stories to life. It can be a one-time collaboration or the beginning of an annual tradition. As Bo Thomas says, “The museum’s feedback was that they actually got a bit overwhelmed because they weren’t used to getting so many people in, and we ended up performing at the museum for seven seasons.”

Theatre organizations and cultural institutions have similar goals and challenges. Increase audiences within strict budgets. Collaboration can be a creative solution to overcome these obstacles. A play gives the opportunity to delve deeper into subject matter than cannot be accomplished through a static exhibit. The stories, the people involved, and the effect on a community can be experienced by the audience. This is the advantage theatre has over most other mediums. It connects people to stories.  Every institution has histories that would benefit from exposure and theatre is one of the most immediate and intimate ways to bring these unique stories to life.

About the author – Trina Brooks

Trina Brooks graduated from Broadcast-Journalism and immediately dove into her first love, theatre. She trained as an actor in Toronto, Canada and London, UK spending several years on the stage and screen. She received her Teaching Arts Education certificate from the Ontario Arts Council. For the past decade she has written and produced a number of plays, as well as writing articles and short stories.

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