I’ve been looking for this video for years:
If you’re not keen to watch the whole thing—this is a film about the HMS Speedy, a schooner that sank in 1804 carrying many prominent members of Upper Canada. She wrecked attempting to enter the Newcastle Harbour, near modern-day Brighton, Ontario. The surrounding peninsula is now a provincial park where I spent many idyllic childhood summers.
Plus, The Wreck of the Speedy was the first piece of museum theatre I ever encountered.
From ages 2-16-ish, Presqu’ile Provincial Park was the happiest place in my world. It wasn’t backwoods camping, but there were outhouses and forest trails and fossils to find in the bluffs.
But my favourite thing was the Lighthouse. Sure, the Nature Centre was pretty cool with its live turtles, taxidermy birds, and light-up map of Lake Ontario. But I was always impatient to get back on my bike (left unlocked, obvi) and keep cycling down the road to the Lighthouse and its Interpretive Centre.
History, man. History.
The Interpretive Centre is attached to the 1848 lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It houses artifacts dredged up from the lake; there’s a documentary about the 1920s entertainment scene; you can Go for a Dive! at a series of video monitors.
But the best thing—the best thing—was this movie.
I’m not sure when it went in. Maybe when I was seven or eight? Anyway, I was entranced. Like, hanging-over-the-railing entranced. Like, I knew the history better than the interpreters. Like, I totally had the entire script memorized at one point.
First of all, a sunken ship that’s never been found is pretty cool. (Although I learned in adulthood that they found it ages ago.) But also – that video made it real. It turned names into people, dates into tragedy.
For those late to the party, my dayjob is thus: my co-creator and I use theatre and its associated techniques to educate people in museum settings.
Explained badly: I pretend to be dead people to teach you a lesson.
So here was this…this play. Filmed, yeah, but still a play, smack dab in the middle of the artifacts, maps, and dive footage. And it punched me in a way nothing else did. Of course, as a wee one, I couldn’t articulate why. But having worked as a museum theatre professional for a few years—sure. Let’s take a look.
We start with a chaotic opening. Storms! Shouting! Ship going down! It grabs one’s attention right away—it’s a bold choice to start with something this distressing, though some details escape if you don’t have background context.
Then it’s an interesting format: monologues from various crewmembers and passengers interwoven with our guide/host—Captain Charles Selleck, the one sort-of-witness. Selleck’s character makes this video work: we need an anchor, an emotional hook to hang our hats on.
Now, whoever wrote the script does a decent job weaving historical facts with human drama. Name-dropping runs rampant (who’s Richard Formaldi?), but there are some gems of interpretation:
“Never enough money. Never enough material. Never enough men!”
Succinct, informative, and charged with emotion. BAM.
A wide range of characters speak their piece: the low-class seaman, the beleaguered captain, the officials and judges. This all predicts the 21st century emphasis on diversity of voices and perspective.
But I realize now, one voice is missing.
The whole reason for this voyage was to transport a prisoner and attendant court participants to Newcastle for trial. A Chippewa man named Ogetonicut was accused of murdering fur trader John Sharpe. Ogetonicut’s brother had been killed by a white fur trader a year prior, and Ogetonicut had been promised a trial…that never happened. This all gets rather glossed-over in the video.
And Ogetonicut never gets a monologue of his own. We never hear the prisoner’s perspective: his rationale for his actions, what he thought of the Speedy’s dilapidated condition, how he felt as the water closed in. It’s a glaring weakness in an otherwise strong piece.
Because it is strong, otherwise. For a tiny interpretive centre in a relatively small provincial park, this was insanely well done. It showed me what museum theatre could be, long before I even knew what museum theatre was.
This is how I know it worked. After the video—after the display cases and gift shop—I’d go to the Lighthouse itself. And I’d stand on the point and stare hungrily at Lake Ontario, imagining the Speedy lying on the cold lake bed. There, I would promise myself that I’d find it someday. I’d finish the story begun in the interpretive centre.
Obviously, I didn’t find the Speedy. But in a strange way, I am finishing the story begun at Presqu’ile. Too often, I say that I never envisioned myself in museums—that it was all a very happy accident.
Then I remember this video, and realize—no, no.
It was all inevitable.
PS. I’m at the SFWA Nebula Conference this week. Find me. Frolic. Come to my Beer Talk on Friday evening.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I finished the final (for now) edits on Sing to the Bones. To set the mood, I listened to a lot of Western/cowboy music while editing. I stumbled across this piece entirely by accident, but it is very beautiful.
It’s well into April, which means that the off-season is rapidly drawing to a close. In a few short weeks, I’ll be back at the museum, giving brewery tours and teaching people about history through theatre. I can tell we’re getting close, because a reptilian part of my brain is stirring.
“Hey,” it whispers. “Hey, you know what’s cool? Theories of theatre in education. Knowledge is power. Let’s learn some theories now. Let’s get ready to test them.”
Which explains the following stack of books:
And you know what? I love it. I know the season doesn’t start for a few weeks, but I love sitting in my garret, absorbing all of these theories. It reminds me of the year spent trying to get this drama program launched in the first place. Because the brewery is totally my supervillain lair, I spent hours on my barstool stomping terms and discourse and case studies and arguments into my brain.
It’s another side of my creative life. And what I’ve learned over the last few years is this: I’m not just keen on museum theatre because it’s theatre. I’m keen on it because it’s museum theatre. Shockingly, I like teaching in non-traditional settings. The particular challenge of museum theatre is that it has to be good history, it has to teach effectively, and it still has to work as a piece of art in itself.
Or, as I eventually summarized for myself:
- Sound pedagogy
- Responsible history
- Artistic merit
That’s a lot of points to hit. Sometimes it’s tricky to manage them all. But it’s precisely that paradox and challenge that keeps me engaged.
And I know, I know. My unabashed enthusiasm and general nerdiness about the whole thing leads to a lot of rolled eyes. Not everyone wants to hear about how the actor-teacher is really a hybrid role—or how Theatre in Education isn’t just “didactic theatre” or “education with tinsel,” it’s really an altogether different form of stagecraft—and Freeman Tilden’s Six Principles of Interpretation totally apply to museum theatre—and oh man, when you take evolving technologies into account, especially social media, the opportunities for what you can do just explode, and—
See? Rolled eyes.
But I think two things:
- This is an evolving art form. Who wouldn’t want to explore uncharted territory?
- It’s a way to genuinely reach people, to help them learn about history. I think that’s important.
I guess that’s another thing that fascinates me about museum theatre: the sense that it’s doing real, important work. It’s not just doing the same old, same old. It’s learning about what other people have done, synthesizing all that into theories, and then testing those theories over and over again. It’s developing new theories. It’s carving out a new spot in the scholarship.
That’s all well and good. It’s nice to feel like a trailblazer. But for me—the compulsive drive comes from why we do this. I see no reason why theatre and museums should be odd bedfellows. In the end, they seek to forge connections between people. They foster understanding; they encourage empathy. They ask you to step beyond yourself, to take on the role, perspectives, shoes of another. Done well, they offer multiple meanings, multiple voices, create a safe place for debate and conflict.
Done well, both museums and theatre remind us what it means to be human, and to share human experiences.
Naïveté? Maybe. Youthful idealism? Perhaps.
Nerdy? Of course.
But this is my other love. This is my passion, alongside writing about dark fairy tales and magic worlds and cannibal ice zombies. So I go back to my books, back to my theories and thoughts—and I wait for the audiences and the testing and the warm summer sun.
Excitement and joy and love. Sure, it may be nerdy, but you take these things where you can find them, don’t you? 😉
What I’m Listening to This Week
Apparently I wasn’t doing enough this year. A new novel is whispering to me. And I know it’s serious, because it has a theme song. All my novels have theme songs—all the ones that survive, anyway. Hapax had “I am the Day,” Heartstealer had “Mari’s Wedding,” and Sing to the Bones has “Lord of the Dance.”
This novel is too new and delicate to discuss much right now. Instead, here’s the song that’s driving it: