Museum Theatre is a form of applied theatre usually performed in a non-traditional space, typically inside a public museum (but also in zoos, art galleries, aquariums, etc.).
Museum Theatre itself can consist of many and varied forms. Most commonly it is a first person interpretation of actual people and events, performed by players in costume portraying people the museum audience will be familiar with (for example a historical drama performed inside an immigration museum).
Tessa Bridal defines Museum Theatre as
… content-based educational performances, typically shorter than those in theatre venues and frequently interactive, performed in formal and informal theatre spaces, both within the museum and as outreach, by trained museum theatre professionals for museum audiences of all ages and for school audiences (Exploring Museum Theatre, 2004, p.5).
A Museum Theatre piece is typically a scripted drama, often performed for educational purposes before school children. However, a Museum Theatre audience can be anyone visiting the museum (or similar institution), and the piece itself can be improvised and performed by amateurs. It is often (directly or indirectly) didactic, with the intention of instructing or stimulating the viewer in some way about an exhibition, object(s) or other subject matter present at the cultural institution.
Sydney’s Australian Museum notes the importance theatre can play for a visitor to a museum:
Theatre can be used to interpret an exhibition beyond the objects on display and give them a context that is not immediately obvious. Theatre can be used to transform the understanding of the viewer with multiple interpretations that prompt questions and provoke debate.
Tessa Bridal concurs:
Theatre is a catalyst, a motivator, a means of encouraging audiences to want to encounter and wrestle with ideas. Theatre fosters an imaginative, creative and culturally diverse understanding of the objects we choose to display – and sometimes of those we don’t choose to display. It achieves this by adding the personal – a sense of time, a sense of space, and a story (Exploring Museum Theatre, 2004, p.5).
Museum Theatre is also often a form of participatory theatre, where the audience is sometimes encouraged to interact with the drama as it evolves. This is particularly the case when a Museum Theatre performance takes place in and amongst museum visitors, with a blurred physical arrangement between performers and spectators.
First-person interpretation is one form of museum theatre in which the interpreter takes on the role of a particular, usually historic, character and interacts with museum visitors in-role (Prendergast, M. and Saxton, J., Applied Theatre: International Case Studies and Challenges for Practice, 2009, p.153)
George Buss of the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts pigeonholes Museum Theatre into three distinct forms:
Demonstration museum theatre, relying on the convention of a demonstration or experiment to draw the audience’s attention and create an interest in the science or topic surrounding it.
Character-based museum theatre, introducing the audience to a person, fictional or not, so that they can evoke an emotion about the person they are portraying.
Plot-based museum theatre, relying on the conventions of the plot to create intrigue and interest (Bridal, T., Exploring Museum Theatre, 2004, p.4).
Museum Theatre can potentially involve aspects of:
- live interpretation
- first-person interpretation
- third-person interpretation
- living history
- creative drama/creative dramatics (Source: International Museum Theatre Alliance)