How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.
With support from a Center Project grant, the National Constitution Center (NCC) is presenting FOURTEEN, a theatrical performance that sheds new light on the Reconstruction era and the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which grants equal protection to all US citizens. The performance runs at the Constitution Center Tuesdays through Saturdays from June 19 through August 10 and was designed to complement the NCC’s forthcoming permanent exhibit and gallery devoted to the constitutional legacy of the Civil War. Nora Quinn, Director of Theatre Programs at the NCC, spoke with us about the opportunities that performance presents for audiences to connect with history and how the Constitution Center views the medium in relation to its other programming.
Why has the National Constitution Center embraced performance as a method of interpretation for historical material? How do you see the role of theater within the organization?
The National Constitution Center is America’s leading platform for Constitutional education and debate, a nonpartisan nonprofit chartered by Congress in 1988 to “increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” For the NCC to meet our mission, we must bring the Founding stories about the Constitution to life for our visitors to understand not only the Constitutional debates, but also the historical context of the time. No other technique does this better than live performance; it allows for the personal embodiment of the story of the Constitution, and the art form enables us to teach emotional and challenging content in a meaningful way for the visitors. Engaging audiences with vital historical documents and Constitutional concepts is central to our mission and key to understanding our history as a nation. The medium of theater makes this possible.
Theater also allows visitors to have a deeper dive into exhibit content. The NCC uses theater as an essential element in the visitor experience, creating a more robust learning experience than an exhibit can do alone. Through performances, the NCC can introduce new ideas, reinforce exhibit concepts, and enhance learning and interest levels in visitors.
Research shows that teaching about Constitutional principles through the lens of storytelling enhances learners’ understanding and makes them likelier to apply what they have learned to their own lives while strengthening their historical and sociological understanding. By presenting the individual human experiences alongside the great historical occasions at which they occur, this “embodied history” connects visitors personally to history and inspires dialogue about its relevance and impact.
How do you approach translating historical documents into a dynamic, three-dimensional performance work?
We endeavor to gather a chorus of historical, authentic, and—in some of our programs—contemporary voices. Performance is animated by the voices and actions of everyday people that are chosen to build upon the whole story of history and ensure that a breadth of voices is represented. The composition of these programs spans from ordinary individuals to elected officials, and the performance connects them through the human story of courage and the ability to make change, building us towards a more perfect union.
Our Constitutional history lends itself to a variety of stories that represent resistance and resilience, trial and error, progress and backlash. These stories are inherently dynamic and a perfect way to model how the Constitution plays out in our lives. By telling stories, museum theater creates a shared experience, deepens our understanding of the unfamiliar, and inspires reflection, curiosity, and action. Theater allows audiences to connect emotionally, to build a common language, and to have a collective experience with the content, actors, and audience.
Critically, the performance gives the NCC a path from the mind to the heart. It also sets up moments to allow the audience to consider more deeply the experiences of others and to question how we engage with our government. By showing characters on stage who are engaging with these big ideas, we are modeling for our audience Constitutional thinking skills that they can then apply to current Constitutional questions.
We have tools beyond the actor that we utilize to transport visitors to the place and time of the text. Through sound, light, costumes, staging, and scenic elements, we can bring the learner into the story both visually and emotionally. This gives us the ability to immerse the visitor in a pivotal Constitutional moment, expanding their idea of the Constitution from just intellectual to visceral.
How do you present a historical narrative as something that an audience can relate to the contemporary world, rather than something that lives discretely in the past? What makes the themes and voices of the Reconstruction era particularly relevant to this moment?
We craft the framing of historical context so that it is accessible to the wide range of ages who attend our museum. We curate historical documents to emphasize that the concerns of past Americans are the same as the concerns of contemporary Americans: family, independence, the desire to be recognized as equals and fairly represented in government. The project of Reconstruction as told in our event is particularly relevant in that it was a period in which everyday Americans, many formerly enslaved, exercised their new right to vote and to serve in the government. These people had a considerable impact at the local, state, and federal level. Everywhere, Americans were asking big questions about the intentions behind our founding documents, about the definition of critical concepts like citizenship and equality. The country was bitterly divided, yet progress was made.
We also intentionally chose not to use period costumes for FOURTEEN. This tells the audience directly: this issue is yours today as it was theirs in the 1860s. The technology used also bridges the divide of then and now and pulls moments from the past into modern understanding and conversations.
As shows like Hamilton have connected new and often younger audiences to early American history, what opportunities and challenges does the popularity of and openness toward this subject matter present to an organization like the National Constitution Center?
The NCC has seen an increase in attendance both online and onsite in the last few years. We have also seen an increased desire and interest in theater as a part of the museum experience. We have responded by launching more projects utilizing theater and have experimented with pushing the boundaries in styles of the regular museum theater program. This project [FOURTEEN] is an excellent example of just that. Our job is to use the performance to teach more, more than your typical history.