Staging Current Science
On the Cutting Edge:
Addressing Current Topics in Science
Want to Help Visitors Understand a Cutting-Edge Topic? Turn It into a Play
By Tessa Bridal
Jan: Do you blame Dad for the choices you've made?
Nate: What choices? Do you call living under a death sentence a choice? Do I wish they'd had the test when Dad was young? Yes. Do I wish he'd never had kids? Yes! This is no way to live! Genetic Prophecy: Do You Really Want to Know? (1997)
Science and art have this in common: Both help us to see things in new ways, to make connections that haven't been made before. At the Science Museum of Minnesota, we use theater to help visitors connect current and controversial issues in science to their own lives.
The idea that dramatic presentations might further the understanding of science was unexplored in the field when Sondra Quinn, a newly hired museum educator, launched SMM's theater program in the early 1970s, with the backing of then director Phil Taylor. Quinn's intention, as she describes it in a recent issue of the Museum Theatre Journal (Quinn, 2000), was to "demonstrate the impact that museums could have on their audiences by using theater to bring scientists and inventors to life, to present the many sides of an issue, and to give a voice to the object."
Like many museum programs in the late '70s, SMM's theater department suffered some setbacks. When I arrived in 1982, the program had been suspended for two years. In hiring me--a theater director with no previous museum experience--to revive the program, Quinn signaled the museum's commitment to take theater to a new level. My interests lay in the human drama of science, and SMM was willing to give me a free hand. I soon began to explore the thorny jungle of issues raised by technology, history, and changes in the human condition.
As our department built plays around medical, racial, and social issues, the museum was as pleasantly surprised as I was by how warmly they were received. One of our early efforts was Sara the Scientist, a 30-minute play on sexism in the scientific workplace. Far from being put off by the subject matter, audiences were enlivened and challenged by it. In a survey conducted with 20 percent of the visitors who saw the play, we asked if we should continue to develop pieces on controversial subjects. The answer was a unanimous "Yes."
From concept to curtain up
The creation of a play at SMM is a collaborative effort, involving not only the theater department (now called Public Programs), but also exhibit designers, school services and camp-in staff, and experts in the content area.
Our scripts are mostly written by freelancers. But long before the first lines go down on paper, a planning team of exhibit designers and educators meets to establish the basic parameters of the production. These include the play's central theme and goals, its target audience, the number of actors, and the size of the budget. (Costs can run from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the scope of the project and the level of contracts involved.)
The development of a current production, Genetic Prophecy: Do You Really Want to Know?, is typical of the process. In 1997, SMM was drawing up plans for a new building. For the first time, there would be a permanent exhibit area for human biology, and its planners wanted a related play. I met with members of the design team to discuss possible subjects.
We decided on a production that would explain a serious genetic disorder and encourage open-ended debate on genetic testing. Three playwrights were asked to outline how they would present the material. (All received a stipend for their time.) Two of the gallery planners joined me in reviewing the treatments. We chose playwright Judy MacGuire to research and write the script.
Once MacGuire was under contract, we identified our on-site content specialist, the person responsible for answering performers' questions and assuring the accuracy of the information conveyed. We also lined up some off-site experts and began to collect materials for the playwright. A first draft was submitted, rewrites were requested and done, and the play went into rehearsal. At this point, the actors offered their suggestions about dialogue and experimented with new ideas.
GETTING STARTED WITH MUSEUM THEATER
The Science Museum of Minnesota has a roster of 75 plays and science demonstrations available for lease, and many other museums make scripts from their theater programs available for a fee. For more information about SMM publications, or for a list of nearby museums that have theater programs, contact the author at: email@example.com or 651/221-4560.
The American Association of Museums (AAM) has a Museum Theatre Professional Interest Council, which publishes the Museum Theatre Journal. For information on how to become a member or to obtain past publications, contact the author as indicated above.
Another source of information about science theater is the International Museum Theatre Alliance, based at Boston's Museum of Science. IMTAL maintins a web site at www.mos.org/learn_more/imtal.html.
The premise of the play was simple. We wanted audiences to consider under what circumstances they might choose to undergo genetic testing. For our vehicle, we chose Huntington's disease (HD), best known as the disease that killed folk singer Woodie Guthrie. As a counselor in the play tells the audience: "HD is a progressive disorder of the brain and central nervous system. It is a crippling and deadly disease, caused by a gene inherited from a parent. The chances of inheriting HD are 50-50. In 1993, the specific gene responsible for HD was discovered, leading to a predictive genetic test for the disease."
In the course of the 25-minute play, three actors portray two different counselors and two families. In one segment, a husband and wife (one of whom carries the gene) debate their future and whether or not to have children; in another, a brother and sister discuss their father's illness and death and decide whether or not to be tested themselves.
An integral part of this and other SMM presentations is the question-and-answer session after each performance. To prepare for this, the actors research their topic before (and during) the rehearsal process, reading extensively and consulting the on- and off-site experts. Sometimes an actor is unable to answer a particular query. When that happens, the audience member is given a postcard to fill out. The actor will research the query and mail back the card.
Assessing visitor response
Although evaluation of Genetic Prophecy has been informal and anecdotal, audience response has been thoughtful and positive. In the three years we have been presenting the play, visitors have had a chance to voice their concerns about HD, express a desire for more information about its causes and effects, and share stories about personal experiences with the disease. The play has also met its goal of inviting debate. It is not unusual for audience members to stay in their seats after the performance, asking each other what they would do if faced with the same circumstances. Exhibit attendants report hearing continued discussion in the halls.
Highly controversial topics receive even more in-depth development and evaluation. In 1992, the museum theater program decided to address the problem of human population growth and its environmental and social consequences. The resulting play, The More the Scarier, was workshopped and rewritten many times over a two-year period. As part of the process, formal questionnaires were distributed to more than 500 audience members. One of the things we asked was "Would you like us to present more issues of this kind?" Of the more than 400 visitors who returned the form, only one answered "No."
Research and evaluation are essential when developing controversial topics for the stage. At the Science Museum of Minnesota, The More the Scarier, a 1992 play about human population growth and its environmental and social consequences, was workshopped and rewritten many times over a two-year period.
A force for change
Before Sondra Quinn left SMM in the mid-1980s, she initiated the Theatre in Museums Workshop, a weeklong training program offered at the museum each fall. This September marks our 15th annual workshop, with guest presenter teams coming from as far away as Monterey, California; San Antonio, Texas; and Atlanta, Georgia.
To date, more than 100 institutions have participated in the annual training session, resulting in the birth of museum theater programs all over the world. Much has changed in since we ran our first session in 1986. It is now common to find museums dealing with difficult and controversial subjects--such as religious bigotry, slavery, and native rights--through dramatic interpretation. Many museum educators would agree with George Bernard Shaw that "serious drama is perhaps the most formidable weapon that a modern reformer can wield." It is certainly a formidable way to connect with audiences on an emotional level.
Tessa Bridal is director of public programs at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.
|Adams, Roxana, ed. Case Studies in Museum, Zoo, and Aquarium Theater. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums (AAM), 1999.
Bridal, Tessa, and Susan McCormick, eds. Science on Stage Anthology. Washington, D.C.: ASTC, 1991. Five plays written for, and performed at, science centers and museums.
Pitman, Bonnie, ed. Presence of Mind: Museums and the Spirit of Learning. Washington, D.C.: AAM, 1999. Sixteen essays by award-winning museum educators.
Quinn, Sondra. "Theatre Provides a New Stage for Museums," Museum Theatre Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2000.