- Exploring Museum Theatre
Tessa Bridal's how-to book for museum practitioners persuasively evinces the importance of museum theatre and the need for a book on the subject. Citing studies by the Smithsonian, museum scholars, and regional institutions, Bridal reminds us that museum visitors find theatre to be more powerful than exhibits when it comes to "presenting information in a meaningful and enjoyable manner" and allowing "self exploration of historical information" (107). Visitors to museum exhibits [End Page 376] are often better able to articulate the desired facts and connections if they also experience a museum theatre performance. Moreover, Bridal argues, museum theatre is instrumental in transforming points of view, helping us be less fearful in our encounters with new ideas, and "teaching through the emotions . . ., inspiring hope and positive change, and therefore being a force to improve the world" (9). Important business, indeed.
In her chapter "What is Museum Theatre?" Bridal's informants (from museums such as the Science Museum of Virginia, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis) draw boundaries to constitute their craft—boundaries by turns conservative or loose, depending on institutional goals and interpreter backgrounds. For some, museum theatre must include speaking characters and a narrative; for others, "an experimental, nonlinear approach to theatre" (xiii) can be equally as compelling. By Bridal's own definition, museum theatre is educational and linked to the museum's mission and values: high artistic quality, employing paid and unpaid trained professionals; most often shorter than commercial theatre performances; and frequently interactive.
The strongest chapters are four through seven, which comprise an exhaustive tour through the process of making museum theatre: grant writing and sources of funding; development and scriptwriting; auditioning actors and hiring costume and set designers; stage management and technical requirements. Based on Bridal's own twenty years of experience in the field, each of these chapters covers roles and responsibilities, anticipation of snags, supplies needed, sample timelines and employment listing ads, and even the minutiae of union questions, royalties, and copyright issues. Practical questions treated in these chapters include, for example, "When is it appropriate to use color-blind casting? When should it be avoided?" (An Asian Marie Curie, she cautions, might produce unwanted confusion for a museum audience not used to the conceit of color-blind casting). From the suggested budgets and timelines, it is clear that this is a book for serious museums with serious sources of funding, though its advice can probably be adapted and used by smaller institutions and historic sites. What Bridal makes clear to the would-be museum theatre practitioner, however, is that this enterprise takes several months of planning, plus quite a bit of money, institutional support, and outside resources to reach the level of professionalism she insists upon.
The weakest chapters are two and eleven. Chapter two, "A Brief History," though admittedly not of primary interest to her target audience, is the most troublesome. Bridal finds it necessary, as do many who write about museums and performance, to establish a genealogy of museum theatre, seeking legitimacy by dissociating her subject from nineteenth-century popular entertainments like Barnum's lectures and curiosities, and instead grounding its origins in diorama rooms and educational forums of the nineteenth century (or, in its "deepest roots" of myth, storytelling, ritual, celebration, and fantasy). Such an unproblematized reiteration of the evolution narrative made fashionable by museum scholars like Jay Anderson and Edward Alexander not only reinscribes a selective and positivist mode of museum historiography; it also perpetuates the imagined distinctions between, say, Skansen, Hazelius's nineteenth-century open-air museum, and the pop-culture landscape of World's Fairs and sideshows. At the very least, this chapter is unnecessary. Bridal clearly establishes the importance of museum theatre in the present; it shouldn't need such a clichéd and trumped-up pedigree to justify its existence. The inclusion of her genealogy does allow the insertion of Bridal's own institution, The Science Museum of Minnesota, as an evolutionary step (the SMM developed some puppetry programming in...