Museum Conversations

Photo by Micharne Cloughley

Photo by Micharne Cloughley

The summer after I graduated from college, when I had ample time to explore New York City, my new home, I spent several afternoons at museums collecting overheard dialogue for a play I imagined I would write, a commentary on the types of observations people make at museums. Since I was taking notes by hand rather than recording these overheard snippets, my notes were brief and concise, such as:

American Wing, Metropolitan Museum

(Pigtailed twenties and boyfriend)

“You know, they didn’t even have horses here.”

“Really? I didn’t know that. No one taught me anything.”

Two years later, The Civilians, an investigative theater company based in Brooklyn, has done me one better. At the end of May, they concluded their year long residency at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with The Way They Live, staged in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. The first theater company ever in residence at The Metropolitan Museum, The Civilians presented three shows over the course of their residency: Let Me Ascertain You, a cabaret-style program performed in the Petrie Court Café, The End and the Beginning, an exploration of death and the afterlife performed in the Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing, and finally, The Way They Live, an interrogation of what it means to be an American, using works from The American Wing.

Micharne Cloughley, writer of The Way They Live, says that the further they got into the residency, the more they learned about the museum and its staff, and so the plays became increasingly reflective of their surroundings. The collaboration was a learning experience both for The Civilians and for The Met. Mia Rovegno, director of The Way They Live, says that all three pieces played with the experience of being an audience member. “The typical relationship an audience has in a theater can often be very distant, sitting in the dark, absorbing. But one has so much agency as an audience member in a museum, since you are your own guide and curate your own experience,” says Rovegno. Indeed, as an audience member, it was titillating to walk through the museum going to and from the show, and to observe how my relationship to the artworks along my path changed after having spent a couple of hours contemplating the works from The American Wing presented in the show. Rovegno told me that during rehearsals, the cast and the creative team would often slip off to different galleries in the museum to reconnect with the works in person.

Photo by Micharne Cloughley

Photo by Micharne Cloughley

The Way They Live combined these two experiences: while the theater audience sat in the dark auditorium, they watched the experience of visiting The Met onstage, portrayed through the commentary of curators, docents, museum technicians, and museum goers. The play presented thirteen artworks housed in The American Wing by projecting large, high-res images of them onto a screen at the back of the stage for the duration of the time the characters were discussing them. The creative team chose to keep the projections simple, so that audience members could decide for themselves when to focus their attention on the picture or on the actors. All the works highlighted in this piece (as well as the previous two shows) were historically distant from our present day, which allowed The Civilians to bridge the distance of time through personal stories of present day relationships to the art. One particularly touching scene depicted a museum technician and mother of a veteran speaking about “The Veteran in a New Field,” by Winslow Homer. The performance animated her story, while bringing the reality of war into the museum space.

The unique experience of creating theater in a museum brought up questions about the strengths of different art forms for both Cloughley and Rovegno. Cloughley says, “In one of my first conversations with the staff of The American Wing, we talked about vases made in Western Mexico towards the end of the 17th Century that people, especially women, would eat fragments of in the belief the clay would lighten their skin. This evocative history made me think about stories behind the artwork that are best served on stage, rather than in literature or on a museum label. The vases were a perfect example of the dramatic history that is not obvious in first looking at a piece of art, that we could bring to life in our play.” Rovegno says this process taught her how exciting it was to learn about art in this institution, and find new ways for the audience to access the artwork through theatrical storytelling. “The puzzle was how to make a show that is evocative, truthful, and compelling, but also a great night of theater.”

To select the works of art that were included in the show, Cloughley interviewed the curators about works that spoke to them in terms of what it means to be American, now and historically. In narrowing down options for the play, there were three broad considerations: the issues the work contained, how it covered American history, and the art history behind a work. Rovegno says, “We discovered the nuanced nature of the curatorial process, for example, how a work might receive its title from someone other than the artist, by learning from the curators while moving through the museum. I developed a much better understanding of how The Met as an art institution actually functions.” Overall, the curators’ response to the piece was very positive. Cloughley says, “It was exciting to have our two worlds in conversation to create this play.”

To compile material for The Way They Live, The Civilians’ team interviewed 19 staff members and over 200 museum visitors. When selecting museum goers, the interviewers would hover by the pieces of work in The American Wing they wanted to write about, then ask museum goers if they were willing to have a conversation about a piece of art. They tried to select as wide a cross section of people as possible, looking for diversity in age, gender, and ethnicity. Cloughley says, “I was surprised by the willingness of people to speak incredibly personally to a stranger in the middle of a busy museum, and the level of depth people would get into, describing personal experiences and family history.” Some interviewees even started crying, and yet, almost no one refused to be interviewed for the piece.

The Civilians often incorporate songs into their plays, and The Way They Live was no exception. Every song had a different composer, which gave each one a very different aesthetic. Rovegno says, “The diversity of styles parallels how every artist on display in the gallery has a different voice, and creates an important tension between these contemporary and historic works in conversation with each other.” The opportunity to have contemporary artists onstage jiving with the historic art helped bridge the gap between the centuries of creative material. (Many of the songs in the show will soon be available on The Civilians’ podcast, Let Me Ascertain You.)

When staging this show, which involved numerous iterations of people wandering through gallery space, Rovegno and the actors played with the unique frankness that people exhibit when observing works of art. Rovegno says, “When you’re watching a play, you’re having your own experience, silent and alone. When you’re in a museum, you hear so many people passing by, talking about their own experience. When do you listen to people?” Rovegno and the actors carefully varied the dynamics within each gallery, helping the theater audience travel with the characters through private and communal moments with these works of art.

Photo by Micharne Cloughley

Photo by Micharne Cloughley

In its trademark fashion, The Civilians set out to pose an impossible question with this piece, and achieved a marvelous explosion of further questions, rather than any sort of answer. By interrogating what it means to be an American, they tackled identity, racism, historical narrative, sexism, government, politics, and war. Rovegno says, “As theatermakers using documentary practices, we sometimes can run the risk of highlighting stereotypical dynamics, or showcasing archetypes, as opposed to opening up a new perspective through conversation. We tried to give visibility to many different points of view, inviting conversations about equality and justice in this culture, as an opportunity to remind ourselves that when dialogue is happening with real humans, that’s progress.”

Cloughley concurred that one of her main objectives in scripting the show was to include as diverse a range of voices and opinions as possible. At the same time, she was careful not to pigeon hole people into only speaking about works that only related directly to their own identity. Cloughley, originally from Australia, says, “All the issues in this play are discussed all the time across America. So it was interesting how quickly in personal conversation [with interviewees] you get into complex, fresh perspectives and stories that go past the familiar head lines and arguments. The complexity of a single interview was immense, and that’s just one unique perspective.”

Given the overwhelmingly positive audience response to The Way They Live, The Civilians have contemplated what it would mean for the show to present it in a non site-specific location. Rovegno says she was constantly surprised and excited by how everyone she spoke to about the piece was so moved in very different ways. “Sometimes, the goal of a piece of art is for everybody to receive the same message. With this show, it was satisfying that everyone had such a unique experience, in terms of what they were working out from their own observations on identity and culture.”

The show takes its title from one of the paintings included in the show, by Thomas Anshutz. The canvas depicts an African American woman tending a garden while her two young children look on. The painting is a scene of daily life, honest and observational in 1879, when it was painted, and incredibly poignant in 2015. We learn in the play that the painting was originally titled “Cabbages,” one of many revelatory facts unearthed by The Civilians’ exploration of the works in The American Wing. Rovegno says, “The Way They Live was a statement that really gracefully encapsulated the wide range of perspectives on the American cultural landscape explored in our production.” Indeed, the success of this show comes from its attention to detail coupled with the beautiful, broad complexity of what it means to be an American.

As I left the theater, filled with new knowledge and gratitude for this revolutionary artistic experience, I remembered another moment from my afternoons of note-taking at The Met:
(Little nine year old boy with bowl cut and glasses, sitting by himself on a bench, swinging his feet, whistling like an owl)

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