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.