When I started this piece many months ago I intended to write about the ways in which technology and multi-disciplinary storytelling has changed the way we engage with our senses. The plan was to look at two, equally compelling, modes of storytelling about a single event in history, and tease apart the ways in which each were constructed to build meaning and connection.
The first of the two experiences was Earthrise, a musical, presented at the Kennedy Center from July 18-August 4, 2019. The second was the National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11: Go For the Moon, July 19-21, 2019, which used projection mapping to create a one of a kind experience on the National Mall.
In both cases, the audience was central to the experience. The crowds, the people we stood and sat next to, built tension and enhanced the production in unexpected ways.
But we are now in mid-November, almost a year and half past, and the world is a very different place.
Right now, we know that Broadway will go dark until at least 2021, outdoor festivals and experiences all over the world have been canceled, and museums and arts organizations have moved a large part of their work online (laying off significant staff in the process).
As I consider our present moment, I can’t help but think these two productions feel simultaneously irrelevant to the here and now, and yet serve as powerful examples of what this crisis may change in the months and years to come. Examples of what we need to re-think and consider in terms of large-scale historical storytelling.
With that in mind, I’d like to dig into the actual ways in which different media were layered within each production to create a richer experience, and how we can take those lessons with us into this new world we all live in.
Earthrise is a musical for children. Only fifty minutes long, this production by Lauren Gunderson, Brian Lowdermilk, and Kate Kerrigan looks at the moon landing through the eyes of three kids: Rick, Sophia, and Andrea whose parents (an astronaut, an engineer, and a mathematician) are all involved with the mission in some way. It is through their eyes that the experience is reflected.
In a lot of ways, considering the historical narrative it is sharing, this musical has similar bones to the Smithsonian Institution experience, however its execution leads to a very different sort of impact. For starters the production took place not in one of the Kennedy Center’s grand theatre’s but in a makeshift space along one of its terraces, with seating in a circular arrangement to allow for a theatre in the round production. In this intimate space, we could see television screens along the walls, and a stage with three runways leading to a circular central stage. It was an inviting space, evoking the deeply personal nature of the experience for these children, despite the very public and historical moment.
Then there was the music. I know musicals aren’t for everyone, but I often find that songs with the right words and lyrics convey emotions, particular inner feelings. In the case of Earthrise the music was used by the characters (adults and children alike) to share thoughts that could not be spoken aloud. The music, much like the design of a building from the 18th century, separates public from private, layering the greater historical mission with internal conflict.
The music also provided an opportunity to show contradiction. For example, one child’s mother was one of the Black women that worked as human computers for NASA. The music provided an opportunity to show how the freedom of space was not reflected back on earth for the Black Americans.
On top of the music and the set, the television screens and pre-recorded sound projected historical audio files from the launch that are familiar to many. By using the screens and a projection of the earth on the screen above the audience, the musical’s team gave the audience the same feeling of distance as the children who were worried about their parents.
In a short film about the play called “The Human Journey.” Lauren Gunderson says, “I just love excavating the history of science and finding these incredible true stories and then breathing a entire plays worth of life and poetry in to them. It brings the human journey of exploration and discovery into a single person in a single spot in time and space.”
Go For the Moon
I’ve written a lot about the National Air and Space Museum’s production Apollo 11: Go For the Moon so I will readily admit that I am hardly an impartial voice in evaluating this program.
The key thing to recognize with Go for the Moon is that, as an experience, it was designed specifically with large crowds in mind. While the audience for Earthrise was small, and intimate, this production was meant to reach as many people as possible.
In April 2020, I interviewed Richard Slaney, managing director of 59 Productions, the immersive storytelling company that designed Go For the Moon for the Smithsonian Institution. 59 Productions, Slaney said, began initially as a production design company for theatre, “putting narrative at the center of every project we make.” Today, many of their productions are focused on, “Storytelling [that] uses imagery, or sound and music, and also [different] levels of detail because there is always going to be someone in the crowd who is an expert or someone who knows basically nothing.”
For this particular production the multi-disciplinary elements combined projection mapping on the Washington Monument, with archival footage from the day of the launch. The audio mix combined the infamous “Go for the Moon” speech from President Kennedy (including video of him giving the speech) with new music by House of Cards composer Jeff Beal.
When building the production there was an intentional consideration of the role of the crowd in the production. Nicholas Partridge and Katherine Moyer from the National Air and Space Museum, described how they wanted to stop people in their tracks, and to “suspend belief,” to “feel emotions akin to what their parents would have felt when they were watching this live.” As 59 Productions reviewed archival footage from the launch, Slaney saw in the footage of people gathering together to watch the landing, followed by the homecoming ticker tape parade, that “the common element were the crowds.”
As public historians we are taught to think about the audience and their interaction as part of designing an on the ground experience. However, what made this particularly compelling was the way in which the archival material integrated with the projection technology, building the narrative so that as we see the crowds watching the actual launch in sync with the projected launch, those of us in the 2019 audience became a part of that original witnessing.
In a lot of ways Earthrise and Go for the Moon stand on two opposite sides of the audience spectrum. One is quieter, and is very much about the individual experiences on the day of the launch, while the other is about the tangible, collective connection from a crowd. Both leverage multi-disciplinary storytelling to make connections between the past and the present. But what happens when you are not all in the room together?
When I talked about this piece with a friend and fellow public historian, Mekala Krishnan, she spoke of how “museums are one of the last bastions of civic life where collective experience is central.” And while, over the last decade or so, institutions have worked to breach the digital divide to engage with audience members through online exhibitions and programs, these last few months with the COVID-19 pandemic have illustrated just how challenging this work is.
In addition to things like zoom fatigue, I personally struggled to find a heightened sense of connection as I did in July 2019. I am admittedly, too fearful of contracting the virus, to participate in the Marches for Black Lives, to attend a vigil for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or to celebrate an outcome of an election that dominated our lives for four years. Aside from showing up in solidarity and protest, I yearn for that collective energy that can lead towards transformation and greater insight.
That fear and yearning is what drives my interest in how experiences like Go for the Moon and Earthrise can be translated online. Where both the individual and collective experiences can be shared with people far beyond our individual homes.
Ultimately what both of these examples show is that there needs to be a clear vision for every project. That the digital experience is not easier because it is being presented without a physical audience, rather it takes an equal amount of intentionality and planning to create something that is effective and transformational.
In the short film on Earthrise, Lauren Gunderson says that “Theatre is a chance for a group of humans to stop, and share their focus on another human and learn everything about them.”
And that’s our challenge. Finding a way to buil nuanced, historical storytelling in a way that casts a spell, and connects audiences with the past and each other—from the comfort and safety of their home. While Earthrise and Go for the Moon can give us a solid understanding of what we need to protect, we need to turn to—now that we are months into the pandemic—how others have tried to bridge that gap and bring people together.
Part 2 of this essay will be on History@Work in December and will look to answer this question from the perspective of a few different digital projects (from within and without the field),