The Measure of Our Lives

Woman dressed in black dress stands in front of a portrait and looks to the left
UMD Student as Lena Horne / Daniel Pinah

The Measure of Our Lives is an annual interactive live performance and tour of various portraits in the National Portrait Gallery. University of Maryland theater students work for three months to bring their portrait to life, culminating in a monologue in which they discuss the story of their lives. Read more to hear from two participants in this year's series, Summer Brown and Kristen El Yaouti. 

What made you want to take this class to participate in the performance?

SB: I knew that performing at the gallery would be a completely different experience for me. It’s a very ambitious project. I knew that I would develop many new skills that I would continue to use in my acting.

How do the actors prepare?

KE: The actors have a lot of work to do in this class. Leslie Felbain trains the class in how to put their own physical habits aside to allow for the translation of another person through your own body. Actors are also expected to do their own dramaturgical work. We get a lot of history buffs who come to the museum to see this show every year, so knowing even the obscure facts is really important to keep the audience engaged.

What was your favorite exercise in the class?

KE: Performers look for an animal that is physically similar in rhythm, size, speed, etc. to the portrait they have chosen. By practicing how to embody these animals, we are able to make more specific physical choices that inform how we move as our portraits. Also we get to spend a day playing animals, which is really fun!

SB: My favorite exercise was the portrait interview. Each actor sits in a chair while the rest of the ensemble asks tons of questions about their career, personal life, and views. The actors blend all of the physical acting and research that they’ve done. So much of this performance is improvised. We have no idea what the audience members are going to ask while we’re on the tour. As actors, we must trust our in-depth knowledge of our historical figure, be in the moment, and have fun!

What was your experience as a performer? What is different between this performance and others you’ve done for the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Arts Studies?

KE: The shows I’ve acted in at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center are generally traditional shows as far as the physical division between the performers and the audience. This show is the opposite—actors and audience intermingle. This leads to a performance where only three minutes of your dialogue is written, and the rest of the hour you are riffing with museumgoers. The possibility of being stumped makes good research paramount and keeps actors on their toes, but it also introduces this wonderful potential for play.

Why do you think this program is important enough to merit its yearly return to the Portrait Gallery?

SB: The actors portray such an eclectic group of historical figures that each audience member is bound to learn something new. The lives and legacies of these people go far beyond what’s on the museum plaque. The Measure of Our Lives is a powerful piece that allows guests to listen and interact with a portrait that they otherwise might have walked by. The actors reveal the “ordinary” of the extraordinary people.