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Trish Wadley: Staging a play in the Natural History Museum brings theatre’s chaos to a quiet museum

A scene from The Wider Earth at the Natural History Museum. Photo: Mark Douet A scene from The Wider Earth at the Natural History Museum. Photo: Mark Douet
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Theatre and fossils are not an obvious match, but for a venue to stage the untold story of young Charles Darwin, you can’t beat the Natural History Museum. But how easy would it be to stage a long run in a venue that had never staged such a play before?

Finding theatre venues is challenging, especially for unknown works. When Dead Puppet Society brought its play The Wider Earth to me, I knew we had to think beyond traditional venues and ideally one that had some resonance with the material.

My first instinct was to approach the iconic museum – built in 1881 – given it is an important keeper of Darwin’s flame. Theatre business can be chaotic, messy and loud and the museum is quiet, ordered and reverent. Theatre works very fast and is nimble, which is pretty much the opposite to museum pace. So, it took some convincing.

The museum’s Jerwood Gallery, ideally situated next to the Darwin Centre, offered a great empty space in which to build a 350-seat theatre. One of the more unexpected surprises is how excited all the museum staff were about the show – we have interacted with just about every department and they are all thrilled to have a theatre pop in to their quiet, ordered lives.

It is very challenging to run eight performances a week in a space that is sometimes shared by up to 20,000 people and how to manage – and not lose – your audience at the interval. We are using a ships bell to call the audience into the theatre and in the evenings, we have learned, the museum is full of cameras, so nobody can roam undetected. We’ve also had to clearly label the show as a full theatrical production and not an immersive exhibition.

The Wider Earth review at Natural History Museum, London – ‘impressive puppetry’

Museums don’t come with dressing rooms and box offices and you can only build after hours so it has been a challenging five weeks getting in.

The set has been bumped in and out three times and we’ve created a large raked seating bank. Our crew has worked non-stop behind closed doors, but it has loved the museum environment for its grandeur and quirkiness.

What we have created actually looks and feels as though it is a theatre and it’s easy to forget you are in the museum.

Putting on theatre has brought with it so many ‘gee whiz’ moments, such as when Darwin expert Adrian Lister took the play’s author David Morton behind the scenes to see the fossils Darwin had collected on the Beagle’s voyage. The cast also went on the behind-the-scenes Spirit Collection tour to see the collection of specimens still in the jars that were brought back on the Beagle with labels written by Darwin.

The cast visited the Linnean Society where Darwin’s papers and an original copy of On the Origin of Species were brought out for them in a private session with the curator.

My advice for others who are considering museums for their shows is to get good insurance. Also, plan for lots of curve balls.

The Wider Earth is at the Natural History Museum until December 30

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