Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Role of First-Person Interpretation

Photo Credit: Lee Winchester
First-person interpretation in a living-history context is when a reenactor adopts a specific persona and does not wander from it; they are that one person in that one year. Historic sites often use this method to make the site seem more "real" for the visitors. Or does it?

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

First-person interpretation has an important role in living history, but one that must be carefully instituted otherwise it would lose its raison d'etre. I believe that there are two main "disconnects" between spectators and first-person interpreters: understanding what is a "show" versus what is "interactive" and knowledge of history.

Photo Credt: Helen Wirka
To address the first: understanding what is a "show" and what is "interactive." I wonder if spectators would feel more comfortable if museums or historical sites prepared them in advance for first-person interpretation. Perhaps when advertising for an event, the historical site could promote it as "interactive." By listing it as such, it might allow the visitors to prepare themselves and to go in knowing that their participation is expected. That being said, many museum-goers are still accustomed to the "look but don't touch" mantra of the traditional museum. One possible way for spectators to voluntarily opt in to interacting would be if the historical site offered a sticker or similar object that would indicate that the visitor wearing it is willing and ready to participate. Those interested in the old-school museum/historical site experience can also enjoy the event, but in their own way and through observation.

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.

As for the second disconnect--the lack of knowing what the reenactors know--perhaps museums or sites could distribute the information. When purchasing tickets, it might be helpful for the first-person interpretation site to offer the visitors a "conversation" card (example at left) that lists things most people would know at that time and place, talking-points about "current events," as well as common phrases. This wouldn't have to be complex, and indeed it should be simple, but it would help to bridge the anxiety and pressure that spectators often feel when not knowing how to participate.

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
Now these ideas only apply to the historical sites, so how can an individual reenactor navigate through all this? As I mentioned before, I personally don't care to take on a first-person role. I feel that keeps the spectators at an arms-length away and it prevents me from using all my resources as a teacher. They tend to be shy and unsure of themselves (even if they really know the history) and while I can explain how to start a fire with flint and steel, I found that by connecting it to a modern lighter, spectators tend to relate more effectively. All of that being said, sometimes I do have to adopt a person for a special event. How can I also reach out to spectators and not alienate them?

The biggest take-away from this (as I might say to my students), is that if the person is unwilling to participate, then do not force them to. If the museum or historical site does not offer a way for spectators to opt-in or -out (like the aforementioned stickers), then it's on you to decide whom to interact with and when. Obviously, the best scenario is one in which the spectators start the conversation, but you can't always rely on that. You need to use your best judgement to determine who wants to engage in dialogue with you.

One of my favorite things to do is present an easy question that almost forces the spectator to agree with what will become my argument. "Bonjour madam. I am _____ sent here by the governor of Canada to seek justice. Tell me, do you agree that it was unjust that Washington killed a French ambassador in cold blood?" Of course the event surrounding the "Battle" of Jumoville's Glen was far more complicated, but if I'm a French officer trying to gain support for France, I'm going to manipulate the facts. Call it propaganda. Regardless, I usually get a "yes." That's all I need. I greeted the visitor, didn't stand there awkwardly waiting for an embarrassed reply, but went right into my question. I put the effort of starting a dialogue in my hands, since I was prepared for this whole event and she wasn't. I also purposefully asked a question that was void of many facts and provided my own information (propaganda). She didn't need to know any background information (and I was kind of counting on it). I then immediately follow-up with a brief background on why I'm here, provide a little more specific information and ask a follow-up question that's purely opinion-based and gets the spectator thinking about the current issues.

This manner of interacting with the public is different than what I wrote in a previous post about engaging spectators. When doing first-person interpretation, you can't link modern things, people, or events to what you're doing; that would be anachronistic. Instead, the greatest tool in your kit is your--and their--humanity. Human traits like greed, lust, survival, and pride are present in most historical events. If you can't be a 21st century person in period clothes, then your best option for staying in character while interacting with 21st century spectators is to appeal to their humanity.

So my suggestion, as a living historian, who wants to engage spectators while doing first-person interpretation is to:
  1. 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?
  2. 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).
  3. Ask an opinion-based question that does not require any background knowledge but works with your earlier-chosen human trait.
  4. Following their answer, feed them more information and be slightly more specific.
  5. 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.
One way that I've seen go wrong (unbeknownst to the sites) is when two reenactors debate each other and then turn to individuals in the crowd and demand their opinion (usually looking for support). While I admire the idea and know that this works very well in a classroom, as a reenactor who doesn't have a whole year to establish a comfortable learning environment, this is not the best plan. When asked to join in an active argument, most spectators shut down or are hesitant to participate, lest they get something wrong or offend the other character. You'll occasionally see someone--like at the Salem Witch Museum--shouting "burn her!" but that is a rare customer. By creating a performance and demanding participation at the end, the switch from "observation" to "interaction" is too quick for comfort and results in the example I mentioned at the very beginning of this post: embarrassment. If you're trying to get them involved, you're more apt to confuse them and make them anxious. It's much clearer to the public if you leave the performance as an "observe" experience. Perhaps the reenactors can then separate after the performance and interact with the public as previously mentioned.

Before you participate in any event, think to yourself: why am I doing this? If it's for the public (some events are not), then determine what you want the spectators to get out of it and which approach will be the most successful: first- or third-person interpretation. Regardless of what you choose, just remember that you're a teacher, whether you acknowledge it or not.

Upcoming Topics:

  • 1710s Kit: Part 2
  • "A doublet of fustian... and breeches of canvas"
  • Camp Diversions


  1. I remember my first trip to Plimouth Plantation, and I was a reenactor — several made negative comments about the way we were dressed, and any modernly-worded question got the dumb look. It was an interesting challenge to get the question right, but as you pointed out it was embarrassing for the visitor. My next visit, some years later, their programs had vastly improved.
    Comments about visitors' "funny clothes" are embarrassing and drive a wedge between the reenactor and visitor. Maybe that's the intention for some? Relating the historic era to theirs can start from them being the same, rather than pointing out the differences.
    This was the difference I saw, with questions and comments handled skillfully.
    Another reenactor pointed out that there is a simple difference between first and third person: I could say "they would have done it this way" or "I am doing it this way." I don't have to perform as a character to be in first person. By relating to my actions in first person, I can invite visitors to see it that way, too.

    1. I'm sorry that you had a bad first experience at Plimouth Plantation. I've never had the opportunity to visit, but from very recent posts I've seen about it, it looks like they now have a solid program there.

      You point out a big pet peeve of mine concerning reenactor-public relations: when individuals are in character, one "strategy" is to pick on spectator's common clothing (by 21st century standards) to highlight how different the fashion is. That's not engaging with the public, that's almost a form of bullying, albeit the reenactor is attempting to do it light-heartedly. All this really ever accomplishes is embarrassment and nervous chuckling.
      I hope that living historians can move on from this and invite spectators into a meaningful dialogue by relating on human or shared-experience level.

  2. Hi Clayton,

    Interesting review of our plight. It's true that a somewhat more fluid approach, in terms of what you described above, is a necessity in our tool kit as interpreters and reenactors.

    My organization does an interpretation of a Highland unit during the French and Indian period of the 7 years war. Our setting is usually an encampment at a historic site or sometimes within a historic site. I believe you are somewhat familiar with :) Sometimes this plays a role in how we approach our audience but often times zero guidance is given by the host site as you pointed out in your review.

    I can definitely agree with your observation that it is imperative to be able to try to identify those visitors who want the voyer experience and those who are willing or interested in delving a bit deeper and interacting.

    While deciding which perspective you as an individual or a group are going to take, I think it is also important to realize when it is ok to break it and become anachronistic (gasp). Some visitors once you've reeled them in are interested in why and how about what is you're doing; also an effective recruiting tool conversation. However, I guess my observation is let the visitors guide your approach.

    1. Hi Will, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I know your unit pretty well (and hope to see you again sometime soon), and I know you guys take education seriously.

      I wish the sites would work more to prepare spectators for the experience. While they can consider us just another exhibit, they could get so much more out of it if they properly prepared. It doesn't even have to be big things--giving spectators the stickers I mentioned in the post or handing out conversation cards--but it would more than likely heighten their experiences and encourage them to come back. There's no reason why sites and museums can evolve to meet new standards of learning and entertainment.

      I also agree that first-person reenactors can switch to their modern historian to help answer questions and guide spectators' learning. If someone really wants to learn, we should encourage it. As you mentioned in your comment and as I alluded to in my post, living historians should determine their approach based on the visitors.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I frequently get surprised and delighted looks when I start my first-person by asking for help: "young lady, have you seen my yarn? I laid it by and lost it"... (It's in very plain sight). The one thing I never could do first-person was nursing my son; the visitors just asked such insane questions that I couldn't stay in character no matter what i tried!

    1. I can only imagine! There are times when it's best to set your character aside for a moment and interact as an historian. If you tell the spectator this--that you're momentarily stepping into your 21st-century character for a moment--they usually look more relaxed and less "guarded;" like they're talking to a "real person" now.
      But your way of engaging spectators in the first-person is a great example of side-stepping embarrassing "confrontations" and gives you an in for conversation about spinning, knitting, or clothing. It also has the added benefit of allowing the spectators to interact with material culture in a hands-on manner. I like it!
      Thanks for commenting!

  4. I'm a storyteller as well as a 1st person interpreter. The way I get people engaged is my "story box". It's a large wooden box filled with various odds and ends I've picked up over the years. Some of them I'm not even sure what they were originally used for. But I'll be just sitting in the shade and I'll randomly pull something out of the box and start "working"on it, like I'm cleaning, polishing, or repairing it. Before long a crowd will begin to gather to see what I'm doing. Sooner or later someone, most often one of the younger kids, will ask me what it is. And I'll say it's my such and such that I picked up when I was down in so and so. I'll pause for a second . . . Then add "would you like to hear the story of how I got it?"

    At which point I stand up, tell them to sit down and relax, then it's off to the races. And for the next half hour to forty-five minutes they are mine. Like the article was saying, about being careful not to scare them off when you first approach them, I avoid it by coaxing them into approaching me instead. Then I get them relaxed with some outlandish tall tale before I start getting into the factual/educational part of my talk. Works well with mixed age, family groups.

    1. What a wonderful way to interact with the public! I like that you leave it open for spectators to interact with you if they want or just watch you do stuff. Plus, who doesn't love a good story?
      I've done a similar approach when I'm working on something at an event like inletting a lock into a stock. I found that if I just set to work, people will congregate around me to see what I'm doing and they'll initiate the conversation by asking what I'm up to. Creating the atmosphere for learning is key and you know you did it right when the visitors start the conversation first.
      Thanks for commenting!

  5. I'm glad you mentioned Carlyle House, as they use a method which often quite helpful: Docents in modern clothing who can answer modern questions, without anyone feeling like they hsve to breech the first-person experience. These Docents, simply by being there, make it easier for we interpreters to interact with the public, without eitger side feeling like they have to be careful about breaking "rules". A similar approach, particularly useful at encampments and timelibes, is what I call an "Under the Rope Person"; a member of the group, in period dress, who can be the primary public contact, while tge rest of the group stays in first person. As a member of the public, I always enjoyed seeing first person, but it could be awkward trying to frame a question in a way the interpreter could answer, in character. If I wanted to know whether the fire had been started with flint and steel, or was actually a gas fire, (for fire safety reasons, to guarantee the ability to have a fire regardless of weather, or whatever, without being able to openly ask, I might stummble into asking "is that a REAL fire?" So sich questions might not be because of THEIR limitations, but because of OURS. GReat blog post, BTW!

    1. Thanks Buzz. The Carlyle House definitely does a great job, though admittedly, I don't get to see much docent-public interaction since Frenchmen aren't allowed in the house.
      I do appreciate your point about having one PR member of your group to help interact with the spectators outside of first-person. That's a great idea that could definitely circulate more among other units.
      Thanks for commenting!

  6. I am constantly looking and researching ways to engage people with what I am doing. I can chairs and often get comments like, "my grandfather use to do that".
    When a family with school age children approach, I ask them to help me measure my front rail starting point, but I don't have a measuring tool. I have them look around my camp to find things I could use. Then walk them through finding the "difference" measure for my "mark" to place the reed so the weave will be square. They love it and they learn to think out of the box.
    I also ask very interested children if they would like to weave some.

    1. Those are great ways to get the public engaged. As I mentioned in a previous comment, having spectators interact with the material culture is a great way to make the information relevant and also get them interested. I particularly like the way you get them to use critical thinking to solve a real problem /while/ interacting with the material culture.
      Thanks for commenting!

  7. I like your article alot. Most points are well-taken and I found that I adhere already to most of them. You have to back off if a visitor is less than eager, you must know when to break character because it's almost impossible to remain so all the time (I do the late Roman period, my act is usually a poll tax collector).
    Fun is always the main goal, with the added target of teaching people a few facts on the go. Go for the kids and attract the adults while you're at it. I try not to correct, other than to start a discussion around the topic - if visitors get nasty I'm cutting it short.

    I must say that I disliked that teacher's comment. I suspect (hope not) that the gentlemen was simple unused to connecting with his audience, and simply could not get used to anything other than someone delivering a lecture.

    1. Thank you Vortigern and I'm happy that you're setting a good example for living historians. Being comfortable is a major part of an individual's ability to learn, and one that is often overlooked.
      My goal for these blog posts is not to change practices, but to inspire living historians to critically think about how they approach education. I do hope though that lecture-style living historians, most of all, will pick up some ideas that I've mentioned to better engage and educate the public.
      Thanks for commenting!

    2. Hi Clayton, I do American Civil War Navy Living History in California and we as a group are more about teaching than about being strictly in character, even though we have authentic uniforms, equipment, encampments, etc. This seems to respond better to the public to talk and explain about what happened during that time period, explain about the clothing, the weapons, and about anything else we have, and then we do a demonstration, and then we ask if anyone has any questions, which usually ends up with folks asking more detailed questions. Several of us are very knowledgeable about our subject matter and have thoroughly researched it, so we can tell even more about role and the history of the navy and the marines in during the civil war and things that folks will not learn in school but from living historians like ourselves. I can be contacted at

    3. Thank you for the compliment Ivan! I've sent you an email asking you more about your project. It sounds like you guys have a great living history program out on the west coast.
      Thanks for commenting!

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