Theatre-making in a Museum

Museum shelves stacked with a variety of wooden, metal and assorted historic objects and curiosities.

Theatre-making in a Museum

A set with climate and light restrictions, a million fragile, valuable props and a script that calls for audience participation? It’s a mix that would challenge any theatre maker.

Participatory theatre is of course in the Blahs’ DNA.  But with all these other elements, our next production will be, quite literally, a journey of discovery. We’re working with Leeds Museums and Galleries to create a site-specific production to be performed at Leeds Discovery Centre.

The Discovery Centre is a permanent collection facility, housing the treasure trove of artefacts which are not on permanent display at Leeds Museums and Galleries. Since the start of the year, the Blahs have been in research and development with the Discovery Centre’s curators. Artistic Director Deborah Pakkar-Hull acknowledges that the idea of a theatrical performance in a museum archive has caused head-scratching on both sides.

“The space will obviously pose constraints on how we have to work,” says Deborah. “Some of the artefacts are fragile and sensitive. For example, the taxidermy specimens from Victorian times were treated with arsenic so of course you can’t touch them! If we bring an audience into that kind of venue – particularly a young audience – we’ll have to very carefully manage their movement around the space.”

The team have already started to map out some possibilities: “We’re looking at a carousel performance with smaller groups breaking off in the main space,” continues Deborah “And we’re looking at other spaces within the facility that we can transform. Some of it will be about transforming space, but it’s also about taking the audience on a journey of imagination.”


The Story of Leeds going out into the world

And there’s plenty of scope for engaging the imagination. As Deborah says: “Each artefact has its own fascinating story to tell. And the deeper you delve, the more really rich material you find.”

Devising a piece based on just one of the many stories behind the artefacts would be the easy option. But both the Blahs team and the curatorial staff are clear that such a narrow focus would be a disservice to the scope and significance of the collection. So the challenge for Deborah, and scriptwriter Mary Cooper, is how to create a coherent narrative, combining the stories of different artefacts, and making them interact with each other.

“The Discovery Centre’s collection is the story of Leeds going out into the world, but also the story of the world coming back to Leeds” says Adam Jaffer, Curator of World Cultures. And exploring the city’s many and varied connections with the wider world is a theme Deborah is keen to develop.


What is of value? And who gets to decide?

A tentative plot outline has emerged from the R&D process. “We are looking at the idea of some kind of crisis that has caused a need to rationalise or reduce the collection, which sets up an imperative where the audience will have to choose what to keep, based on what they consider has worth, or value,” says Deborah.

Deborah and Mary want it to be a participatory piece, not just because the Discovery Centre can only accommodate a small audience, but because the material invites engagement. “The dynamic between the stories of these different artefacts, their provenance and ownership can be a springboard to engaging audiences in some big moral and ethical questions and debates,” continues Deborah. “That’s what’s going to be really exciting about this piece.”

Scriptwriter Mary Cooper has worked with the Blahs over a number of years, most recently providing script-writing support during our recent project with Nameless Theatre Company at Heckmondwike Grammar School. The Blahs’ creative team for the Discovery Centre project also includes Hannah Sibai who designed The Vultures’ Song, Lou Clark of Libellule Theatre, and Simone Lewis who has performed in both A Tale to Tell and The Vultures’ Song.

Our aim is that the piece will be performed in 2020, tying in with Leeds Museums and Galleries’ bicentennial celebrations. It will be aimed at single-class audiences, from the KS2 age group, but the Blahs and Discovery Centre staff are looking at ways to reach wider audiences, through the Museums and Galleries Family Engagement programme and through inviting community groups into the Discovery Centre.

“Reaching out beyond our traditional school-audience base is essential for the Blahs’ long-term sustainability,” says Deborah, “We began testing the market with a community tour of The Vultures’ Song in 2018, and this piece, in such an exciting performance space, represents another opportunity to bring our work to new audiences.”