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 Engaging audiences with vital historical documents and Constitutional concepts is central to our mission and key to understanding our history as a nation.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How do you approach translating historical documents into a dynamic, three-dimensional performance work?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.