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'Living history' is making a comeback at some Maryland museums

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In the shadow of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, John Wilkes Booth will tell anyone who'll listen just why that tyrant had to be assassinated.

Supporting himself on a wooden crutch, a decidedly agitated Booth, his voice rising to match the fierceness in his eyes, rants about the war and how it ended. "My genteel South, gone," he says, seemingly on the verge of a sob.

He goes on to relate the events of that night at Ford's Theatre, the leap from the presidential box and the escape through Maryland that eventually led him to a barn in Virginia, surrounded by Union troops. When he's finished his story, he bows to acknowledge the applause.

Yes, they're clapping for John Wilkes Booth these days at the Maryland Historical Society.

Actually, that's Christopher Kinslow, who is pretty close to a spitting image of Booth. He's one of the Maryland Historical Society Players, a new project created as part of its latest exhibit, "Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War."

It has been years since the museum featured live actors interpreting history.

"Living history used to be very popular here," says Harriet Lynn, founder of Heritage Theatre Artists' Consortium, who produced a museum theater piece about quilts at the Maryland Historical Society in 1994. "It's wonderful to see it back."

This Civil War venture, co-directed by Lynn, presents visitors with actors portraying Harriet Tubman, who recounts the story of the Underground Railroad; a couple of fictional Baltimoreans who witness the Pratt Street Riots from a telegraph office; and Christian Fleetwood, a free black man in the Union army who was awarded the Medal of Honor.

"It's about helping people make a connection to the material," says Lucretia M. Anderson, who has the role of Tubman.

Termed "museum theater" or "living history," the practice of enhancing displays of art and artifacts with live performance is perhaps most readily identified with Colonial Williamsburg, where costumed interpreters of history inhabit nearly every nook and cranny.

Theatrical presentations are now found at museums throughout the country.

"We think of it as one of the tools to get visitors really talking about history, talking to us and to each other while they are at the museum and when they go home," says Christopher Wilson, director of daily programs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "It's inspiring a dialogue about the past and its relevance to the present."

At that museum, visitors can take part in the re-creation of a workshop on nonviolence in conjunction with the exhibit of the Woolworth's lunch counter where the civil rights sit-in took place in 1960. There are also periodic "Time Trials," in which controversial figures of the past, such as Benedict Arnold and John Brown, present their cases before the audience.

"We think theater is very good at dealing with issues like that," Wilson says. "People are comfortable with getting at emotions through theater."

In Baltimore, performances were a mainstay at the 1840 House, a part of the Baltimore City Life Museums that was sold off in 1999. Over the years, several other venues, including the Walters Art Museum and the Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum, have offered theatrical presentations.

They have also been done for about a decade at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, where performances flesh out stories of Jewish immigrants who came to Baltimore.

"It's a wonderful education tool," says program director Ilene Dackman-Alon. "I've seen it work at the museum, as outreach to schools and at a senior center. To see seniors watching it with tears in their eyes is amazing. The value of living theater is huge. It helps the audience feel connected."

The Jewish Museum is discussing a future theatrical project with the Maryland Historical Society about a prominent Jewish man whose sons fought at Fort McHenry.

"There are so many things we can be doing," she says. "The possibilities are endless. Of course, it costs a lot of money."

Dale Jones, wrote and co-directed the short plays being performed at the Maryland Historical Society, founded the Maryland-based Making History Connections to help promote museum theater.

"It has a reputation for being expensive," he says, "but it doesn't have to be. Script production can cost from $500 to $10,000, for example. You can do a six-month run of performances on weekends for about $5,000."

Jones produced numerous programs for the Baltimore City Life Museums and has written scripts and directed productions for such places as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

Last year, he created a museum theater piece for Fort Delaware, where Confederate prisoners were held during the Civil War. "Audiences stayed for 45 and 50 minutes afterward to ask questions," Jones says. "There's a fair amount of research showing that museum theater is a great way to get emotions across to people, making connections to the history."

The International Museum Theatre Alliance, founded in 1990, and other associations keep tabs on such research. Museums typically report exceptionally positive responses to theatrical presentations from visitor surveys.

"The professionalism of museum theater has increased over the past 20 years," Wilson says. "There is more training in it, more workshops. And there is much more thinking about its value."

Adds Jones: "There has to be an advocate at a museum who wants it to happen and thinks it's valuable for the institution."

That person at the 167-year-old Maryland Historical Society is its president, Burt Kummerow. He has a long association with museum theater,

"As a kid, I got interested in Civil War re-enactments," he says. "Some people look at that as a joke, but there is so much you can learn from something like that."

Having a major Civil War exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society provided Kummerow with an opportunity to present museum theater, which has been offered there only intermittently over the years.

"One of the problems museums have is the same in the retail world," he says. "At a shopping mall, you see people walking with blank looks. There are too many choices. When people have too many things to look at, they go into neutral, and we lose them."

Kummerow wants to hold on to visitors by giving them more than a lot of text to read.

"For me, it's always about telling stories," he says. "One way is to have docents, and many are superb. But actors can interpret the information. They're perfect for museums. Having them as tour guides, as well as performing, is a great thing."

The idea of combining actor and docent roles came from Jones.

"I have never done that before," he says. "I have worked with actors who, when you take away a script, will walk into a wall. But I've learned to look for actors who can also interact with people."

Anderson, an actress whose day job is elementary program coordinator for Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library, finds her dual role as Harriet Tubman and tour guide invigorating.

"It helps your improvisational skills," she says. "It can get very interactive after your performance."

Britt Olsen-Ecker, a Peabody Institute alum who works as a photographer when she isn't acting in local community theater, portrays a young lady caught up in the Pratt Street Riot. "Giving a tour is a performance in itself," she says. "I became a Civil War nerd doing this. Every single day I learn something new."

Jonathan Scott Fuqua, a teacher of writing and illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art and the author of books for young adults, shared writing duties with Jones for this project.

Norah Worthington, who worked for Everyman Theatre, Rep Stage and many other ensembles, designed the finely detailed costumes for the actors. "I love putting on a dress with a corset and coming down the stairs, seeing people's reaction," says Olsen-Ecker.

Another play, about Clara Barton, is in rehearsals. As for the long-range future of theatrical presentations at the Maryland Historical Society, "there is no guarantee it will continue," Kummerow says. "We need to find a sponsor or raise more money to make it a regular part of the budget."

Meanwhile, the four current museum theater pieces, each lasting 10 to 15 minutes, appear to be successful.

"When you get someone moved to tears in 15 minutes, which I've seen here," Lynn says, "you know you're doing something right."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Performances and actor-guided tours for "Divided Voices: "Maryland in the Civil War" are offered Saturdays and Sundays at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. Admission is $4 to $6. Call 410-685-3750 or go to mdhs.org.

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