Thursday, November 17, 2016

Living History Theatre Pt III: Process and Technique

I must acknowledge, as much as I can, the great debt I owe to Therese Porter and Rydell Downward for all of the years of training they gave me in rehearsals for the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and the Guild of St. George, Inc. Many of the techniques I am discussing here came directly from them, as well as any idea I may have about what I am doing. 

This post is dedicated to some very important places where the theatre side of things will really help create a quality living history experience. For more please see Part I and Part II in this series.


Most living history ventures I have been involved in involve an audition, just like any other theatrical endeavor. Often they are working off of set cast lists meaning that there are actually a limited number of spots. At Locust Grove, we limit the cast to members of the Clark and Croghan families and their friends whom we can document to have been in Louisville in the year 1816. Therefore we audition prospective members for specific parts.

At Locust Grove, our auditions go something like this. When someone signs up for a slot, we send them out a prepared monologue, which is a slightly altered version of a letter from the family. They will read for a three person panel including myself, Brian Cushing (who is the Program Director for Locust Grove), and another volunteer, usually our AD, but sometimes a member of the volunteer steering committee.

At this point, we are looking at a couple of things; first of all, how much work someone has put into preparing, but also how they are able to take the words from a primary source and bring them to life. I will often give people feedback and direction, and ask them to read again. At this point I am looking to see how well they take direction.

After that, we will ask them to do some improv, where a member of our panel will pretend to be a member of the public. We tell them that this is the only time they are allowed to completely make it all up. This is not a history test, we are just looking to see how comfortable they are speaking to the public.

We don't actually photograph this process, but here is a similar exercise from a rehearsal.
Courtesy of Fox & Rose Photography. 

After that, time permitting, we like to chat with them and get to know them a little. We make sure they understand how the program works, and just what will be asked of them if they join. The reality is that they are signing up for a very specific project which involves a lot of time and hard work. It's not for everyone, and we'd rather they run away now rather then then later.

There are a number of advantages to this approach. First of all, while it may sound exclusionary, this can actually be a very good way to recruit new members. Promoting auditions raises the profile for your group, while directing people to a certain time and place to come if they are interested. Even if you are not working with a limited cast of characters, this approach may be helpful.

Conversely however, this does actually provide a barrier to participation. And I argue that that is a good thing for several reasons. This entire approach to living history is based on the idea that it is not a free-for-all. A successful living history performance is well directed, well planned, and well rehearsed. That starts with choosing the right people to be involved, and being sure that those people take this seriously and are willing to put in the work. Having to audition instead of just show up will make people value their place in your cast. And we would always rather have a few really wonderful people who are on task, than a lot of people who are not.

The Script, or, "It's plot exposition, it has to go somewhere"

There's a scene in The Great Muppet Caper where Lady Holiday, played by Diana Rigg,tells Miss Piggy, whom she has just met, all about her ne'er do well brother who she barely trusts but can't help clinging to. Piggy looks at her in a very confused voice and says 'Um, why are you telling me all this?', to which Lady Holiday responds, in a very matter of fact tone, "It's plot exposition, it has to go somewhere."

"Um, why are you telling me all this?"
 "It's plot exposition, it has to go somewhere"

When I'm trying to recruit someone new to this endeavor, they will often ask me 'well, do you have a script?". The answer is yes and no. This is an improvisational performance, between you, your fellow performers, and the public who come to interact with you. So no, not a lot of what we do involves a traditional script. But there is material.

We have research (or in some cases, like the Dickens Fair, we have literature).  The art is in taking that information and having it come out of your mouth in a way that seems natural in an improvisational performance. I recommend everyone keep a running list of 'talking points' they are comfortable working with. It's a good idea to review these before an event and go in with a couple of nuggets you are really up on and keen to discuss that day. (If you see me in my car talking to myself on the way to the Grove, that's *probably* me practicing what I want to talk about that day.....probably.)

If you are part of a group, it's a good idea to decide on a few talking points and overall theme ahead of time for specific events, so that you are all on the same page.

The Audience, aka, the Public 

Always remember, that without the public, the playground goes awayWith a few exceptions, most living history venues are being run by a site or production company which needs to meet certain goals in order to keep doing this. Frequently this is a matter of money, but not always. Museums or other historic sites may be more interested in counting the number of boots on the ground for mission centered programming than the actual dollar amounts raised (sometimes these numbers can translate into funding through grants and other donations).

Courtesy of Fox & Rose Photography

Unlike a traditional play, however, the goal here is to bring your audience into the action with you. The photograph above is from the Sleepy Hollow event at Historic Tunnel Mill in 2014. The story played out for the public that day, with Ichabod attempting to eat his own body weight while Katrina van Tassel coyly lead him on to tease Brom Bones.

At one point a little girl who had been watching all of this stomped up to me as Katrina demanding an an answer to the love triangle she had been witnessing all day. "OK!" she said "So do you like Ichabod? Because, he. likes. YOU!" In that moment, that child was not just watching the story, she was living it, like any other little gossiping neighbor in Sleepy Hollow. It was magical.

Cheating out/Playing to your audience
Members of the public who come to a living history event may be unsure of their role. They may feel uncomfortable approaching a performer, and be unsure of who they are supposed to talk to and how. We must extend our hands to guide them in and make them feel welcome.

In order to pull your audience in, one of the most important things is to think about your sight lines. Can the public see you? Can they see the display you are setting up? Do you look accessible and approachable? Look around and make sure that there is a clear line of sight to where you are sitting. Think about cheating out- meaning that your front is facing your audience and they feel invited in.

Al Capone and henchman (Troy and Brandon) at a recent 1920's event at the Grove. Notice how they are talking to each other, but only occupying half the table so they are visible and approachable. 
Courtesy of Fox and Rose Photography 

This will sometimes mean standing in a way that does not feel natural, meaning that you may not be directly facing the other performer you are talking to. Practice will make this feel more natural, I promise.

Try to think about not blocking your fellow performers as well. If they are facing the audience,  but your back is in the way, all their hard work is in vain (reeanctors will sometimes refer to a 'circle-jerk', meaning that a bunch of folks are standing around in a circle so that only their backs can be seen).

Notice how Miss Bullitt is sitting next to Mr. Clarke, but not blocking him or stealing focus from what he is doing. 
Courtesy of Fox & Rose photography. 

If someone has set up a table as a demonstration area for the public, do not, please, I beg you , DO NOT stand in front of it. If you do this, then instead of the nice display they have worked so hard on, the public just sees your butt. And they will be much less likely to come over and talk to said demonstrator if it looks like they are just engaged in conversation with you. Instead, come around behind said table and talk to your friend so that you are both facing out.

Be aware of where the audience is at all times, and play out to them. If you are engaged in a scene with another performer, keep paying attention to where the public is standing and be sure you are playing to them. Move with them, and face them instead of your partner. Getting too close to each other and directly facing each other will frequently mean that your words get lost and the audience is not pulled in to what you are doing. After enough training, this will begin to become a habit, and eventually almost a sixth sense.

A hapless newsboy runs afoul of  'Bats'. 
Notice where the audience is in this picture, and how well the actors have positioned themselves to be seen by the crowd. 
Courtesy of Fox and Rose Photography

I know I've said it in other places, but even if you are not comfortable directly interacting with the public, still try to think about how you can contribute to the overall scene. If you are working on a period skill, or even taking a nap, think about how you can be seen and how you are adding to the overall experience.


Interacting with the public, and your fellow performers, WILL go more smoothly if you have practiced all of these skills together. No one would dream of putting on a play without first rehearsing, and living history theatre is no different. Rehearsals give you a time to get to know your fellow performers and to practice your improvisational techniques. You can do this through general improvisational exercises, or through training for a specific event.

At Locust Grove rehearsals, we will often have some of our performers pretend to be members of the public. This serves two functions; those in character can practice engaging and talking with visitors, and the others remember what it is like to be in the visitor's shoes.

Everyone had a lot of fun asking *those* questions 
Courtesy of Fox & Rose Photography

At a recent Grove rehearsal, we planned for the Fourth of July. This is a free day at the Grove, and the crowds usually come out in droves. At this particular rehearsals, we planned and practiced giving toasts. Toasts were a very common pastime in early America. From a theatrical perspective, they also provide an excellent way to get that plot exposition in there!  Heather, one of our most gifted researchers, found several period toasts that had been printed in the newspapers. These were mostly very short, simply 'To General Washington!', etc.

In order to get the plot exposition in there, she suggested first giving a speech about why the person to be toasted deserved the honor, and then giving the formal toast. We found this worked very well. We went around the circle, and each person got to get up and practice giving a toast.

Noah, as Charles Croghan, practices giving a toast to his brother, George Croghan 
Courtesy of  Fox and Rose Photography

This rehearsal was a wonderful example of planning and execution. We used primary source documents for our inspiration and discussed how to best use it to introduce important historical information to our guests.

It can be all too easy to have some great stuff happen in rehearsal, but never take that lovely scene out before your public. These toasts, I am happy to say, made it out before the crowds who came to join us on that wet Independence Day.

Noah in action on the day, describing  George Croghan at the Battle of Fort Stephenson before officially toasting him. 
Courtesy of Fox and Rose Photography

It is crucial that you create a safe space in your rehearsals.  A place where everyone can get up and fail miserably in front of their comrades, and we will cheer them on. Some of our folks are seasoned performers, whereas others walk completely different paths in life and are doing this to challenge themselves. I assure you, both groups get stage-fright sometimes. Being able to practice ahead of time in a safe space gives everyone the confidence to go out there and shine, knowing that they will be supported by their cast mates should anything go awry.

Teach 'em how to say goodbye.....
As I discussed in my last entry, some reenactors struggle with how and when to let the public go. I have heard real complaints from members of the public at more than one historic site when a performer or third person interpreter simply would not let the conversation end.  And honestly, I *totally* get it- you  have put in so, SO much time and energy into your research, you want to share it. But you have got to learn to read your audience and see when they want to leave.

This is a place where improvisational theatrical training can really help. Think of every interaction you have with a member of the public as its own improvisational scene- and every scene must have an end.

Excuse us! Sir?! We're not done with our bit yet! We promise you'll love it! GET BACK HERE!!! 
Photo by Terry Perkins

In your rehearsals, practice running theatrical interactions where the scene has to end, meaning someone must find the 'out'.  A really great exercise for this, which I learned from Therese and Rydell is 'Two In/One Out'. The rehearsing parties get together in a circle, with two folks in the center. The two in the center will interact, until a third is sent in. Whichever of the two has been in the longest must then find a reason to leave- so there will once again only be two in.

Skills like this will help your performers to carry on scenes with each other, but will also help you to read cues from the public when they are ready to end your little improvisational moment together, and it may be time to send them on their merry way.

What techniques have you found for recruiting and preparing that you rely on? Let me know in the comments below!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Living History Theatre Pt. II: Pitfalls and Issues

This is the second part to a series of posts on this topic- see PT I here.

For all my love of living history theatre, it is not without its issues. This entry is devoted to looking under those rocks and talking about how to address some common issues.

You don't know something

There are a few layers to this one. Sometimes you are researching a specific individual and you have limited details about their lives (and let's face it, ladies, we tend to get the shaft on this one). One way to come at this is to research their world- what did someone of their age, income level, gender, etc, usually have in the way of education, clothing, etc. What was the common curriculum when they were at school, what basic skills would they have known? There is a lot of good information out there that people want to know.

Other times, you are really stumped. You cannot think of a good answer, and you don't want to lie and miseducate, so what do you do? I would suggest neither- just tell them that you don't know in character. Think about it, how much information have you forgotten in your life? How much do you not know about current events, modern technology, etc? The other day when I was talking about the shirt I was making in character someone asked me a *very* minute question about a particular stage of flax production and I just said 'Oh, I don't know, I'm not involved in that part!".

On what date exactly did your father first decide he wanted to come to Norther America? What was he wearing that day? How many buttons did the coat have......? What *is* the velocity of an unladen swallow...?

Photo by Fox & Rose Photography

This is also where your fellow performers can come in very handy, especially if you have all rehearsed enough to be comfortable playing off each other. "Oh my now, Cousin Charles, how many British regulars was it your brother faced off against in the war? My word, that many!"

In Locust Grove first person interpreter rehearsals, we will practice telling a story together so that we are prepared for this situation. A game of 'yes and' around the circle is very good for this- each person tells one small bit of the story, and then the next person takes it up beginning with 'yes, and....'. Practicing these skills in rehearsal helps you help each other when you hit dirt.

A game of 'yes and' around the circle at a recent Locust Grove rehearsal
Photo by Fox & Rose Photography

You shouldn't know something/Out of period information

Trades  and other Demos 
I know a lot of people who do demonstrations of period crafts like to use third person so that they can talk more freely with the audience. This is an especially useful way to discuss the sources you have put into your work. And I think this is a totally valid method. Again, there really is no one right way.

However, from the other side, learning and incorporating a period skill can be an invaluable tool as a first person performer. And I would challenge you to at least consider trying this out. Even if you feel uncomfortable with first person interpretation, you would be surprised how much easier it is when you are doing something. People are much more likely to come up and start asking you questions which you can use to guide your interaction with them in character.

If someone asks you what you are doing, explain it as you would have at the time. You can give your knowledge of the skill and talk about how it fits into your life. My 'green umbrella' as Emelia Clarke has become my sewing basket, and I will happily sit there chatting away with visitors about the shirt I am making for my husband and how it protects his nicer clothes the tailor made.

Giving a sewing lesson to a young visitor. 
Photo by Hannah Zimmerman

If you are someone who just *really* does not want to talk to the public, sitting there quietly performing a period skill is also a wonderful way to add to the atmosphere without saying a word. Think about finding a spot where you can be clearly seen, but perhaps off the main pathway so folks are less likely to talk to you directly, and you can do wonders to fill out the whole scene and experience.

Is this furniture original?
Sometimes in a museum setting you will get questions about the collections that are difficult to answer in character. If you are going to do first person, you have to do it. Falling in and out of character just cheapens the whole thing and makes you look foolish. You can frequently refer a visitor to a docent or nearby text board with more information. Since the docents at Locust Grove wear badges, we will frequently tell guests 'my friend with the interesting brooch can tell you more about that'.

This does mean that you need to build a good working relationship with your docents. One thing we realized at Locust Grove was that many of our docents were not sure of how to interact with interpreters. They needed to be invited in to play. We were able to host a great workshop last summer on working with interpreters which has really grown our relationship by leaps and bounds.

Having good docents makes things sooooooo much easier! 
Photo courtesy of Historic Locust Grove 

Once they felt invited into the process and were given tips on working with the folks in character, many of them really jumped in and have had a great time with it. They are even getting very good at helping out with that *one* member of the public, which has earned them the eternal devotion of our interpreters.

This can also be a great role for folks who have just joined your group but don't have their clothes together yet. We've been calling these folks 'Time Ambassadors' at the Grove- people who are specifically there in modern clothes with a name tag to be intermediaries between the guests and the interpreters. This is a really good way for someone to get their feet wet. They can see the veterans in action, and learn some of the questions they are likely to encounter.

The 'half-drop'
When you really feel in a jam, I'ma big fan of what I call the 'half-drop'. This is where you may blur the lines a bit, without completely dropping character. If a guest asks me if the furniture in the house is right for the time period, and I just can't find a docent, I may tell them 'Everything you see is correct, madam'. This conveys the important information, without completely dropping character and breaking the spell.

This is especially important when someone asks you where the bathrooms are. For heavens sake, do NOT take this as a time to act cute and say 'oh, I don't know what you're talking about!". That's just wrong. If you do not wish to use the term 'bathroom', you could try 'oh, the facilities are around the corner, ma'am', or just say  'around the corner'. Trust me, they won't want to stick around and press the issue.

International symbol for 'not a good time to jerk me around'

In Jokes

Since living history theatre is mostly improvisational, performers are not adhering to a certain script. It is an ongoing interaction between members of a cast who may know each other for months into many, many years. As such, we frequently develop jokes 'in character' which may not make any sense to the audience. Sometimes these are just wrong, and based on bad history. They may arise from a wisecrack someone made that gets repeated till it becomes gospel.

This is why it is so important to keep going back to your source material and checking your history before you go on. Myths can get started very easily just from something getting repeated enough. This is a good reason to have regular notes and other feedback to your group from a director.

Other times, the history may be good, but it is going over the heads of your audience because they lack the background necessary to understand it. One of the cardinal points of living history theatre is that this is a product aimed at your audience. You are using theatre as an educational tool- and any good teacher knows that their personal understanding of a topic is only important in as much as it gets their students to understand.

For example, if I were to say 'oh dear, Cousin George is coming! Be sure not to mention Mackinac Island!', anyone from Locust Grove might burst out laughing.

But the rest of you are probably pretty lost until I stop and explain that this was a battle were Col. George Croghan got his clock cleaned during the War of 1812. "My cousin would much rather we talk of his victory at Fort Stephenson, you see, and just possibly forget there was anymore war after that!'. From there another performer may come in with 'Oh, have you not heard of Mackinac, well....." and proceed to tell the whole story of brother George's less than successful assault on the island.

You will notice that this way instead of a one liner, you have a whole conversation's worth of material with your guests.

George 'Did I hear you say, FORT 'STEPHENSON?!' Croghan

They just don't get it

Sometimes the member of the public you are interacting with just doesn't get what you are doing and keeps trying to talk to you in a modern way.

One useful thing I have figured out is throwing what year it is into conversation very early. I say 'oh, yes, how long ago was that now? Well, let's see, that was 1806, and this is 1816, so oh my, that's 10 years ago now! Can you imagine!".

For very little children I will sometimes take this further. "What year do you think it is? 2016?! My word! Well, for me, it is 1816'. At which point their parents are usually able to jump in and help explain that 'this is how they dressed in the olden days', etc .

Now, ultimately, there may be someone who just really isn't going to get it. And that's ok. Just let them go.

Which leads us to....

Being too Aggressive 

This issue is probably definitely not exclusive to first person interpretation. Sometimes, the guest just doesn't want to talk to you. Or they have talked to you, but they want to go now.  And you just need to let it, and them, go. Don't chase after the with your whole prepared gig, just let them go.

This is another place where training in improvisational theatre can come in really handy- the more you work on these skills, the more you learn to read other people. Whey then want to interact, and when they do not. I tell our guys to think of it like you're running a three card monty table- you gotta learn to read people and spot a good mark. As folks walk by, try giving them each a period greeting 'Good day, sir!', etc. From there, you can read who is interested in more interaction with you and pull them in. Even those who just move on have had an immersive experience from your greeting, so it's hardly lost effort.

Sensitive Topics

This one time, at Ren beloved director Rydell once sat down and calmly proceeded to torture me by describing that beloved sixteenth century game of Cat in a Bag in detail (you put a cat in a bag and shoot arrows at it. People are, and historically have been, horrible). He knew I loved animals and kitties in particular, but that in character I would have to find this normal. (For anyone reading this who didn't know about Rydell's puckish side, oh..... it's there....)

HRH is NOT amused....

One of the goals of living history theatre is to personalize history, and bring home the way people lived and discussed the things we read about after the fact in books. However sensibilities change, and what was once a normal topic of discussion can become potentially extremely offensive to your audience (or heck, even to us). So you don't want to insult your audience, but then if you leave it all out, are you warping the past?

The biggest place where I run into this is the issue of slavery at Locust Grove. Slavery was a part of life on the farm, and we cannot be true to the history by literally white washing it. There are a couple issues here: for starters, there is the actual interpretation of the enslaved population.  People don't line up to volunteer to be slaves (I know, weird, right?).

The site is actually currently working on a very cool project working with multiple departments at the University of Louisville to try and fill this hole in the interpretation.  In the meantime, our volunteer performers still struggle with how to discuss this topic in a way which is truthful but does not offend or turn off museum goers.

Even this super idealized picture of Mt. Vernon is incomplete without the folks actually doing the work. 

I'm not going to even pretend like I have all the answers on this one.  I will tell you that you are far, FAR more likely to offend someone by leaving it out. Anyone who knows what to look for will feel lied to, and rightfully so. It's a really, really hard thing to deal with, but generally people seem pleased that you're at least not trying ignore it.

In an ideal world, you would always have a skilled docent there who can swoop in and help guide the conversation from a third person academic perspective. I have told our interpreters that if something does really go badly and a guest seems genuinely upset they are allowed to break character over this one, because it is just so loaded. So far it's only happened once, with my friend Brandon. He made a point of coming around the building from another direction, clearly having broken the earlier scene, and then having a follow up out of character chat with the guests.

Another memorable incident happened to my friend Keith,when a gentleman took him by the hand and said 'Sir, you used to own my great grandfather'. At that point Keith just took his hand and told him it was an honor.

My ideal for this topic is for it to come up after I've been chatting with folks for awhile and they think I'm charming and lovely, but then have to be reminded that slavery is also part of the history that I am portraying. As a performer, it's important to remember that you are far more likely to offend someone by pretending the issue doesn't exist, than by meeting it head on.

I can definitely include a  DON'T for this one-  do NOT pretend you are a slave if you are not African American. Just.DON'T. 

Some performers may try to take on the identity of an indentured servant or free white servant when performing period work.  This can work well in some situations, but in others it can also mask the real presence of slavery, if that is who actually did the work you are portraying in the past. 

Kids, let's talk about who actually did this work....

For these reasons, I actually will drop character, or do 'third person', when I work in the kitchen at Locust Grove, because in the time and place we are portraying, that work was done by an enslaved African American woman. Dropping character gives me a good chance to talk about the history of slavery instead of hiding it.

I have also found that if there are interpreters in character on the grounds I can serve as a good intermediary by explaining to guests the differences between what they are doing and what I am doing and why. I still interact with them with period manners, and watching me do so helps the guests cue into what is going on.

For some further reading, here's a really great article how Plymouth Plantation has been thriving by, among other things, incorporating the difficult history with the Wampanog Indians into their programming.

In academic parlance, we talk about 'problematizing' history. It's when you look under the rocks of what you loved and see the other sides of it- which, as luck would have it, gives you an entirely new angle to write a paper on. From a performance and interpretation standpoint, it does also give you more to work with.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Living History Theatre: Why and Wherefore*

So, before I go further, let me say that in all my years of living history, I have become increasingly convinced that there is no one way to do this. What I am going to be talking about here is what is sometimes referred to as a 'first person' impression, or as I originally learned it, 'living history theatre'. I understand that, this being the internet, someone will probably decide I have called them out for offense, however that is not my intention. What I am trying to do here is make the case for the way I like to do these things, and put forward some good reasons for doing so. In a future entry I will discuss some of the issues that often arise with such methods.

Many, many moons ago, I was a theatre kid. The drama department gave me my home in high school and my first two years of college. The theatre was my life, and I had youthful dreams of going pro. Which is why I love to say that instead I chose to do something sensible, like get a history degree and become an academic. However I did not have to completely abandon my first love. Instead, I found a wonderful world where both of my passions could come together.

Midsummer Night's Dream 2002- Use me but as your spaniel!

When I was 18, I wandered into the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. I have never in my life been so instantly at home. All around me were the sights and sounds of Victorian London. I went dancing at Fezziwig's party. I saw Scrooge in the gaslight, and Punch and Judy. I smelt roasting chestnuts and went down to the dockside to see the dancing girls.

Scrooge and the first spirit glide past visitors on the street.

I came out determined to be a part of this. And the next year I was back, as Miss Agnes Wickfield from David Copperfield. As a performer, I had found a truly amazing gift. Suddenly, there really WERE no small parts. I had 8 hours of all the audience I could muster. I went up to people, told them about David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber, Aunt Betsy, and all of the other characters Charles Dickens had written into Agnes' world. I acted out her tortured secret love for David and her determined devotion to her troubled father for all who would listen. We brought Dickens' characters and world to life in 360 degrees and it was glorious.

Miss Agnes Wickfield being escorted by Mr. Eugene Wrayburn 
(Yes, the outfit was dreadful- but I didn't know that yet)

At about the same time I was giving up theater and transferring to UC Davis to do my upper division work in History, I also joined the Guild of St. George, Inc. Northern California chapter. St. George portrays the members of the Elizabethan court in the 1570s and 80s. Now instead of literature, the script was history. I looked at how large scale events like the Protestant Reformation had personally affected the life of a little known maid of honor unto Her Grace.

During the week, I read about these things at school. On the weekends, I went to rehearsals where I studied how the people who lived those events spoke. What they ate, how they dressed, what dances and other entertainments were popular at the time,  and so many other things. In our rehearsals, we would practice talking about these events as they would have effected us as individuals.

Performing a mask for the court with my friend Josh

To me, living history was always synonymous with improvisational theatre. It fed my creative soul, and still does. But that's not separate from a serious interest in history.

It was really shocking to me to learn that there were people who did living history without taking on an historical persona. Even more so, when I realized that some of them saw all the theatre I am talking about as being somehow a facade, and somehow less realistic. I have heard some people who do living history scoff at those who want to be 'in character', as though that is somehow a separate realm of make-believe.

The language itself is the biggest issue to me. To me, that is just as important as the clothing. None of us actually live in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth century, etc. However we have gone to an exceptional amount of work to recreate the garments they wore and many of the items they used on a daily basis. To me it is jarring to put those clothes on and then come up and speak to one another in our modern dialects about modern topics. 'bout them Niners? Been to the movies lately?
Photo by Krossel Kreek Photography

Those speech patterns are just as worthy of study and recreation. They are just as much, if not more so, a part of daily life in the past.In St. George rehearsals, we studied Early Modern English as a dialect- running verb drills so that we could properly conjugate for 'thee/thou,'** and incorporating other relevant vocabulary.

Manners follow closely behind language. Forms of address, proper introductions, standing and making a courtesy when appropriate, all of these were part of the rhythm of life in the periods we are trying to recreate.

From there follow common topics of conversation- who the president or monarch currently is, the price of bread, scandals from the gossip sheets, etc. We will never be able to find every little thought that occupied every moment of the past, just as so much about clothing and other material culture is lost to us. However trying to piece together the topics of conversation seems as relevant to me as the pottery and the clothes (and I'm a big fan of both of those other things, so that's saying a lot).

This man got pulled right into the conversation!
Photo by Fox & Rose Photography

What I am getting at is this- though I know some re-enactors have told me that they feel that being 'in character' or doing 'first person' feels artificial to them, it feels artificial to me not to. Or rather, flat. Or incomplete. If I am going to go to all the effort with the clothes and artifacts, it feels strange to me to not keep going with language, manners, topics of conversation, pastimes,etc.

Coming at living history as a performance also helps to make it an immersive and educational experience for our visitors. An actor must always keep his audience in mind- can they see me? Can they hear me? Am I getting through to them? When you come at living history from this mindset you are very focused getting your material through to your visitors and making sure that they walk away having gotten something out of their experience with you.

Notice how they are standing so that  a passerby can see them all?
 Yeah, that's not a coincidence

If you are running an event or historic site, you know that for the gates to stay open, the public needs to show up. And for that to keep happening, they need to have a good experience while they are there so that they want to come back and so that they will tell others to go as well. Adding the 'theatre' to 'living history' puts the visitors experience at the forefront and helps keep the playground open.

This woman had a wonderful time catching up with Mrs. Taylor.
Photo by Fox & Rose photography

I passionately believe in interactive theatre as an educational device. I'm never going to convince most academic historians of this, and that's fine. However more and more museums and K-12 educators are coming around to this way of seeing things. Interactivity is the order of the day, and what better way than having a conversation with the past?

William Croghan, Jr. teaches young visitors how to write with a quill
Photo by Fox & Rose Photography

Of course, such methods have pitfalls- you aren't really talking to George Washington or Master Smith. I will address some of these foibles in a follow up post, so for right now I will laud the benefits. This approach can really humanize history for people. When you find a way to take the information off the text board and put it out in a conversational, natural way, it can help people to understand that this was lived through by real people. That they experienced the big events minute by minute, in real time, instead of as a forgone conclusion. And that all of the smaller things were the taken-for-granted fabric of their daily lives.

And I'm not gonna lie- It's also just a whole LOT of fun :-)

* I am a theatre nerd with two history degrees- you do not need to tell me that the 'wherefore' is technically redundant after 'why'. This will be a test to see who read to the end ;-) 

**This was actually a personal form of address, such as the 'tu' in Spanish' or 'du' in Italian, which English later dropped, so the verb must be conjugated differently- I do, thou dost, etc.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Period Impressions 1837 Day Dress Pattern

Here are my thoughts and experiences with this pattern as well as my documentation for the project. When I was making this pattern I looked around for anyone who had previously done a write-up but I wasn't able to find any. So if you are tootling around the internet looking for someone else's experiences, I hope this is helpful!

I made this so that I would have something to wear in the mornings and evenings when I'm camping at any events where I can do 1830's and 40's. This is always a huge issue for me when I am doing period camping, as I'm sure it is for many ladies. Before we are dressed, we are exposed and well, frankly, bouncy. It's a distinct disadvantage while running around looking for coffee and brushing your teeth. But of course getting dressed itself is a process, one usually requiring prior caffination. 

This pattern is a pretty good one to get you there, but there are a few funny bits you will want to look out for.  I also made a couple of alterations for what I was after. 

Inspiration and Alterations

My inspiration piece was this dress from the Met 

Metropolitan Museum of Art 1840-45

To achieve this look, I left the collar off the dress, which allows it to better carry into the 1840s. I finished the neck with a piece of bias tape I had cut for the piping. 

I also added the belt straps to tie at the waist. I was pleased to see several period examples with these. I'm a pretty busty gal, which makes baggy clothes unflattering. If things just hang off my bust without being cinched back in around the middle it looks like I have no waist. Incorporating these allowed me to tailor the garment to what flatters my figure in a period manner.

These were just 2 1/2 strips which I cut straight on the grain and hemmed on both sides with an angled end. I pinned them to the belt incorporated into the back piece before sewing the sides together.

The pattern called for a single hook and eye at the throat, but I added another at the bottom of the yoke. 

(inside out shot to show closures)

Things to watch for and quirks with the pattern 

This pattern did not come with a sizing chart I could find. I estimated mine as an 18 just based off measuring my back and front and holding those up to the pattern pieces. Luckily it is such a loose garment that you have a lot of wiggle room. 

I should have measured separately for my arms. After I had attached the top pieces of the sleeves and I tried them on, they felt just a *bit* snug. I was able to open the seems and add a small gusset to put in some more room, but I could have saved myself some time and trouble by just measuring ahead of time. 

The back piece on this came out 7 inches too long. No clue how or why, but after hacking 7 inches off the back it was fine *shrug*

The pattern calls for 6 1/2 yards of 45 inch wide fabric. I actually ended up with a little over a yard left. 

I had to piece the front pieces since they are so wide. I also pieced the back asymmetrically to save fabric, rather than in the two equal pieces the pattern calls for. By using one piece that was one width of the fabric plus a second length of the remaining width I needed, I ended up with a bigger chunk leftover which I could cut other pieces out of. Piecing for the most efficient use of fabric is the period mentality!

Lining fronts 
The front lining is attached at the bottom of the yoke and the side seam, but not the center front, and has a drawstring at the bottom. 

Floating lining (cue ghost noises)

The original pieces I cut out were not big enough on me- I had to add an extra inch to the front and 1 1/2 inches on the side. I should have added an extra inch on the bottom as well to make it meet up with the bottom of the back lining. 


I considered not including these since I had the external waist ties, but I kept them in as a way to finish those seams. Instead of sewing them all together into the seams, I folded them on top and hand stitched them in, as you can see above. 

Be sure to cut the bias strips for your piping wide enough that there will be a 1/2 seam allowance once the piping is in place. 

I did not do a very good job of this, which made it a bit  fussy stitching the belt to everything else, especially on the side seams and the bottom where you will attach the skirt gathers. 

Speaking of which- this pattern has some very exacting instructions for making 'cartridge pleats'.  I just used my cutting board to estimate 1/4 inch on each gather as I went. Much faster.

The instructions tell you to stitch the sleeves seam 'to the dot'. I sure couldn't find said dot anywhere on the pattern, so I just left two inches before the wrist and that seemed to work out fine. 

Et Voila!

I got this done in time for 200 Years on the Ohio last weekend, and it made such a difference in my experience. Having something comfortable to sit around in the morning over coffee with and hang out chatting in the evening with my friends made all the work more than worth it.

If you end up making this pattern, please let me know how it goes in the comments below!

Happy sewing!

Update 2.16.17:

This this is SO COMFORTABLE, that I have taken to wearing it around the house over my pajamas in the mornings and evenings. It's really wonderful.

I don't think I ever bother to tie down the internal drawstring, the ties I added made it superfluous.
They do wrinkle up very easily and become more string-like, so I have to iron them out again frequently.  This might only bother me because I'm a bit OCD, but if I had it to do again I would probably reinforce them somehow.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Bib Front Dress Part II: Fitting and Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned: Fitting and Asymmetry
Or, Not another learning experience! 

This is the second entry on this dress. You can read more here

The further along I go, the more I am realizing just how asymmetrical my body is. I knew my right shoulder slumped, so I asked Hannah to drape this on my left side where the shoulder is higher. Made sense at the time. 

Except I realized in this process that the left side of my bust is smaller. I realized this even fitting the mock-up where I could have taken a good inch more out of the left side, but the right looked fine.

Right Side- nice and smooth! 

Left Side- could take out almost an inch!

Luckily the seam allowance in the sleeve ate up a lot of the slack on the left, and fitting the shoulder straps helped with a lot of the rest.

Fitting on the body+ top-stitching= best thing ever. 

So the finished product fit my left side nicely.

However when I raise my arm the right side isn't big enough to keep from gaping with the skirt.


Actually, it really is a fixable issue. I've gotten better at pinning the front so it's harder for it to pop out (the key seems to be to really get the front straps *under* the bust). I can also add a hook and eye to keep it in place when I raise my arm, or maybe just an extra piece on the side bodice so it's longer.

SO- the moral of the story:

in future, I am going to drape on my right side, where the bust is bigger, and then I can just adjust the shoulders on the body to take out the extra bit on the right side. Makes perfect sense now, of course.

What issues have you run into with asymmetry? Let me know in the comments below!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Bib Front Dress, Pt I: Sources and Construction

You can read the second entry on this dress here

This was my first 'bib front' dress. The original pattern was draped on me by my friend Hannah, and I took elements from several primary source examples for the details. 

Photo by the lovely and talented Asha Ananda 

Sources and Inspiration 

I actually did this so I would have an earlier style of dress to go with this amazing red bonnet by Lynn McMasters. 

It was one of the prototypes for her Jockey Cap pattern, taken from an 1809 fashion plate. 


I copied the back pleats from this example in the Snowshill collection. (You can find it in Costume in Detail on page 95.)

I actually only did the outer pleats where the stitching would show by hand, the rest are done by machine. Early on I had some crazy idea that this would totally be the dress I just 'whipped' out for once (HA!).


I looked at a lot of examples with amazing details for these, but in the end settled on some simple top stitched darts.

You can see an example of these in this original on Betsy Bashore's website.

I included tapes on the inside to tie down a pad and another to tie around the waist.

There are several extant examples of tapes being used to help secure the fit of a dress, such as the bib front dress on page 52 of Patterns of Fashion.

Construction Techniques 

Skirt Sides 

One thing I've heard folks say is tricky on apron front skirts is having the opening on the side of the skirt lay flat. One way to do this is to cut an extra piece into the front panel of the skirt which can be laid over the back panel.

Fred is unimpressed at mommy's ingenuity.

There is an example of this graphed out in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion on page 49.

I sewed the sides of the skirt together right up to this point, then turned town the side of the back panel in the slit. 

Inside of skirt- front panel pushed aside for better view. 
It will end up in front of the back panel. 

I flat felled the side seam with the front seam allowance encasing the back. Snip the back and fold in place for the slit *before* you tack down the front felling bit- that way you can nicely wrap the back part of the slit up in your felling from the front. 

Next I folded the extra front piece over and pin in place over the back panel and sewed it down about an inch and a half up the slit. 

Outside of skirt- stitch about as far up as the pins. 

This way the front side nicely overlaps the back without creating any gaping. 

Skirt Bottom: Piecing 

I have really been thinking lately that we need to be doing more piecing in our recreations to be historically accurate. So many of the original examples are pieced, sometimes to a degree we can hardly imagine.

So of course the universe sent me something I would need to piece!

It may be hard to see, but there is a separate piece worked in between the bottom tuck and the hem.

The ornamentation on the bottom was originally on the side of fabric, perpendicular to the pattern. My original plan was to cut it and piece it onto the bottom.

 I also forgot to take the extra length for the tucks into account when I cut it, so I had to piece in an extra four inch piece between the main skirt and the trim. Careful what you wish for, I guess! 

Shoulder Straps 

I was able to take advantage of some of the wonderful skills I learned at the Burnley and Trowbridge Pelisse workshop here- fitting pieces on the body and then just top-stitching them in place. This was especially helpful when it came to the bust darts and shoulder straps.

Brian pinned them in place where they wanted to go for the best fit, and I just stitched them down.

Not only do I have asymmetrical shoulders (more on this in the next entry) but I found that adjusting from the shoulders was able to help with a lot of gaping and other fitting issues in the bust. 

This has already gotten pretty long, so I am going to save some of my fitting lessons learned for another post.

Till then- what do you all think about the terms 'bib front' vs. 'apron front'? I would generally use the first to refer to a garment like this where part of the bodice is attached to the skirt, and the second to a garment where the skirt is separate from the bodice but still on a string like this. However I feel like there is still some variance. 

Please let me know in the comments below!