I was intrigued by Museum 2040, an alternate future immersive production that combines a museum exhibit and a theatricalized dedication ceremony, from the moment I interviewed its playwright Renee Calarco 5 years ago for DC Theatre Scene. After all, I do work full time at a very large museum complex here in DC (yes, the one you’re thinking of), and my own theater company has a collection of objects on display in conjunction with a performance series. What I found at 4615 Theatre’s production of Museum 2040 was a bold attempt at an exploration of how museums and the future of America could go deeply wrong, but also a paramount example of how immersive theater and vaulting ambition can also go awry that veers (perhaps intentionally) into the realm of horror.
When you go into Museum 2040, your entrance to a holding room is regulated and you are subjected to a cursory inspection by security guards, seemingly designed to give you an impression of heightened security and worry. A small screen plays an introductory video to the National Museum of American Reconciliation, helpfully giving “historical” background and catching the audience up on the fictionalized events from 2020 through 2040, when this experience is set. Social unrest, disease, and climate change all pervade this presentation, but the focus lies on a particular terrorist attack in the year 2030: a bombing/shooting at the Lincoln Memorial that killed 85 people.
The video is a few minutes long, and then it repeats. Over and over. Until the entire audience (and cast) have entered the holding room and been searched. Besides the ominous content of the video, and the hostile reception of the guests, it was the endless repeating of the video that gave me the sudden realization: “Oh shirt, THIS is the Bad Place!” (For those who don’t watch “The Good Place” on NBC, this is the realization that people get when they figure out that they’re in Hell).
The Bad Place vibes keep rolling as the group enters the makeshift museum exhibition and dedication ceremony space, which purports to tell the story of the leadup to the terrorist attack and its aftermath. The actors are corralled into the space with the audience, and they each have tracks that they go on, interactions with each other and the audience that are semi-scripted. Audience members have the opportunity to listen in or participate in these interactions. Each shows something deeply wrong with the museum.
A great example is when a survivor of the attack discovers that his phone (recovered the day of the incident) and his image have been used as in exhibition without his permission. As a museum person, let me tell you that this would be an egregious violation of museum ethics that would cause uproarious outrage in the community, but the Director of the museum brushes it off. Examples like this one abound: from inconsistent labelling of exhibits, poor mounting, flat and confusing wayfinding, lack of introductory wall text, lack of knowledge about the workings of the museum from the participants, the list goes on and on.
Here’s the tricky bit though: the museum is supposed to be bad, but the audience does not find that out until well into the panel discussion that comprises the bulk of the theatrical part of the show. The audience is trapped in the Bad Place of Museums wondering if the theater production staff simply decided not to consult anyone who had any experience with the principles of museum design or whether they did consult those people and made active choices to obfuscate those principles. But neither thought makes for a pleasant experience.
What makes this experience even more unpleasant is a lack of two essential components to an immersive world: preparation and interactivity. Preparation for creating an immersive experience is (or at least should be) almost unimaginably intense for a project whose ambition aims so high. The entire creative team needs to have the entire twenty year fictionalized history memorized, as well as a deep understanding of the functions of the museum. Who are the curators and what do they study? They are vaguely referred to, but not present, and scrutiny by audience members of this fact results in stonewalling and avoidance. Where does the money for the museum come from? There’s a jokey throwaway answer given but pushing deeper resolves into further misdirection. Where are the objects to be stored and what is the scope of the collections?
The actors thrust into the nearly impossible challenge do so with aplomb, and I admire their improvisational answers in the face of a dearth of dramaturgy. Dylan Arredondo, playing a Senator elected after performing a heroic act on the day of the terrorist attack, comes up with a fast answer about funding on the fly, and Shaquille Stewart, who plays the survivor whose phone and image were improperly used, creates nice moments of impromptu interaction with audience members. Miranda Zola absolutely nails her characterization of a museum director.
There are some interesting experience design elements here as well: from recordings of the cast played into headphones to a central information kiosk that doubles as a stage manager’s booth There’s obviously some technical theatrical knowhow that’s being put to good use in the production, even though it lacks the slickness one might be used to. These elements provide blips of joy and organization among the controlled yet strangely ramshackle environment.
But too much control of interactivity in the text and direction of the actors makes the immersion brittle and off-putting. A brilliant collaborator that I’ve worked with on interactive productions says this: immersion is where the audience gets to be in the world and touch it, but interaction is where the audience gets to make choices that affect what that world becomes. Museum 2040 is all immersion and no interaction, so audience members may feel a bit like ghosts haunting the future and ask: “Why are we talking with the actors if nothing can change?”
Eventually, the audience is gathered for the aforementioned panel discussion, for which a memorial to the victims of the attack was hastily moved, in yet another act that moved the museum person in me to outrage. The actors fill out the fictionalized history and illustrating the fractured state of America in 2040, including a Q&A about the validity of the museum and whether it glosses over the visceral tragedy of the terrorist attack it purports to commemorate.
The subject is certainly worthwhile. In a city full of museums, the question of how museums exclude marginalized and vulnerable populations is vital. A survivor of the attack accuses the museum of being too sanitized, but “haphazard” would be a better description, like a cloth placed over a table still full of mess. Another survivor breaks through the panel discussion with her own visceral, personal experience of the attack.
Museum 2040 closes March 29, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Here is where the execution of immersion truly goes awry. Immersive theater by definition leaves its audience at its most vulnerable, and it is the responsibility of the theater to protect audience members who they ask to be vulnerable. Some theaters do not value content warnings, with creators saying that they may spoil a plot or coddle their audience. But those creators don’t have to deal with hours of sobbing and sleeplessness from a traumatic trigger caused by their lack of actions, which are negligent if accidental and intolerably cruel if purposeful. That lack violates the audience’s trust and actively harms willing participants who placed faith in the theater’s care. At least one such reaction happened the night I attended. The creative team of 4615 Theatre now ensures that there will be both a preshow email and a lobby display of content advisements in future performances. But lack of coordination on this front is indicative of the dearth of preparation on other fronts, including some basic in-world questions of purpose.
I would love for this concept to be given better treatment, and Museum 2040 could be an excellent platform for forward-thinking futurism, changing as our society changes and seeing the timeline alter as foundations of the future shift. Calarco has a brilliant and unique structure here, tapping into today’s heightened fears, but the execution of that structure as it is now is regrettably full of errors.
However, despite these errors, there are certainly people who will enjoy this production. Lovers of horror should flock to this show. The eeriness of the presentation, the thought-provoking concept, and the visceral ending all call out to the genre. Lovers of museums and fully fleshed out immersive worlds may want to pass on by.
Museum 2040 by Renee Calarco. Directed by Jordan Friend. Featuring Katie Culligan, Michael Crowley, Valerie Adams Rigsbee, Mary Meyers, Sean Chyun, Miranda Zola, Reginald Richard, Dylan Arredondo, and Shaquille Stewart. Scenic and Lighting Design by Dean Leong. Costume Design by Jeannette Christensen. UI/UX Design by Gregory Keng Strasser. Sound Design by Jordan Friend. Composition by Sean Chyun. Production Management by Jade Brooks-Bartlett. Stage Management by Paola Vanessa Losada. Associate Direction by Jon Jon Johnson. Produced by 4615 Theatre. Reviewed by Alan Katz.