Museum Theatre: Making Our Stories Accessible. National Museum of Australia, Canberra 2001
"Banging a visitor over the head with a message will only serve to concuss their mind, not expand it." - Catherine Hughes, Boston Museum of Science, Executive Director of the International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTA). So I'll begin with an old joke, along the lines of when is a horse not a horse? When it turns into a field.
When is museum theatre not museum theatre? When it's in a museum, not in a theatre. Traditionally, museum theatre - in the theatre - is an unimaginative reproduction of an old play with no modern relevance beyond maybe an academic interest in how it was done a century ago. But museum theatre in a museum turns all this on its head. And it's happening right here at the National Museum of Australia. This is where the audience participation starts.
Old dark brown timber, linoleum floor, green and cream wall tiling and glass cases with fascinating stuffed animals and ancient spear points. This was the Australian Museum I remember in Sydney in the 1950s. For me, an exciting place which turned me on to anthropology, archaeology and environmental issues. But Greg Lissaman, director of Canberra's Jigsaw Theatre Company, says things have changed.
Young people live now in a visual and information world in which not only is museum theatre (in the theatre) irrelevant, but museums need to be interactive places where learning happens through people participating. Machines and computers, of course, can provide exciting activities - go to K-Space at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) to see the children in action inventing their own instant-video city of the future - but theatre has a special role to play.
At the NMA, a team led by Lyn Beasley, manages theatre performances, like Strike It Rich (by Susanne Ellis, as the wife of a goldminer) and Alien Invasion (by Alexis Beebe, Special Agent Scruffy, and Stephen Barker, Special Agent Mouldy from the Bureau for Feral Invasions) specifically for school groups during term time. Another team, led by Daina Harvey, focusses on young people up to age 24 outside the school context, including next July a Federation show by justly famous Canberra satirists Moya Simpson and John Shortis.
A quieter theatre scene at the NMA is inside the Boab Tree, where storytelling takes place, especially but not only for the very young children. With manager Denise Fowler, I watched Marina Knight from the Storytellers Guild enacting her story of the rainbow serpent who sloughed her skin, leaving a beautiful magical light show for all the insects to explore, except the grasshopper - until the mantis wisely suggested weighing the grasshopper down with bullants and beetles so he couldn't suddenly jump and damage the delicate membrane. Her description reminded me of Chihuly's glass exhibition at the National Gallery, except that he didn't have a choir of ants to complete the visitor's experience.
It was Fowler who articulated the special role of theatre: no matter that machines and computers can do wonders, visitors to the NMA respond to the humanity of performance by people. In the end it is the human touch which transforms a green-and-cream wooden, glass and linoleum museum, or even a whirring, buzzing multimedia museum, into a contemporary museum of stories and dramas which touch people's real lives. This is what museum theatre can do.
So what's the connection between the National Museum of Australia, the International Museum Theatre Alliance and The Jigsaw Company? The answer: The Australia Council for the Arts, which offers grants in its Emerging Artists Fund to artistic directors in their first 4 years. Greg Lissaman has been at Jigsaw for 3 years, with a remarkable achievement in expanding Jigsaw's program.
When Jigsaw began, as you may imagine from its name, it was an offshoot of the long-gone Canberra Children's Theatre, providing essentially theatre-in-education for the school system. Now Lissaman has built on the work of 25 years' worth of professional artistic directors to make The Jigsaw Company a theatre for young people, which not only can serve the needs of schools through its contract with the ACT Department of Education, but has as its core the presentation of quality theatre. In effect Jigsaw is operating in parallel to Daina Harvey's team at the NMA.
Jigsaw's base is the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, but the company has never been restricted to a theatre venue, as Peter Wilkins' recent review in The Canberra Times of Kings Hall 9 demonstrates: the Chambers of Old Parliament House make the perfect setting for this Federation drama.
In fact it was this work which led to Lissaman receiving a grant from the Australia Council for an 8 week study tour of zoos and museums in USA and England in May 2002. In Dallas he and Michael Richards of Old Parliament House will co-present a paper to the Annual Meeting of the prestigious American Association of Museums, while Lissaman goes on to the Smithsonian in Washington, the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Region History Centre, Philadelphia Zoo, Boston Museum of Science and the London Museum of the Moving Image, where he will make a more lengthy study of the training of actors for scripted and improvised museum theatre work, and the model of consultancy which makes this Museum a successful provider of museum theatre across Europe.
This is where not "banging a visitor over the head" comes in. Catherine Hughes founded the International Museum Theatre Alliance, writing in 1998 "As the museum theatre field grows, criticism of it may as well. In fact, when engaging the full power of theatre, it should spark healthy debate. The aspect that should not be up for debate is quality. It is imperative to produce well-acted, well-written, well-researched, and well-supported museum theatre. A lone actor in period costume with no structure or support from an institution will appear foolish. A simplistic, badly written play will not keep anyone's attention. Bad or overzealous acting will ruin more than just one experience."
Daina Harvey from NMA will be at the IMTA conference for four days in September. Greg Lissaman will meet with Catherine Hughes next May. The NMA Performance Advisory Group has been established to build on the high-level enthusiasm of the internal staff, chaired by Children's Programs General Manager Dr Darryl McIntyre, by bringing in the expertise of not only Greg Lissaman, but Canberra Youth Theatre's Linda McHugh, Elbow Theatre's Iain Sinclair, College drama teachers Lorena Param and Peter Wilkins, Melbourne Theatre Company dramaturg Peter Matheson, and Robert Swieca from Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, who is also a Board Member of IMTA.
The object of the exercise is to ensure that Hughes' injunction about not compromising on quality is followed through. This is Jigsaw's main point: quality theatre is the core - only then can quality experience and learning take place. I guess parents and teachers around Canberra will back Jigsaw's reputation on this point.
Of course, the other issue raised by Hughes will be the one to watch. Will the funding for the NMA support the current enthusiasm? Will museum theatre become entirely dependent on box office (already partly the case for some performances at NMA)? Professionals need to be paid at professional rates, so will budgetting in the long term recognise the continuing need for quality?
ANM Director, Dawn Casey, expresses no doubts however, explaining that museum theatre is directly related to the Museum's central concern: making Australia's national stories accessible. As exhibitions change and develop, so will the museum's theatre be embedded in the process not only of presenting our stories but creating stories, where, for example, a school or community may bring their own theatre to the museum. Already, she says, museums overseas are keen to learn from the way we do things here where we aim to integrate visitors' experiences around themes and national narratives.
So museum theatre has jumped out of its old theatrical pigeonhole and wombatted its way into the Mr Squiggle design of the National Museum of Australia where it will create ever diverting tunnels for the unwary - and will be impossible to remove without the whole structure falling down about our ears like a dunny kicked by an emu. Museum theatre has certainly turned topsy-turvy, to become the theatre of the future instead of the theatre of the past.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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