|Photo Credit: Lee Winchester|
I was first inspired to write this post when I read the comments on a friend's Facebook posting. My friend tossed out a question as her status about what her friends felt was "the opposite of fun." One of the responses, from a teacher, was: "historical reenactors [when] I'm supposed to indulge their solo performance like it's normal. It gives me the WORST secondhand embarrassment of all time." What surprised me was not this comment but my lack of surprise at reading it.
What if most visitors really just get lost right from the beginning with the initial greeting from a first-person interpreter? Perhaps you've been to one of these historic sites or events--maybe you did first-person interpretation yourself. When the historical figure greeted the visitor ("Good day," "Madam," "Sir," etc.), how did the visitor react? In my experience, I've seen them hesitate, uncomfortably return the same reply, not respond while walking away, or sometimes just awkwardly reply "hi." Regardless of their response, they've almost always crept back within themselves, becoming more reluctant to respond for fear of "ruining the moment," answering in a way that is inappropriate to the period (i.e. using 21st century phrasing), or non-consentingly feeding a performance, as in the earlier example. So does first-person historical interpretation have a role in living history when the goal is education and visitor-involvement?
My personal philosophy at living history events is not to be in character while talking to the public. I want the spectators to be comfortable to the point that they will ask their own questions and actively learn. When put on the spot or compelled to partake in a performance unexpectedly, most people experience anxiety and embarrassment. If a spectator purchased a ticket to see a reenactment or visit a museum, they consented to a form of learning involving the receiving of information. What if you bought a ticket to see a movie, sat in your seat at the theater, began watching the film, and then suddenly the movie pauses and one of the actors greets you and expects you to respond in front of the audience without providing any context or information? It'd probably startle you and, being put on-the-spot, you might feel unsure of how to answer properly and perhaps a little embarrassed. But what if you knew this was going to happen?
Bridging the Gap
|Photo Credt: Helen Wirka|
The museum or historical site might also indicate "boundaries;" that is to say, when a spectator could interact with the living historians and when it would be inappropriate to. This might apply more to reenactments where battles or demonstrations are happening or at sites like Colonial Williamsburg where they put on reenactor-only performances.
To download a .pdf of this example I made using the Braddock Day event (at the Carlyle House in Alexandria, VA) as my inspiration, click here. If you would like the Word template I used for free, please send me a request using the "Contact Me" form on the right; I would love to see this used!
As a Reenactor
|Photo Credit: Alexa Price|
- Decide what human trait you plan to hook the spectators with when you begin your conversation. Are you going to emphasize survival at your frontier fort/town? Are you going to emphasize honor in your military cause? How about pride in the family you've started?
- Greet them (this notifies them that it's time to interact) and immediately provide some context (don't wait for them to respond to your greeting).
- Ask an opinion-based question that does not require any background knowledge but works with your earlier-chosen human trait.
- Following their answer, feed them more information and be slightly more specific.
- Ask them more opinion-based questions about what you just told them. If you're really good, this is when you can get a feel for what really interests them and where you can turn to next in your conversation.
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