Coming to Life 

An international theater conference at the Science Museum bridges the gap between visitor and artifact.

“Uh, fine,” I stammered.

“And how is it,” he asked, “that a woman with young childer would come to this place without a husband?”

“He was lost at sea,” I replied. The re-enactor, who kept up the front, began to converse with my kids about the hardships they were in for without a father in the New World, and soon they were back in the 17th century. What might have been a boring lecture turned out to be an interactive and imaginative experience in learning — one they would never forget.

That, in a nutshell, is the goal of more than 100 actors, directors, playwrights and educators from as far away as Ireland and Australia, convening in Richmond this week for the third biennial International Museum Theatre Conference. They are members of the International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL), a nonprofit organization for museum and theater professionals who use theater as an interpretive technique.

Larry Gard, artistic director of the Carpenter Science Theatre Company, and his staff played an integral part in bringing the international conference to the Science Museum of Virginia, putting Richmond in the limelight with previous host cities, such as Boston and London, and the next conference site, Sydney, Australia.

According to Gard, hosting the conference “is a shot in the arm” for the theater and the Science Museum. And it’s a natural fit. Each year, the Carpenter Science Theatre Company produces more than a half-dozen plays and projects at the museum, reaching as many as 40,000 people. “We have one of the largest programs in the country,” Gard says. “We have discovered that live theater is a great way to break down the glass barrier between the visitor and the artifact.” In addition, he says, “It has been studied and proven that when people are educated using theater, they process and retain more information.”

First used by only a few pioneering institutions, theater in museums has grown into a full-fledged movement that includes storytelling, living history, mime, puppetry, comedy, drama and musical productions. From Aug. 15 to 18, theater professionals and educators, in conjunction with museums, aquariums and zoos from around the world, will gather to exchange ideas about live theater in museum settings.

During the four-day conference, attendees will experience workshops by nearly 30 presenters, plus an excursion to Colonial Williamsburg. Jonathan Ellers of Central Park Zoo will share the mental and physical process used to develop a script. Paul Taylor of the Absecon Lighthouse in New Jersey plans to coordinate a group of unrelated artists to create an original piece of theater, using movement, dance, creative drama, scripted dialogue, puppets and music. And Gard is scheduled to perform in “That Old Windbag,” a 30-minute parody of “Waiting for Godot” written by Richmond playwright Doug Jones. The script is an educational tool that teaches about clouds and how storms develop.

Gard, who is past president and currently on the board of IMTAL, says that if all goes according to plan, the attendees will leave the four-day conference and return to their corners of the world armed with new ideas about captivating audiences.

“They will not be just shown an artifact or exhibit, but be given something that engages them,” Gard says, “something that has flash, appeal and creates enthusiasm.”

Something like my childer’s encounter in Plymouth, so many centuries ago. S


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