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!