Dramatic Inspiration: Innovative theater and museums

A few days ago, I saw a play that made me think a lot about museums. And though the story was incredibly powerful, I kept thinking about how they told it–and the implications for museums that are still wrestling with curatorial authority.

I’ve had season tickets to the Dallas Theater Center since 2014–it was one of my treats to myself when I became Executive Director. Over the years, my mom and I have seen some incredible shows. Several months ago, I got a letter in the mail about their upcoming performance of Electra. Since they were performing the entire show, would we mind switching our usual matinee time to an evening performance? From that moment forward, I was very intrigued.

Electra, that ancient Greek tragedy, is currently being performed outside in the Dallas Arts District. The audience is given headphones, and follows the actors from scene to scene–4 locations in all. Sometimes we were standing, sometimes we were sitting. The city noises of sirens and the highway added to the overall effect. At times, the actors were right in front of us. At other times, they were yards away. There were no assigned spots or seats, we were just there, together, experiencing something magical.

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When we moved from Scene 1 to Scene 2, I got really emotional as we stepped through the curtain. What was next? I have never felt that sense of anticipation during a play before. Each time we moved, there was this sense of urgency. Somehow, we had become a part of the action. We, the audience, had become deeply involved with the play, the actors, and the story.

In the playbook, director Kevin Moriarty writes about the decision to take it outside:

This not only connects back to the Ancient Greek tradition of performing under the sky, but it also allows for a more expansive acting style. . . It also locates the performance as a public event–you are hyper-aware of your surroundings, the other people experiencing the play alongside you, and your own relationship to the actors. This combination of a simultaneously public/private event and the interplay of intimate/grand emotions is central to the experience of these ancient plays.

But I can’t turn off my ED brain. What were the logistics of moving the audience multiple times? How many times have audience members gotten left behind? What was the board meeting like when this idea was first mentioned? What kind of sound technology made all this possible? How are more traditional theater goers responding?

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Amidst all the questions, there are some answers. From the moment we picked up our headset, I knew that the DTC trusted us, the audience, to come along with them for the ride. How often do we place such radical trust in our audiences? The DTC took one of the oldest plays in existence and made it feel completely fresh and current and new. All of the “radical” ideas in this production served and amplified the story. Nothing felt like a gimmick. They didn’t make these choices “because we can” but because it made for a better theatrical experience.

The last scene was at a reflecting pool. We had each been handed LED candles and stood around the pool, the lights of downtown and our candles mingling. And then, each actor went up to an audience member and gently took off their headphones, signaling the rest of the audience to do the same. The lapping of water, voices singing, and the end to an incredible night of theater. I left feeling inspired and grateful and amazed. Theaters are the king of “sit there and I’ll tell you a story” entertainment. Museums often do the same. But if a theater can involve their audience, make them feel a part of the story, while still maintaining control of the story, what can we as museums do? Perhaps the issue isn’t always curatorial authority, but rather figuring out how to take your visitors along for the ride.

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A Letter to My Nieces

To Savannah and Landri:

Every year, you get books from me for Christmas. I try to pick things that you’ll like and with strong female characters. I know you don’t read quite as obsessively as your grandmother, mother and I do, but I’ve always hoped that with the right book, the balance will tip. I also know that history probably isn’t your favorite subject.

But this year felt different. Maybe it’s because you’re teenagers. But more likely, it’s because of this horrible election season. It is always hard to be a feminist, to believe in equal rights for women. But it’s been so much harder this year, with Hillary’s campaign and ultimate defeat. The world feels uncertain and scary, and you’ll be coming of age under a president who has no respect for women. What impact will that have on your future? On your self-esteem? On how you approach your career and your relationships with others?

I flipped through Dead Feminists at a bookstore several weeks ago. I liked the looks of it. I liked that I didn’t know every single name listed in the table of contents. I thought about it long and hard, read this review, and then I bought it. Of course, I also did that thing I so often do—I read the book before I wrapped it.

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Girls, I know I can’t make you read this book, but I’m really hoping you do.  Make your mom read it too. Talk about it as a family.  Each feminist is chosen with such care—and each woman’s story connects to current events. The articles are brief and the art is stunning. I hope this book will serve as a gateway for you to explore more about women’s history.

But what I loved most of all is the obvious passion the authors/artists have for social equality and justice. We all need some inspiration right now, and I hope this might be a spark for both of you. There is so much to life (even life in junior high and high school) beyond drill team and dance and boys. Volunteer. Get involved in an extra curricular activity where your mind matters most. Don’t be afraid to be smart. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. The feminists in this book had extraordinary courage, but it didn’t magically happen when they were grown ups. It started when they were young—and it’s time for you to start too.

Merry Christmas—and here’s to a 2017 where more women find their strength. And if you ever need to add to your list of feminists to admire, just let me know. I’ve got loads more books I could send you.

 To Lucy and Schafer:

Little ones, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. Hopefully, your memories of this period in history will be vague. But I have a feeling I’ll be stockpiling copies of this book for when you’re older.  Your moms and I will do everything in our power to raise you to be strong, feminist women, just like us.

Teamwork for the Exhibit Win

Last month, I headed to Detroit for the American Association for State and Local History‘s annual meeting. It’s always an inspiring few days, but sometimes that inspiration comes from rather surprising places.

As a general rule, I don’t love art museums. As someone who doesn’t know much about art, I want to learn about art when I visit an art museum. But so many art museums stick with a very basic label formula–artist, title, medium, date. I’m always left wanting to know more. Maybe I should just stand there and let the art wash over me, but that’s just not how my brain works.

But I knew I wanted to visit the Detroit Institute of Art. They’ve been through hell and back, and if nothing else, I wanted to support them. Plus, I do enjoy Diego Rivera.

Jenn and I were completely blown away. It is a massive institution. The collection is incredible. But even more amazing–I learned about art!

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Loved how casual this was.

Everywhere we turned, there was an interesting tidbit on a label. An invitation to look more closely, ask questions, all those things that I want to do in a museum. There were simple, low tech interactives. Decorative arts were mixed with fine art. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself so much in an art museum.

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One of my favorite exhibit rooms–the entire gallery was about portraits, and this label invites you to compare the two dominant styles of the period and decide which you would prefer for your own portrait.

And then we wandered into the Great Hall. And the Diego Rivera murals. It was breathtaking. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work in a truly “fancy” museum–I think I would be less likely to get away with jeans.

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No way to really capture the scale. I think what I loved the most was the contrast between the murals and the architecture of the building.

It also is worth mentioning that every staff member we encountered was absolutely delightful. Security guards asked us great questions and shared their favorite piece in a gallery. Volunteers seamlessly directed us through galleries, pointing out certain pieces and sharing great stories. We had so many great conversations about art during our visit–which is exactly what is supposed to happen at a museum! From the labels to these interactions, it’s clear that the DIA is working to make their enormous institution more personal and more accessible for all.

One of my former staff members now works at the DIA, and we met for lunch. I started raving to her about how wonderful our experience had been and she explained that every single label in that museum is written by a team–a curator and an member of the interpretation staff.  Just by the nature of the positions, there’s also usually some sort of generational divide as well. So, all those labels had been discussed and fought over by multiple people.  That push and pull between curatorial and education garners some pretty powerful results.

At a small institution, it’s a lot easier to work on teams. If you need another set of eyes, you have to go outside of your department–because you’re a department of one! That’s such a harder thing to do at a large institution.  If nothing else, it inspired me to make sure we continued to work on exhibits as a team at DHV. If the DIA can do it, we can do it too!