This idea was first sparked and developed as part of the Transforming Thresholds
project with University of Leicester. It is currently being developed for a larger pilot programme.
This is just a preliminary write up of the thoughts behind the project as well as a brief description of the first trial of the idea. Although it has been augmented over time, the initial concept for what follows came from of an idea that was first developed collaboratively through interdisciplinary practice during the Transforming Thresholds project
Museums and art galleries are places where we should exude wonder and want to connect with human experience and emotion; yet they are often places where through learned behavior we reign in our impulses and restrain ourselves to quiet, often individual contemplation. It is interesting to consider to what extent visitors are actively managing their experience and “acting” in a way they feel they are expected too, therefore becoming mobile scenery themselves, rather than active players.
Much of our sense of play is reasoned out of us as we grow older and it is as these restrained adults that we create cultural buildings and experiences. It should be no surprise that we then struggle to integrate young people within our carefully constructed atmospheres of reverence.
Whilst looking at play led experience in museums with young people a recent project in Leicester gave some interesting, if perhaps obvious observations from their workshops with young people. The two that most intrigue me are:
The physical activity of gaining access to a personal space; to allow observations of people, activity and collections is signiﬁcant to our users.
Being allowed to make a substantial temporary statement in a formal space engaged the audience to their surroundings.
These – to me – both point to a simple desire for human connection and to have a sense of “live” engagement. When people talk about the thrill of a live music performance compared to the evening spent at home with the Barry Manilow CD; it isn’t the quality of the aural experience they are referring to but the social interaction. Also, the sense from the second statement that we want to feel we have contributed, even if it is just singing the chorus to Mandy. (I really don’t like Barry Manilow, honest. Just to make that clear.)
For this reason, it is clear why museums have increasingly explored using live performance elements as part of their programming. Whether this is as traditional re-enactment type performance, as a site specific “event” or integrating digital performance; there is decisive movement towards reanimating spaces.
From a personal experience, this makes me nervous. What if I’m just going along to look at some nice art, sit down and have a cup of tea and maybe buy a souvenir? I don’t think I want some enthusiastic (unenthusiastic would be worse, more terrifying) actor leaping about in front of me dressed as a Velociraptor, imploring me to hurry to the Jurassic section. Why? Because I’ve not accepted that as part of the transaction I unconsciously believe I am making when I set off on my “museum experience.” From the point of view as myself as a performer and one who has traveled performing street theatre; I believe in the importance of making the offer. If I bound up to a total stranger in the street, whilst they’re pondering “do I really need to go back for ketchup?” and start performing, I’m assuming several things. Firstly, that they won’t mind me interrupting their thoughts of dinnertime condiments; secondly, that they won’t instinctively hit me in the face and thirdly, that others in the street won’t now leg it in the opposite direction.
If it feels natural, if it seems part of the landscape of their everyday experience then I can offer the next step. I could, with much more ease, be myself setting up a performance space, simply marking out the area I’m going to perform in. Actually, that’s exactly what I did. I was working with Citizen598 on a street theatre piece and my colleague, Dan Edwards, educated me in this practice, the notion of drawing a crowd in. The successful busker doesn’t normally have to chase people with his accordion yelling “EVERYONE LOVES AMELIE! GIVE ME A QUID!” as the simple offer of a hat on the floor lets us know what to do.
Being involved in the recent AHRC funded project Transforming Thresholds that examined the function of foyer spaces and how different disciplines can aid a visitors experience; I have begun to consider the transitory phase as not just applying to the transition from street to museum but the transition Museums themselves have to go through from culturally designated quiet spaces to the conventions of a theatrical space. So although we have seen different modes of performance in museums and this has been studied by recently by Lauren Hlubny in Florida, I will be focusing on one specific area with two clear objectives.
The Museum Players will utilise the convention of Invisible Theatre as explored and written about by Augusto Boal: using actors to play out scenes in public without the usual demarcations of performance but still with the intention of having an affect on the unknowing audience. These performances of Boal’s were planned but naturalistic and therefore invisible and this is what I will seek to employ. As well as being a safe, transitory type of performance that will not leap out at an audience/visitor, the Museum Player will also have more of a remit to act as a Cicerone, guiding the audience/visitors in a non intrusive way by offering non verbal signs by looking, walking and by also being open to the offer of answering a question. Some people might be intimidated by a uniform but by creating characters for the Museum Players that are primed to look for and recognise visitors that might be in need of assistance, the Player can then adopt their Cicerone persona.
My proposed study will work with the Players to rehearse, adapt and try out this methodology and monitor the results. Scenarios will be created and objectives for the Players will be set around the museum and in collaboration with the museum. This is a key element.
This also leads to one of the objectives of the Museum Players to act as Player-Researchers. By spending time in the museum listening, observing and interacting they will be more aware of visitor movement patterns and crucially, their comments and emotions. Whereas a camera or sensor might indicate a lot of people spending significant time in one gallery and conclude “AWESOME! PEOPLE LOVE THAT GALLERY!”; the Museum Players might pick up on the fact that a number of visitors are shattered by the time they reach this gallery and want a rest.
To be able to effectively play their role and also adapt to changing circumstance and judge to whom to make the offer, the Museum Players will need a specific skill set. This leads to the second objective of the study, which is to develop a practice based actor training programme. It is still general practice for actors to train in a studio. This studio/school based training might include a variety of practices ranging from physical theatre to naturalism but for the most part it still takes place in the studio in a clear “theatre” setting. The traditional quest for the actor is to “live in the moment” and to react as if the setting and situation are new each time and therefore it would seem appropriate to rehearse and train in an environment where the moment is genuinely “live”. The Museum Players will train and rehearse and perform as if all are the same practice and do this within a museum. The training will focus on the development of invisible theatre with the performers as Players rather than actors and to take on the role of the invisible Cicerone and Researcher. In part, it will utilise some of the improvisation techniques used by Mike Leigh in the development of his films to build characters and test them in everyday situations in real places with real people.
The training is to focus on building the confidence and skills of the Players to be able to alter the atmosphere of a space and therefore make the offer to visitors that it’s ok to talk, to move quickly to explore and to respond.
The trial of The Museum Players took place at New Walk Museum on 21st October 2013 as part of the Transforming Thresholds project.
The museum staff were aware of the project and signs were put up to inform the public entering the museum that performance work was taking place and a researcher was there to monitor visitor movement.
I had three performers and I wrote up brief character profiles for each of them, ranging from a quiet student visitor to the museum to a “happy tourist” looking to get the most out of their visit. We had a meeting to discuss their characters and the “story” for the day along with some technical details about movement and timings. We then had a walk through in the space with specific direction given to each Player and a “level” with which to play their role; to begin with, they would all play a muted version with minimal interaction. For this trial they had a simple cycle of performance to carry out that centered around the Museum foyer space and the stairs as it had been identified that some visitors didn’t realise the museum had an upstairs section.
During the course of the trial I intervened to give extra notes to the Players – away from the public - and the Players performed/rehearsed/refined again and again. Their interactions informed their next cycle of Play and they adjusted accordingly. As the day progressed, each character became more outgoing and by the end of the trial, the three Players entered and explored the museum as a quite boisterous group, although still focusing around the foyer area.
Although the data recorded by the researcher from University of Leicester is still being assessed, we did make some informal observations and also recorded the feedback of the Museum Players.
On several occasions we witnessed unequivocally, the Museum Players influence visitors by simple non-verbal communication in the form of modeling and copying. Visitors would be distracted by what they were doing or from their set path by the Player standing still and reading the signs. We saw clearly the visitor follow the modeling activity of the Player turning their head towards the stairs and then copy another Player who went up the stairs.
Another example was a group who were overhead talking about leaving, planning to leave with coats being done up and then the Museum Players (by this stage now in a group of three) loudly crossed their path talking about a specific exhibition in the upstairs gallery. Without saying anything the visitor group altered their path and carried on straight up the stairs following the Players.
When the Players with instructions to seek interaction with visitors did so, there were also interesting results. The more gregarious of our Players politely approached a visitor in the foyer who was about to exit the foyer into the museum. The visitor was asked about a certain gallery and as they didn’t know the answer the visitor paused before indicating that the reception desk might help. The visitor accompanied our Player to the desk and made sure they got an answer. Instead of then carrying on their original path into the museum, the visitor paused, turned back to the desk and proceeded to ask several other questions. Of course, perhaps our absent minded visitor had intended to do this all along but it is easy to see how this visitor may have been unobtrusively aided by our Player.
Another affect noticed was the change in volume in galleries and foyer space when our players were encouraged to talk more to each other. This direction was given in terms of temperature by asking them to be warmer so it wasn’t just volume but also an openness and positivity. Previously other visitors had been quiet and reserved and with the change in our Players the visitors also responded in a reciprocal manner.
As this is just an initial introduction to some of the ideas, concepts and approach I will be taking, I won’t go into detail about the trial of Museum Players at this point.
The next step will be to conduct more research into previous studies and both theoretical and practical work of theatre in museums. This will form the first part of a practice based PhD before moving on to the Museum Players training and then experimenting in more museums and evaluating the process alongside academics and curators.
I will, of course, write up this work and update this page as well as – hopefully – submitting it to any interested parties.
More information on the Transforming Thresholds project can be found by clicking here.
Thanks and much appreciation go to Dr Ruth Page; Dr Ross Parry and Amy Hetherington from the University of Leicester as well as Laura Hadland, Senior Curator for Leicester Museums and Galleries, and the Museum Players: Alison Preston, Andrew Davis and Laura Evans.
Museums and the web 2014
Dr Ross Parry from University of Leicester delivered his paper on the transforming thresholds project at the #MW2014 conference in Baltimore (3/4/2014).
Whilst discussing some of the other "lens" used in in the charrette and design stage, he also kindly referenced some of my writing and ideas. You can click the picture above or the link below to read more: