Saturday, April 3, 2010

For Those Who Are Interested, Here's A Guide To Help Accent Your Reenacting Experience

The reenacting season is getting ever-so close for us here in Michigan, and I got the fever, especially with this beautiful weather we've been having of late. So please pardon me if I write a bit more on the subject, as this is a great outlet for me while I wait in great anticipation for our first event to take place.
Understand, please, that I do not consider myself any great authority on living history (although I hope to be one day!), nor do I claim to be. I do, however, study social history and have spoken with not only other reenactors, but have consulted living history museums as well in the hopes to perfect my impression. I know what has worked for me and many others of whom I associate with, and it just might work for you as well.

As you may already know, the two Civil War units I belong to take great pride in authenticity, and I like to think that I have played a small part in raising the accuracy bar, at least for one of the groups.
For this posting I would like to present a few ways to accent your living history experience, and thus, will not only (hopefully) take you to a new level of reenacting, but may also accent the spectator's experience as well.

How inaccurate living history would be without children

To me, the goal of the living historian is to make the visitors feel as if they stepped back in time to the early 1860's, to do our best to give an immersion experience. In other words, to give the visitor (as well as ourselves) the feeling of connecting with their past in such a way they have never encountered...almost a time-travel experience for all involved.
The first and most basic step in completing this immersion excursion is to be vigilant in the accuracy of your appearance - clothing as well as your setting. If one does not look authentic, everything else is for naught. Remember, you yourself constitute a vital element of this atmosphere. You must do your utmost to ensure that your appearance, actions/mannerisms, and manner of speaking evokes the past. This tells so much of the story.
As for the site in which we are presenting ourselves as one from the past, we must remove those things that remind folks of the 21st century, whether the items are upon our person or within our site. This vigilance allows living historians to maintain the appropriate appearance for the era they represent, in this case, the early 1860's. One can do this in numerous ways, the most effective being to learn what is appropriate and what is not, not only in appearance but also in mannerisms. This is harder than it sounds, but there are plenty of knowledgeable living historians about to guide you on this as well as numerous period etiquette books.
Remove non-period items from the visitor's (and your own) sight. Step to the edge of your site and look around. Do you see anything that might be considered farby? If so, how can you hide or disguise it? Sometimes it can be done as simply as covering a cooler with a cloth.

These women have done a wonderful job in their very authentic portrayal of the U.S. Christian Commission

That your site can give the resemblance as if it's from 1862 is not enough, however. One must also pay attention to what is beyond the appearance of the reenactor's camp area. We must do our best, as difficult as this can be, to make sure the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) of both living historian and spectator also give the impression that they are from the past. What could be worse to a living historian than having their cell phone go off while speaking to 1st person?? Turn the phones off, or at least put them on silent or vibrate to be viewed when the opportunity arises. I have seen first hand this happen, much to the embarrassment of the reenactor. (Of course, it does make for good teasing and stories to tell afterwards, now doesn't it?).
If the inside of your tent is filled with farby items then make sure you tie the opening flaps closed to ensure no unwanted visitors enter - also, be aware that when you enter "the farb zone" that the visitor's vision is out of line with the entrance way. They should never be aware of our modern, behind the scenes "support." If you need something from your cooler, use a code word. For instance, folks during the time in which we emulate had cellars. What did they keep in their cellars? Pretty much the same type of items we keep in our coolers. So, instead of going to your cooler, you are now going to your "cellar." How about that all-important item you left in your car or van that you must retrieve? "I will be back shortly," you say. "I must go to my carriage to get my...(whatever it is you need)."
Pretty simple.
Think of the movie "Somewhere in Time:" remember how things went pretty well (considering) for Richard in his time-travel excursion back to 1912? That is, until, unexpectedly, he pulled out a 1979 penny from his pocket, and that one little farb moment totally ruined all he had worked toward to meet this woman of 60 years earlier...and he found himself, beyond his control, hurdled back to his own time.

An ill father rests while his 'daughters' spend quiet time ensuring his comfort

There are, of course, exceptions to all of this. Besides our own enjoyment, we are also there for the public, to hopefully teach them history as best as our own knowledge will allow. One excellent way to do this is to incorporate a combination of 1st person and a 3rd person ideology, where, without stepping out of your 1863 zone, you can answer any questions a visitor may have, or even easily explain your impression. After all, we don't want to scare folks away either. If you're not sure what is appropriate to say, do not be afraid to pass along the visitor to a reenactor who might answer the question in the appropriate manner. Then observe...watching and studying others is the very best way to learn this process - - this takes practice and I suggest you do just this: practice, practice, practice. Have meetings (period dress, of course!) with your membership based on this. We have, at times, made it a game where if one says or does anything farby or unappropriate, a quarter must be put into a (hidden from the public) jar. Then afterward, the money can be used for whatever the group decides. Hopefully, there isn't enough in the jar to do much at all!
So, ask yourself a few questions for your living history/time-travel excursion: which of the five senses fit appropriately into your 1860's presentation? The sights, sounds, smells, touch, and, yes, even taste? Which don't? Are all farby items properly hidden? How do you carry yourself? Do you sound appropriate? Do you look and act like you belong? This mindset can help you maintain the period ambiance of your site.

Of course, there are some things we cannot control: an airplane flying overhead, sometimes modern vehicles rumbling by, or any number of 21st century intrusions. One must learn to overlook and ignore such distractions and carry on as if they weren't there. Again, not always easy, but necessary.
And for the visitor (for most of our events take place where the public enjoy roaming about and asking questions), remember when you were once the one roaming and asking questions. Did you feel you were welcomed into the reenactor's camp site? Did they willingly answer your questions? Or did you feel like you were intruding?
As a reenactor, do you treat the visitor how you would like to be treated? Do you answer the questions happily or do you come off like the visitor is bothersome? If a visitor is uncertain about entering your site, do you call them over or do you ignore them, hoping they'll go away?

Doc Ramus does an excellent medical impression and includes the public in his presentations

One of our newest members, before joining our group, thought one had to be invited or in some sort of a special club to be a reenactor. She had no idea that anyone could join. She said that she was ignored at virtually every campsite she went to.
That's a shame.
I wonder how many other living historian wannabe's were ignored in that manner?

Authenticity and accuracy in every way is of utmost importance in living history. Nothing farby about these gentlemen!

As living historians, the last thing we should ever do is to turn folks off of history. It should be our goal to turn folks on to history, in a friendly, fun, and accurate way.
Anyhow, that's my two cents, for what it's worth. I would never expect everyone to follow my lead, but if I gave you any ideas, then the time I've just spent typing this out was worth it.
Hope you all have a great season!


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