Monday, 7 October 2013

How to Sort your Stuff: Writing a play about Museums

One of the main aims of VERVE is to think about how both the collections and the Museum space can be used to inspire new work, new ideas, and new activity. Since 'performance' is the theme for the project's first phase, the opportunity to work with a contemporary theatre company seemed like a fitting collaboration. Here, Isabel QuinzaƱos from the group reflects on the experience:

Over a few days in August 2013, a group of budding writers, performing and directors got together at the Pitt Rivers Museum to produce a script about both the Pitt Rivers and the Ashmolean museums.

It all started simply enough. Touring theatre company Out of Joint, based in London, set out to organise an education workshop that would focus on a devising/writing technique called verbatim, which means to create a play out of people’s words. Examples of this kind of plays are The Laramie Project by Tectonic Theater Project, London Road by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, The Permanent Way by David Hare and Talking to Terrorists by Robin Soans. The process of writing such plays typically involves conducting a series of interviews to people interested and involved with the topic you have chosen and recording their words in order to use them later on in a play. It is like the theatre version of documentary film.

© Pitt Rivers Museum

The group consisted of ten participants from a wide array of geographical locations and professional backgrounds: an academic in the course of her Architecture PhD, mature and starting performers, a Literary PhD student from Aberystwyth, a professional writer, a budding director, multi-taskers, and people looking to start a company. Under the lead of Naomi Jones they set off to interview staff, volunteers and punters at the Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean museums to find out what goes on behind the scenes there. It took a lot of hard work and dedication from the course participants to make the play happen - finding people to interview, recording their exact words and then transcribing them. Then, the whole material was put together and decisions had to be made about what story they could tell. Naomi did the first official edit, but all participants had an input afterwards about what they felt should be in or not. On the final day, they rehearsed the play and put on a little ‘private’ viewing of it for museum staff and invited guests.
Sample of the script from 'How to Sort Your Stuff'  © Pitt Rivers Museum

The result was a moving and quirky piece of theatre that gave the group a real insight into how museum staff create the environment that we - the visitors - experience, let alone their perspective on their favourite pieces, the ones they dislike the most and what they think of their work.

© Pitt Rivers Museum

For the participants the best thing was meeting the fascinating personalities that we never meet on our normal museum visits, plus learning about the thought process behind the placement of every single object in the museum -what is written about those objects to tell us a story. In the end, the work museum staff do is as much about us as visitors as it is about the objects they safeguard.

Everyone involved in this course had a great time and was really pleased with the final script which the Pitt Rivers has taken to keep in their archive... maybe they’ll even let you have a read of it if you ask nicely.

Some feedback on the course:

“Naomi was brilliant as course leader. She was practical, energetic, engaging and inspiring. It was easy to trust her and she was happy to share experiences she had with the type of work we created.”

“ (the course) was led by a professional director - of course that meant that what was learned was of high quality - but also the logistics of completing the course; researching, writing, editing, actioning, rehearsing and performing a new piece of theatre. That we managed to do so is very much thanks to Naomi for directing the whole process.”

Isabel QuinzaƱos, PA to Artistic Director and Education Administrator, Out of Joint

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