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Please remain open and do not cling to any previous experiences.”
This sage advice was sent to those who purchased tickets this past fall to DODO: The Time Has Come at Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History.
And what an unexpected, affecting night at the museums it was for more than 1,600 people who experienced DODO during its six-week, sold-out run. The exploration was a collaboration between Bricolage Production Company and Carnegie Nexus, the Carnegie Museums initiative that taps the diverse assets of the museums to present insightful programming on big ideas that impact everyone.
The 90-minute, after-museum-hours production of DODO took small groups of participants on an immersive theatrical adventure to places known and unknown throughout the historic Oakland museums. Even longtime museumgoers discovered spaces they never knew existed.
“We did some crazy things in this place,” says Jeffrey Carpenter, artistic director for Bricolage. “The building was a major character and we used it all.”
The inspirational moment behind DODO stemmed from a Carnegie Nexus lecture on the Anthropocene earlier this year, detailing the toll human beings are having on the planet. Questions of authenticity, authority, and access rose to the forefront.
“There’s a backlash going on right now, calling into question cultural institutions and science,” Carpenter says. “Scientists speak truth to power. The idea of self-preservation is a very serious matter in light of what we now know is happening in the world. How do we address this without being maudlin or alarmist?”
“ It’s like opening the closet door to Narnia. We’re opening doors to places you don’t know are here. It’s symbolic of what museums can be.”
– Maureen Rolla, director of strategic initiatives for Carnegie Museums
Bricolage’s creative team decided to “embrace the inevitable” with a “celebration of existence,” in a serious yet playful way, explains Carpenter. The Pittsburgh Tatler described it as “a journey through hidden spaces that will prompt you to ponder the fates not only of lost species, but of lost artists, lost languages, lost songs and poems, and lost ways of life as well.”
Lost indeed. One character—the gregarious Explorer—recollects what Arctic life was like before so many extinctions. Standing inside the Museum of Natural History before the iconic polar bear, he bellows: “Once they were so numerous we bagged 50 a day easily. So many things I’ve loved to kill are gone … honestly, it’s a little depressing.”
Along the way, participants were prompted to reconsider their relationship to the natural world, being asked questions such as, “Why are you worth keeping?”
While a few museums nationally have offered immersive experiences, says Maureen Rolla, director of strategic initiatives for Carnegie Museums, “none accomplished what we did, ranging across both art and natural history.”
It’s also the first such experience to have “pierced the veil” by going behind the scenes. “We saw the experience as a way to position our museums and what we do in a completely different way,” says Rolla. “It’s like opening the closet door to Narnia. We’re opening doors to places you don’t know are here. It’s symbolic of what museums can be.”
This was key to DODO, for all its glorious, mind-bending surprises: to demonstrate the important role museums play in today’s society and answer questions of why museums are relevant.
For this ambitious endeavor, Bricolage’s creative team served as an intellectual partner with the Carnegie Museums. “They didn’t just use the muse- ums as a stage set,” says Rolla. “They became deeply immersed in all facets of our work.”
To achieve this, Bricolage went on an extensive “listening tour”—talking with a cross section of museum staff members, including registrars, curators, and collections managers. During production planning, when the Bricolage team met with the scientific staff at the Museum of Natural History, the concern was that facts not be fictionalized.
“In our very first meeting, I vocalized about keeping the science real,” says Tim Pearce, the museum’s assistant curator and head of mollusks. Pearce was thrilled to spotlight what he calls the “Library of Shells” as one of two authentic experiences sited within the museums’ vast hidden collections. Participants interacted with real museum scientists, including Pearce, along with 14 actors.
The museums’ objects and rich history proved to be a muse for DODO’s creators and collaborators. Writing for No Proscenium: The Guide to Everything Immersive, Alex Knell, says, “After the experience [of DODO], I feel much more connected to museums now, shaken up by how much life and learning they can facilitate.
“That the Carnegie Museum of Art, housed in a modern building by Edward Larrabee Barnes, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, a turn-of- the-century masterpiece with marble halls, could be the location and centerpiece for this magical, illuminating event again prompts applause for the Carnegie staff who embraced a partnership with Bricolage. Giving experimental, original performance work a chance to properly develop into something as stunning and grand as DODO is rare.”
Feelings of appreciation and pure wonder were reflected in post-production surveys of participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 75.
One museumgoer exclaimed, “This is the most unusual inside view you will ever get of the Carnegie Museums, no matter how many times you have been there—magical!” Another stated: “Being in the museums after hours took my breath away. … Thanks for letting us feel like kids again.”
For many, much of the experience was based on emotion. In fact, some visitors even said they were brought to tears. “The event literally changed the way I think about myself,” said one participant. “I was completely emotionally invested and, as a result, this was the strongest I have ever connected with any theater production.”
There were no opportunities for curtain calls, though. No standing ovations, either, for DODO’s cast.
“When we come off stage, there’s no applause for the actors,” says Carpenter about immersion theater. “But we do get 14-page emails from audience members about their experiences.” And, sometimes, a hug from a fan on her way out of the museum.
Scenes from DODO
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