AAM Rundown 6: An Interview with Harriet Lynn

Harriet Lynn

Harriet Lynn (photo credit: Amy Jones, from Heritage Theater Artists Consortium website)

This next interviewee was my roommate for AAM2012, and I just have to take the time to make a quick plug in favor of finding a roommate for future AAM meetings. The conference is expensive (as my supporters know), but you can minimize the dent in your wallet by splitting the cost of one of the hotel rooms. It’s worth it to stay at a nearby conference hotel with the other attendees not just for convenience (some of the sessions are early in the morning), but for networking as well. Plus, if there are multiple events you’re interested in attending but you don’t possess Hermione’s time turner necklace, you and your roommate can divide and conquer!

Perhaps the best thing about having a roommate is that you can share stories about your museum experiences, and give each other tips/tricks/advice. Harriet Lynn, my roommate, was kind enough to let me interview her about her 18 years of doing museum theater. Harriet is a producer, director and the founder of the Heritage Theater Artists’ Consortium. Her current project is with the Maryland Historical Society Players, where she serves as co-production manager/director/project director for outreach. Here’s what she had to say.

Juliana: To start off, tell me a bit about your background in museums.

Harriet: I am the Producer/Artistic Director of Heritage Theater Artists’ Consortium (based in Baltimore). I founded this consortium in 1994. Basically, I work with museums (primarily) in museum theater, living history, oral history performance, occasionally oral history documentary… but my background originally is in dance and theater. I’m a graduate of the Boston Conservatory in dance and theater, and worked professionally for many many years. I continue to occasionally perform but basically produce and direct. I’ve worked with fine arts museums, children’s museums, science museums, historical museums… you name it!

Juliana: What drew you to working with museums, as opposed to staying with more traditional dance and theater?

Harriet: I’ve always loved art, adore visual art… I love the research, I think I’m a student at heart, you know? I find a lot of pleasure in collaboration, working with people who are designers, playwrights, actors, educators… I just find museums a really stimulating atmosphere. That’s why in ’94 when I had my first experience working as a performing artist I went “oh!”. I found this connection I hadn’t realized before, and I hadn’t even known there was a name for it. And there is an organization called the International Museum Theater Alliance which I’m now a board member “at large” of…

Juliana: Does that mean they don’t have to keep track of you?

Harriet: Yeah, I’m wandering around! Well, I’m not the secretary or treasurer but I have assigned duties so to speak, particularly help in the area of membership and welcoming new members, things of that nature. So we’ll see how it works out, but I’ve long time been a member of that organization. And I’ve worked a lot in senior theater. I have a very diverse background but I feel it all comes together to be able to do the kind of various projects that I do.

Juliana: Give us an idea of why you wanted to come to AAM, and what you hope to do/accomplish at this meeting/expo.

Harriet: I find for me this is the most enjoyable, stimulating conference of all that I can think of, of late. I feel like a kid in a candy store, you know what I mean? To feed upon, to learn, to be stimulated by… it’s almost an overabundance. It’s hard to take it all in, so you try, you do your best to exhaust yourself. I find it like a place for me to reignite something and it gives me a sense of purpose to go back and share and to take some of the things that I’ve learned back into my workplace and life. Also it brings me in touch with my fellow IMTEL organization members because this is where we have our annual meeting, and so I feel a sense of, well not obligation but as a member, a sense that I really should be here to contribute. It’s a way of me giving back as well; they’ve been good to me, and I want to try to be good to and serve the future as well.

Juliana: Any examples of things you’ve learned at AAM that you definitely want to implement in your consortium?

Harriet: This year I had a real inspiration here, something I hadn’t even thought of before. Yesterday I went to the Minnesota History Center, and they’re pioneering i feel in this area which is obvious for some disciplines like telemedicine, in using teleconferencing. So they’re using museum theater pieces, and designing them for teleconferencing into classrooms. So now they have a studio and a greenscreen, they have written scripts for primarily elementary to middle school, and they may be thinking of moving into high school and even senior communities which I think is terrific. They’re not only just doing these outreach to classroom TVs in the state, they’re going to other states and to other countries.

Juliana: So when you’re teleconferencing with a museum theater production, you lose the in-person, live quality…

Harriet: Well it’s still very interactive. They make sure in this case that they have the children responding. Because you see it’s not a dvd, it’s happening live, so they’re sharing, they’re just not in the classroom. But they’re in the classroom! And so they get the audience members very engaged. Now the museum that I’m presently consulting with, the Maryland Historical Society, is developing this education center, and I think this is the way to go, because it will really put them on the map, and they have so much history — well, they are THE history of Maryland — and you can’t always get to everyone else so this is one way to do it. So that’s one really neat idea I can bring back and really have some influence to share and to see how it flies.

Juliana: We’ve talked so far about some of the great, energizing things that the conference has to offer, but as we both know it can be overwhelming and a bit draining. Any advice for future attendees? How do you deal with the disappointing and frustrating elements (because, let’s face it, no conference is perfect)?

Harriet: Well, there’s my exhaustion level because of my programming. You know at times I will just be so inundated and physically exhausted because I’m going from morning to night, but you have to expect that, and you have to look at it like an endurance contest. And so it’s up to me to stay on top of it and sometimes I’m not always doing that, so I have to figure out a better way to do that. So my advice for people coming next year is to be in good shape — good physical shape, and you have to be mentally alert too, you have to be clear-thinking. There’s all this input coming at you. So if you start your day at 6:30 or 7 in the morning and you don’t get home until 11, and all day long you’re going from one thing to the other to the other to the other, it weighs a toll. You have to find a way to clear and to re-energize yourself. It’s really important to make sure that you don’t deplete everything and that you give yourself some space. Now I did it a little better this year than in past years, because this year I wasn’t presenting, and in past years I’ve presented or I’ve taught or something. So this year was a little easier for me, I wasn’t pressured with that.

Juliana: Switching from AAM back to your career, what’s your favorite thing about your job, that brings you back every day?

Harriet: There’s different moments and places in time. I like doing things from scratch and that’s exciting. I’m not doing a play that’s been done a thousand times. We’re creating something very specific to an exhibit or some mission in a museum, and I love the collaboration of working with a live playwright and the give and take. You’re crafting it, it’s not like “ok, here’s a script now let’s roll”, you have to keep working it with the actor and that’s a give and take too. I’m not a dictator when I’m a director, I have to make decisions but I feel that being an actor myself, I know I have ideas, so I understand an actor isn’t just one who has to be pushed around the room, that we’re collaborating. So I really like that part of the process, and that energizes me, the collaborative part, and working with somebody where you have to keep making decisions to problem-solve.

Juliana: Where does the museum fit in to this process? You have a playwright, you have the director, you have the actors from the community… do the museums help write the scripts, or do they have people on staff who serve as actors, or what?

Harriet: It depends on every situation. I’ll just give you the Maryland Historical Society situation as an example. We hire a playwright from the outside who has if not museum theater expertise, proven talent that they have the ability to write, but usually in this case too it’s nice to work with somebody who has that talent. the other thing is the casting, it’s very important. You’ve got to get really lucky. You can’t just choose an actor who’s really a talented actor but who’s looking at this as a day job. You have to find somebody who really likes the research, who’s really going to commit to learning above and beyond the lines, and who isn’t going “oh good this is going to support my nighttime performance”. They have to really get off meeting with the visitors and answering questions and wanting to learn more. And that’s… you’re very lucky if you find that actor. I think we’ve gotten lucky in this particular situation, I’m very proud of the quality of work that they do, and I try also to make sure that they know that I care about them as people, not just as coming to work and being responsible. Because they’re living, they’re not just artifacts! And they’re very much like ambassadors to the organization. I’ve initiated some programs to get the museum out through the ambassador concept, so I’ve written grants with others to have presence in the community, and also more outreach, and also next year we’re collaborating with a children’s arts organization that books creative performing artists in schools across the state of Maryland, and so they’ll be the history actors.

Juliana: So even though the museum is bringing you on because they’re interested in having a museum theater program, you have all this control over the program and just consult the museum on the content. So it’s like the museum’s the consultant, in a way.

Harriet: Well I guess we always have to qualify what we’re doing, and that it’s accurate. You can’t make it up, it’s a history museum, that’s our bread and butter! We can do composite characters, you don’t know what they said day to day, but it’s really important that you get it right and the actors can communicate that.

Juliana: Are you working with curators to get it right, or are you working with educators to get it right?

Harriet: A combination. I work with all of them and I work with the designers sometimes because we have to understand the exhibit, and how we interpret it. And there are things that are very important for us actors that they don’t care about, which is lighting. the lighting is designed for the space and not necessarily for the actors, and we try to get a little more collaboration there, but you have to realize that it’s an exhibit and not a stage. So we have to adapt to the theater space. But having a good relationship with the designer where they understand or think about “well where do we put the chairs, where do we have the best space to do certain performances, what doesn’t work?” It’s all an act of collaboration.

Juliana: Well I think we’ve ended on a great note. All you museum people out there, start collaborating! And if you’re interested in implementing museum theater in your own institution, I recommend starting by contact IMTEL.


2 Thoughts on “AAM Rundown 6: An Interview with Harriet Lynn

  1. Juli- I just by Googling looking for my website (at present there is some glitch) and found this interview. I never knew it was actually published. Thank you. It was unexpected to see after all this time. Hoping all is well with you. I am still with Md Historical Society and also engaged in preparing for the oral history performance project called “For All The World to Hear” that is a community outreach program attached to the exhibit, “For All the World to See” that has been traveling and will mark its debut in November at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture.

    How are you doing and what are you doing?

    • Juliana on August 29, 2012 at 10:20 am said:

      Hi Harriet! I just arrived in Laramie, so haven’t had a chance to start that museum theater program you and I talked about. The geological museum is still actually undergoing renovations (due to open in November), so I think any performing arts programs might have to hold off till 2013, but that gives me more time to work on them!
      Any chance that the oral history project will be available for people to view/hear online?
      Keep in touch!

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