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.


  1. There's a difference to me, too, between first person and "character." First person is my 18th century persona--which, yes, could be considered a character in that she is not entirely nonfiction, clearly. However, I'm not occupying the role of another person--I'm not "Mrs. Smith of Philadelphia" whose personality and taste and beliefs are completely different from my own. There's certainly space for both, and I can appreciate people who are comfortable with one but not the other, or feel that a "character" is artificial but behaving appropriately to the historical context is comfortable (or vice versa--being yourself in a historical context is weird but adopting a fictional or historical persona is neat).

    1. I agree. I've actually been thinking a lot about that since posting this. I do think that coming at things from a performance standpoint helps gear what you are doing towards your visitors, but I would definitely feel way less weird about the whole thing if we just all agreed to leave the modern day behind for the weekend and incorporate period mannerisms and speech.

      Part of the problem always seems to be getting everyone on board with it, and I know a lot of that comes from the organization of the event you are at. When I look at a group like the LG interpreters or St. George, we are a cohesive unit that rehearses together and we can all agree to play by a set of rules. It's so much harder when you have a lot of different groups come together for the weekend.

      I think as a construct, saying 'I will be in character all weekend' helps a lot of people to not just start talking about the modern life, but other constructs could work as well. It's just a matter of getting everyone on the same page.