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The Civilians Explore The American Wing in The Way They Live

Banner image (from left): The Magnolia Vase, ca. 1893. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co. (1837–present). Designed by John T. Curran (1859–1933). American. Silver, gold, enamel, opals. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Winthrop Atwill, 1899 (99.2). John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53). Thomas Hovenden (American [born Ireland], 1840–1895). The Last Moments of John Brown, 1882–84. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Stoeckel, 1897 (97.5)

Even during a casual stroll through The American Wing, the volume of stories, history, and historical context of the artworks found in this department's collection is staggering. Encompassing art from the seventeenth century through to the 1930s, and across the mediums of painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and period rooms, there are thousands of potential plays that could come from these galleries.

As a theater company, The Civilians creates work from a central investigation, often through conducting interviews. For the final performance of our Met residency, The Way They Live, premiering May 15 and 16 in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, we were invited to explore The American Wing. This meant we could turn those casual strolls through the Met's American Wing into interviews held with both the staff and the public, which would then be brought together to create a broader conversation between present-day America and the artworks. There were many compelling questions that could guide this conversation between the people who fill the Museum and the art itself, but the most obvious question was also the strongest—we wanted to talk about what it means to be American.

The Civilians present "The End and the Beginning" in The Temple of Dendur, March 2015. © Paula Lobo

The Civilians present The End and the Beginning in The Temple of Dendur, March 2015. © Paula Lobo

I first interviewed The American Wing's staff. On first impression, all staff members in the department are female, aside from one conservator and a handful of technicians. Since the vast majority of the artwork in the collection is created by men, this was a fascinating concept to me, that the work of almost entirely male artists is now, in 2015, in the hands of an almost entirely female team.

The interviews were filled with history, knowledge, and many levels of personal resonance with the artwork—a wealth of wisdom that greatly influenced the form of the final work. For example, in one interview a staff member said she would rather stay with one artwork for an extended period of time when taking groups around the Museum rather than looking at multiple artworks at a faster pace. This idea forced us, The Civilians, to evaluate how we narrow in on various pieces of art, and the value of looking at fewer works in greater detail.

Indeed, at the conclusion of the interviews with the staff, we had so much detail that there was already an entire play's worth of material. Thinking of the current cultural conversation about the lack of roles in all dramatic mediums for older women, I had a moment of envisioning a play populated only by women at the peak of their life's work, stunningly articulate, with vast insight and a modesty that ended many interviews with "I don't know if that was helpful at all."

In fairness, our interviews are not the norm of museum practice. A favorite phrase we use at The Civilians at the beginning of an interview is, "We can talk about anything you want to talk about," which is in contrast to the factual, specific mode of communication for anyone in museums. Specificity is their life; we, on the other hand, like all the intangible thoughts you need to talk through to get to the heart of what you are saying. The Civilians love nothing more than staggering through the processing of many ideas and feelings in order to reach a genuinely fresh conclusion. From the hearts of many such interviews, we created a shortlist of works the staff spoke about with different, insightful angles on notions of "Americaness."

These were the artworks we took with us to the next stage of the project: interviewing the public. In creating this dynamic of a conversation between the people who inhabit The American Wing today and the art, the visitors of the Museum were equally important to interview. We wanted to tap in to a sample of the thoughts and experiences in these galleries on a daily basis.

A spectrum of responses existed in terms of age, love or hate of the work on display, and the global geography of where these visitors live. More surprisingly, there was a distinct streak of responses that registered on first hearing as almost cliché. We all know that truth is stranger than fiction, but truth can also be more cliché, as there were certain responses that I am sure, if you were to write them in a fictional work, any audience would quickly reject as cliché. For example, the child standing in awe of Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware who, quite seriously and very endearingly, wants to be the President.

The Civilians perform Let Me Ascertain You in the Petrie Court Café, September 2014. © Stephanie Berger

The Civilians perform Let Me Ascertain You in the Petrie Court Café, September 2014. © Stephanie Berger

We gathered a large number of unique, moving, and often surprisingly humorous responses to the artwork. We spoke to war veterans, people who lived through segregation and the Civil Rights movement, established and emerging artists in many different kinds of media, people experiencing New York for the first time, Native peoples, and Americans of every generation. Of course we cannot feature every interview in the script, but the interviews with the public in the final work are a reflection of the range of responses.

After the interviewing process, there is then an editing process that includes creating songs from different transcripts. In bringing the power of music to an interview, we can highlight different emotional elements of a story or response. For this project we paired seven composers with very different transcripts about very different works of art—including the The Magnolia Vase produced by Tiffany & Co., John Singer Sargent's Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), and Thomas Hovenden's The Last Moments of John Brown. This is a powerful stage of the process.

As we approach production, I am reminded of one interview with an artist who described that he was once quoted, although he didn't make it up, as saying that talking about art is like dancing about architecture. My immediate response was that not only would this be a really interesting dance, but definitely a fascinating final product. I hope that The Way They Live achieves a similar final result in talking—as well as laughing and crying—through the art of The American Wing in 2015.


To purchase tickets to The Way They Live, or any other Met Museum Presents event, visit www.metmuseum.org/tickets; call 212-570-3949; or stop by the Great Hall Box Office, open Monday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–3:30 p.m.

Banner image (from left): The Magnolia Vase, ca. 1893. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co. (1837–present). Designed by John T. Curran (1859–1933). American. Silver, gold, enamel, opals. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Winthrop Atwill, 1899 (99.2). John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53). Thomas Hovenden (American [born Ireland], 1840–1895). The Last Moments of John Brown, 1882–84. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Stoeckel, 1897 (97.5)

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