Making Theatre on the Playground: Children’s Museums and Unconventional TYA
Searching for Home
It’s tough out there for a theatre artist. We all know it. With limited job opportunities and essentially zero full time prospects, one finds themselves asking how they got so far down such a seemingly narrow career path? I love teaching but not sure I want to be in a classroom 40 hours a week, nor limited to one age group- how about birth to 100 please? I want to make my own work but what box do you check when theatre career categories are narrow–director, playwright, teaching artist, performer, designer? It’s a ‘kinda maybe’ to all these choices depending on what a project needs or with whom I’m collaborating. What sort of fellowships do you apply for when you want to make work for children but don’t wish to be limited to a theatre space or a script? Hands-on workshops for children and families are central to developing new, interactive work but where can one go to practice workshopping? What sort of medium understands that children should dive in and live inside a performance by experimenting with ideas using their bodies and maybe even make artwork contributing to the piece as well? I’ve been stifling all these questions with blind hope that someone, somewhere will get it. What about Children’s Theatre companies? While TYA companies understand the importance of workshops that engage the bodies and minds of youth; these elements are not visibly present in their performances. Nor do they engage young people in the creation of new work. I see immense value in workshopping ideas in a process-based medium where youth are key contributors, guiding development and changing directions of new work. Creating interactive work with a theatre company might be possible but unfortunately, no theatre companies return my calls…
My answer revealed itself in a lucky and unexpected way as I approached graduation day from my MFA program. I saw a posting looking for a presenter on interactive performance for young audiences for what I later learned was the leading national children’s museum conference, Association of Children’s Museums (ACM). I gave a spiel and demo on my MFA thesis project; MADE Garden shook some hands and went home satisfied. It was weeks later before it all clicked– had I found the prospective project partner I was looking for? A partner who supports experimentation, open ended questions and merging art forms? A well-endowed, flexible laboratory for messy play? HOME!
Children’s museums are perfect collaborative partners for theatre artists in a number of ways. I bask in the possibilities of interactive theatre in children’s museum as a staff member opening a new children’s museum in Minnesota and as an independent, project-based artist working in different museums. Children’s museums are probably not the answer for every lost theatre artist but they offer solace to my personal journey.
Observe, try, fail, retry
Children’s museums are messy playgrounds. Though there is not one singular kind of museum for children, all embrace the learning by doing philosophy. They are places designed to empower children to explore, try something new and challenge traditional ways of doing. Play is used as the primary vehicle driving experimentation in museum environments designed for unstructured, structured, or guided play experiences. In a recent residency at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, a team of artists and I designed an evolving installation piece about a mythical character living in the museum for a week called THE NEST. Though we came with multiple art-making workshop ideas ready to implement on day 1, the museum encouraged us to keep it simple. “What happens if we just wait and see what they do with the creature’s giant backpack”? Oh. We can wait and see? Then make changes as needed? Sure enough, children surprised us by using materials they found inside the creature’s backpack to help build its nest. More child-led surprises followed and redirected our project to places we could not have anticipated.
Make it Rain, mother-f***er
Funding is a real concern. Pitching projects to nonprofits or applying to calls for work with minuscule budgets is a waste of (my) time. Theatre is expensive and requires multiple collaborators and no, I will not volunteer my time because I love it so much. Funding partners need to understand these concerns and have funding in place to support quality work. Some Children’s museums budget for special projects and are just waiting for someone to pitch them something awesome. In my experience, museums are quite well-funded and if not, have resources for grant-writing. Decide when in your career you stop doing projects for little money- you deserve to be paid for your time. Design project proposals and budgets to account for all of your time, including planning, travel, phone meetings and evaluation for a project.
Built to Suit
Children’s museums each have individual, unique needs to consider when developing a new project. Some museums engage community organizations in as much of their programming as possible while others may have goals to serve specific populations within their visitor constituency. With a wide range of goals and objectives within organizations, varying drastically by seasons of the year or staff turnaround, children’s museums want a customizable project. Some children’s museums want a deliverable project arriving as a finished product, running its duration and going away swiftly. In an upcoming residency at Children’s Museum of South Dakota (CMSD) I am working in collaboration with museum staff and designers to develop an evolving exhibit space about Ponds and Streams running for 3 months over Summer 2015. I have never worked in a partner capacity with a museum before but see great value in a theatre artist guiding exhibit development. Our project will also utilize community partnerships with South Dakota State Fisheries, Department of Game and Parks, local artists and students at South Dakota State University. CMSD wanted to develop a longer running project utilizing unique educational community partners to re imagine and activate a mostly static exhibit hall. To develop the project proposal, I spent time trying to understand CMSD’s organizational objectives to hopefully fill-in any gaps in current museum programming.
Children’s museums are terrific partners for theatre artists looking for a home. In my experience, the community of educators and administrators working at children’s museums are excited about performance elements but know very little about how to incorporate them. They embrace non-traditional TYA with a faithful openness that invigorates an artist’s creative process! I suppose I classify my theatre work as “non-traditional” because it doesn’t fit in a single genre or work particularly well in a traditional theatre space. To be honest, I love all parts of creating performance equally and don’t see how any idea can possibly ever be complete and final enough to write down eternally in script form. I want my work to exist forever in-process and for children to participate in forming it. Children’s museums may not be an ideal setting for all theatre projects. However, I challenge my fellow TYA artists to take their work (scripted or non-scripted), in whatever stage it currently lives and bring it to a space populated with children. What do they do with your ideas? Will they get it? How do you convey all ideas within your performance visually to prompt a child’s participation? What new directions will their feedback provide? If you accept the challenge you will gain a world of valuable information for your work. Children’s museums are ready for TYA artists to utilize and play within their messy playgrounds.