BWW Interview: Brett Messenger Curatorial Director of LIVE ARTS at the MORRIS MUSEUM

BWW Interview: Brett Messenger Curatorial Director of LIVE ARTS at the MORRIS MUSEUM
Brett Messenger
Photo Credit: Erica Phiansunthon

Brett Messenger, Curatorial Director of Live Arts at the Morris Museum, took time out of his extremely packed schedule to give us the inside scoop on the current and upcoming programming for Morris Museum. My family frequents the museum quite often and I can personally attest that the are interesting and accessible for young and old. Morris Museum is a local gem in Morris county, my kids love the permanent dinosaur exhibit and the enormous, fully functioning model train display. The musical instrument gallery had me geeking out on a whole other level and the interactive Steampunk Exhibition is worth the price of admission. Read on to learn more about what's in store this season!

Let's jump right in! How has your background informed the direction you are taking Bickford this season?

My educational background was in the visual arts. I studied at School of Visual Arts before starting a dual-degree Master's program at the San Francisco Art Institute in Contemporary Art History and New Genres. Throughout my college years I worked in the performing arts, with internships and part time positions at The Metropolitan Opera, The Santa Fe Opera, and a job photographing performance at MoMA PS1. I eventually left my graduate program when I was offered a full-time position in the Artistic Department at The Santa Fe Opera based in their New York office. One of the main focuses of my studies was the intersection of art and science which is perfect for a place like the Morris Museum! Because of my unique background and interests I was floored when I read the job description for this new position- I felt like it was written for me!

The Morris Museum is experiencing an exciting moment of growth and change right now. Cleveland has a great vision for our institution as one that is unlike any other in the country. Rooted in our incredible Guinness Collection of automatic musical instruments and automata and the fact that we are a Museum with a fully-rigged proscenium theatre; the Morris Museum is poised to become a center for kinetic art, STEAM programming, and explorations in art that span from the gallery to the stage. My charge was to reinvent the Bickford. When I arrived one of the things that immediately struck me was that many people in this community thought that the Bickford Theatre and the Morris Museum were separate organizations on the same property! In creating Live Arts at the Morris Museum, my goal was to create a series that was unlike anything else in the state of New Jersey, a series of performances made for a Museum, a series made for THIS Museum!

What can we expect from this exciting new programming?

Audiences can expect to be surprised. Our first season highlights artists who work in unique and cutting-edge ways to create some of the most exciting, innovative, and meaningful works that can be seen anywhere today.

The season opens in September with a world premiere production by Dzul Dance. Artistic Director, Javier Dzul grew up in the jungles of Southern Mexico, participating in ancient Mayan ritual dance. When he was 16 years old, he became the last Mayan king of his tribe but he left to study ballet and then modern dance with Martha Graham in New York City. Today he creates works where the ancient and contemporary collide in striking ways, utilizing a physical vocabulary that seamlessly blends surreal ritual, balletic elegance, modern sensibilities with sensational aerial circus techniques. His work will make you think and make you gasp.

In October we will present the hit off-Broadway production, The Other Mozart, featuring Sylvia Milo who created this unique yet accessible piece. This play features a score co-written by Phyllis Chen, who will return later in the season for a world premiere that she is creating in dialogue with our community, starting with a free workshop. Chen is a critically acclaimed composer who writes for toy piano and music box!

I am excited about all of the works we are presenting but I also want to highlight a new work by Thaddeus Phillips, Inflatable Space. Experimental theatre is a term that sends many people running for the hills but this is an example of experimental theatre that is as touchingly human as it is avant-garde. Inflatable Space is about the Voyager Space Mission, and the Golden Record. The Golden Record was created to chronicle human achievement from language to music- an artifact that could last longer than civilization that could be how we are understood by intelligent life elsewhere. This play deals with the human side of the Space Age, utilizing inventive sets and technology to tell a story in a way that is non-traditional, thrilling, and, like everything we present, surprising.

What's the best way to experience these shows?

Come with an open mind! Our ticket prices are very reasonable and parking is free. Order one of our new boxed dinners or stroll through the museum before a matinee. Make an experience of it and come ready to engage in the dialogue. We are an intimate theatre and that is something that excites me. There is something really special about meeting a composer, performer, or director after a performance and having the opportunity to chat informally with them. Those are the sorts of interactions I look forward to cultivating here.

How is The Garden State treating you so far?

I live in Essex County with my rescue dog, Aunt Lucy and enjoy hiking and cooking for my friends. I have only lived in New Jersey for three years but have come to really love New Jersey. Despite all of the stereotypes about us, we have a thriving food scene, incredible outdoors, and a stellar art world. I feel humbled to be in a position to contribute to the great performing arts landscape in New Jersey!

Is there anything else we should know?

We have an amazing and dedicated team here at the Morris Museum. I am so lucky to be working with and learning from professionals that bring great perspective to our organization. I feel so fortunate to be able to glean from their deep institutional knowledge and feel emboldened by their embrace of our new direction!

For much more information please visit

BWW Interview: Brett Messenger Curatorial Director of LIVE ARTS at the MORRIS MUSEUMBWW Interview: Brett Messenger Curatorial Director of LIVE ARTS at the MORRIS MUSEUM

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From This Author Jaclyn Layman