“Meet Me At the Museum” is a powerful, emotive and thought-provoking 40-minute theatre production best described as monologue-cum-radio play-cum-street theatre. Written and produced by Melbourne theatre creatrix and dramaturge, Nina Barry-Macaulay, and staged in the Queensland Museum, it is a multi-sensory, real time experience that defies traditional notions of theatre.
It is a dramatic gestalt: audio delivered by an iPod track, the stage set within several of the large permanent exhibits in the museum and live performances by a tiny cast of three (who act in a mime vacuum beyond the audio and look for all intents and purposes like any of the other patrons or museum staff on the day!) All these combine for an interactive immersion of the audience where they are anything but passive consumers. Instead they create and redefine the narrative as their experiences within the museum combine and collide with Barry-Macaulay’s script.
The story of Amelia (researcher, zoologist and woman-interrupted) is at the heart of the “Meet Me At The Museum”. It is a raw, honest and at times very confronting insight into a life not-quite-fulfilled: a discourse on the imperfection of love and dreams as well as a philosophical exploration of entrapment, liberation and what it means to be human. Running in tandem with Amelia’s audio story is the real time performance defined by the problem of what to do with a nondescript box newly delivered to the museum.
The candid and often-brutal nature of Amelia’s story is undercut and cushioned by the beauty of Barry-Macaulay’s writing (which expertly balances the light and the shade, and is in itself a powerful piece of art). It combines with the exemplary narration of Amelia’s character and the low-key, pitch-perfect performances of the three actors, creating layers of nuance and emotion.
There is something almost voyerustic and stalky about following the characters through the museum: to be privy (from not too far away) to the innocent exaltation of the possibilities of dreams in the young Amelia; the grief and need for closure within Paul and the ‘professional’ confusion of the museum staffer trying to work out what exactly to do with the box.
The final scene is staged outside the museum, beneath the whales in the concourse, and it’s staggering in its simplicity and evocation of some of life’s big questions. It is also a stunning example of epistolary fiction at its very best.
The production work on the audio is outstanding, from the use of Flight Facilities’ haunting ‘Clair de lune’, the skills of the narrator and the understated, but timely use of sound effects to amplify the actual surroundings. The stage direction (aka herding of cats) is a stroke of genius, considering the often random nature of group dynamics and Barry-Macaulay’s intention to be present but absent as director within each performance. At the beginning of the audio, the audience is simply told to ‘follow the box’, thus seamlessly curating the audience’s movement through the museum.
There is also enough space and flexibility within the narrative to interact with the Museum. This overlay of a personal story on what can be, a rather impersonal collection, ultimately creates a timeless combined story between the audience, the exhibits and Amelia. I know every time time I visit the Discovery Room now, I’ll be hearing the story of Amelia’s mother and the cocoon. I’ll also be seeing my son walking toward Paul who is lingering at the display of owls, just as he was today.
There is something about being simultaneously part of a group experience (being privy to others comments and reactions) while at the same time taking a solo journey. I went with my almost 10-year-old son who didn’t once moan he was bored or ask questions to explain what he was hearing. He moved through the museum and the story with the same ease, amazement and emotional connection, as the adults did.
Like the best works of art, “Meet Me At The Museum” leaves more questions than it answers and I’m certain there will be many conversations in the future seeded from those raised today. Amelia’s thoughts on science and it’s implications on life and our understanding of humanity absolutely align with mine, but it won’t be congruent with everyone.
“Meet Me At the Museum” is proof that risking art outside of its ‘natural habitat’ is a risk in tradition and nothing more. Hopefully more performances find their way into places ‘beyond the glass’. And if the work of passionate and talented dramatists such as Barry-Macauley is anything to go by, the future of theatre in Australia is in safe hands.
“Meet Me At the Museum” is part of the Anywhere Theatre Festival and has a short run of dates, concluding Sunday 11th May. Tickets are $20 ($15 concession) and are limited for each session. Bookings can be made online at the Anywhere website.