Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Extreme Reenacting?

Reenacting definitions:

MAINSTREAMERS - use general-line clothing and accessories from sutler-row and usually exhibit a "this is only a hobby" mentality. Mainstreamers are generally accurate in their outward presentations.

PROGRESSIVES – are reenactors that reach the stage when they begin making an all out effort (within the limits of their finances) to get things as right as possible. They'll usually have an increased interest in doing Living History, and a 1st Person mentality prevails.

HARDCORE - This is the big leagues where complete immersion is the goal. Finances be d***ed, there are no excuses to be made at this level. Do it right or don't do it.
The 21st Michigan has some very good progressive-to-hardcore reenactors in its midst
And just for the sake of completeness, FARBS  are reenactors who spend relatively little of their time or money maintaining authenticity with regard to clothing, accessories, or even period behavior. The 'Good Enough' attitude is pervasive among farbs, although even casual observers may be able to point out flaws.

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Recently, the National Geographic Channel had a special show about "Extreme Reenactors." I'm not sure why I became all excited over it except maybe because I figured that it was on National Geographic and not the History Channel ("where the past is history"), therefore would do justice to the world of reenactors.
The first mistake I made was thinking that anything produced by a such a corporate station would present living history in a truthful and accurate manner.
The title, however, "Extreme Reenactors," is very intriguing, isn't it? Wow! They're not doing something on plain old everyday mainstream reenactors, but those who take it beyond the norm.
Well, it wasn't so, Joe.
There was nothing unusual about the reenactors that were portrayed. In fact, it showed a few as being more farby than even mainstream, much less extreme; plastic water bottles and jugs, god-awful 'deaths,' automobiles in the background...they almost seem to go out of their way to show that reenactors do not take this hobby as seriously as the public is lead to believe.
Not that the group portrayed was necessarily a farby group. They just seemed to be portrayed in that manner.
But, there was absolutely nothing about Extreme Reenactors that was remotely extreme (which, by the way, most in the know tend to refer to them as 'hardcore' rather than extreme).
The fact is, most of who practice extreme/hardcore reenacting prefer not to do events for the public but, rather, for their own benefit and pleasure. A good example of this is the 20 mile march that numerous Michigan infantrymen from differing units participate in every June: they walk in the Michigan forests for 10 miles on the first day as if marching to the next battle, camping in the thicket overnight, and then they walk back the 10 miles the second day.
Although it's only for two days, the soldiers get a fair idea of what it was like - more than a progressive, and infinitely more than the mainstream reenactor -  by carrying with them only what a soldier of the 1860's would have had, including food; no pop tarts or other modern snacks allowed, no modern water bottles or jugs, not a motorized vehicle in site, no cell phones (except for the person in charge, and it is only used in case of an emergency). They cross streams, brave the inclement weather, and, if they don't have a tent, they sleep out in the open.

I would say that's a bit more extreme than what most mainstream and many progressive reenactors do.
And I have friends that will also go and live for two or three days in the forest with no provisions. They'll have their musket and their knife and survive for a full weekend (or longer) on their wit and skills alone, eating whatever they can kill and drinking from whatever water and game they can find.
That's extreme.
That's hardcore.
So what they gave the public on this National Geographic show was, more or less, an extreme joke rather than extreme reenacting.
Oh yeah, we laughed quite a bit.
For civilian reenactors/living historians, hardcore reenacting can be a little harder to come by. Let's face it, very few citizens of the 1860's lived in tents as we see them at reenactments. Yeah, I know...we pretend that our tents are our wood-frame period homes, but it's just that: pretending.
A few of us civilians get lucky every-so-often and are allowed to portray 1860's life in actual 150 year old structures, but that doesn't occur as often as we'd like, for there aren't that many period homes to hold all that may want to do this. But when we do have the opportunity to make a historic house our home, if even for only a few hours, we attempt to take it as far as we are allowed.
For the most part, however, that is very limited due to the fact that although it's a home, it is also a museum.
The Civilians of the 21st Michigan and the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society can really get into a progressive mindset
To be honest, extreme civilian reenacting would mean not just utilizing a period home for a few hours during the day, but to actually live in said home, including cooking on the kitchen woodstove, using the furniture, sleeping on the beds in the bedrooms, etc., for at least a weekend.
This is my dream, by the way.
To do this would be almost impossible, if only because I have not heard of  any historic place that would allow such living history to happen. (Yes, I know about living history museums, but the presenters are designated to a certain area, sit only on certain furniture, and do not get to sleep there).

Another form of hardcore civilian reenacting takes it beyond anything I would ever do;  21st Michigan member, Larissa explained of her hardcore civilian adventure called "Into the Piney Woods." This event took place in Louisiana - three years ago to the date of her telling us the story, and she told how she and four others dressed in their period clothing and ventured into the 'piney woods' to get away from the Yankees, who had entered and terrorized their village. 

"Into the Piney Woods" - before the adventure (photo courtesy of Larissa Fleishman)

For three days and nights three girls and two guys survived in the rain and heat and even cold by their wits, sleeping under a make-shift lean-to made of pine bow tree branches that really didn't give them much protection, eating only the period food they could carry with them, and remaining in 1st person the entire time (nothing modern except medicine for health reasons were allowed so the photos you see are at the beginning and end of their adventure). They spent most of the three days soaked to the skin and could not readily return to their vehicle even if they wanted to, for they were over over six miles deep in the unfamiliar woods from civilization.

"Into the Piney Woods" - after three days of rain, heat, and cold (photo courtesy of Larissa Fleishman)
To portray southern refugees in this manner is about as hardcore as a civilian can get! And yes, there was some crying during the three days.
I admire this group of "civilian campaigners" for what they did.

As you can see, the National Geographic show was way off the mark in the title and premise of Extreme Reenactors. As I've mentioned in previous postings, those of us who practice living history and reenacting are very much like the classic car owner who makes sure every minute detail of his 1957 Chevy is as exact as when it was on the car lot in '57, or the rare stamp collector that is willing to spend thousands of dollars on a stamp because something may have been inverted, or even the Beatles collector who absolutely has to have the extremely rare straight out of the factory first-state Yesterday and Today butcher cover, which has a current mono value of $7500 and stereo of $12,000 in mint condition.
Can a living history/reenactor put themselves in that same category as the hobbyists mentioned above?  Ask someone in the artillery. Ask a cavalryman. Heck - just read a posting I wrote a few months back that explains the time and basic cost of reenacting.
We take our own living history hobby seriously, so when we see shows on a supposed respected TV station we would hope that they just might get it right.
Well, maybe one day they will.

 ~(Please click HERE and HERE for more examples of living history that go beyond the norm)~



Annette Bethke said...

My thoughts exactly Ken. I saw many good impressions in the show, and many reenactors doing it right, but nothing extreme about it, other than the heat. It was just a reenactment, with cell phones, trucks and some very bad female costumes, yes costumes. What I saw on the show at the reenactment didn't come close to period dress. However, the women in Florida, at the house, were spot on!

Stephanie Ann said...

I didn't see the whole thing but am starting to feel a little exploited by magazines and T.V. shows giving the "real scoop." :)

I know their goal is to sell product and to appeal to a wide audience, but I feel like they missed the "basics" of reenacting so much. Don't they have Google? :D

As a side note, not everything is "extreme," especially the people they portrayed. Maybe some people like extreme but I honestly don't think living like a 1800s person is all that extreme. Different? Yes. Doable? Yes. :D

carolina said...

In my current work (hearth cooking at various historic sites), I aim for "hardcore," while knowing that being "progressive" is all that's possible. Sadly, it's often more than is expected or even desired by the folks at some sites, where the "mainstreamer" attitude of "good enough" reigns. I usually ignore them, though, and carry on as I see fit. Or I go where expectations are either higher or (at least) are accepted and accommodated. I think it's all a direct result of my having worked for several years at a living history museum. It's all so deeply ingrained, that I CAN'T do otherwise. BTW, every so often at that museum (back then, at least), interpreters had the opportunity to spend two days and one night "living" onsite, eating, sleeping, doing "historic" activities, etc. It was before those all-mighty cell phones, tho. And we did utilize the modern bathroom facilities. But even on "Tales from the Green Valley," where people "lived" history for 12 months, it was noted that the group couldn't actually, truly live at the site due to modern health codes.

Historical Ken said...

Annette - I believe the reenactors are probably very good, but it was the way they were presented that put them in a bad light.

Stephanie Ann - That's the whole point, isn't it, to sell a product. Imagine, however, if they were to follow real hardcore reenactors - soldier and/or civilian. That would grab the attention of the audience, eh? They would definitely think we were nuts for doing it, but at least it would be more authentic.

Carolina - I am envious of you and your jobs, past and present. And how lucky to get to actually live, even if only for that weekend, in a historic house!
I also do presentations at historical societies, schools, and other organizations. I attempt to remain in first person except when asked a question that requires a 3rd person answer.

I watched the show a second time last night (dvr) and saw the potential - again, I believe the reenactors themselves were not the problem - it's just too bad the film makers didn't have the proper direction and guidance.

PvtSam75 said...

This makes me VERY GLAD that I don't get the Nat Geo channel...

I agree with Stephanie Ann, I'm starting to think that we ara all being turned into monkeys in zoos. I did see the "reenacting" story in the most recent Nat Geo-FOUR PICTURES? And everyone of them had something modern in the background. I understood the artist's take, but there was no explanation, no nothihng about the hobby. Just four pictures. As usual, we're being looked ast the wrong way by the outside.

I wouldn't consider myself to be hardcore, but my unit is fairly progressive. We have standards, but I definitely wouldn't consider most of us to be extreme!

Michael W. said...

Here's another way of looking at it. The title "Extreme Reenactors" could be a shill to the average person flipping channels and let's face it, to the public, for the most part "This thing of ours" IS extreme. I know I am preaching to the choir but how many times have you done something very simple, say, scraping a cow horn to make a cup or perhaps knotting a lanyard for a rigging knife. People will stand there for HOURS just watching and asking questions. People just can't understand why we do what we do and the concept of making what you need rather than running down to Wally-World and buying it jut absolutely blows their minds.

I don't know where I fall in the list that you have. I believe I hit all three classifications. I do my very best to be as accurate in every thing I do, but sometimes I have a Diet Pepsi in my mug rather than plain water. It all depends on what kind of mood I am. It's like I tell the folks in my unit. While I may take my presentation very serious, I NEVER, EVER take myself that seriously. If I ever do that, well it's time to move on to another area of interest.

B.T.W. Ken I've enjoyed reading your blog and I also enjoy keeping up with what you fine folks are doing "Up Yonder"

Historical Ken said...

Michael W,
What you wrote makes a lot of sense. It really is amazing what some might consider extreme. But I suppose to then even staying over night in a tent (and not a camper) is extreme.
I appreciate your thoughtful insight and kind comments.

Yeah, I have that issue of Nat. Geo...I, too, was very disappointed. The photos, no matter how artsy the photographer is trying to be, really does take away from the whole picture (so to speak) and makes what we do look, well, silly.

Michael W. said...

I finally had a chance to sit down and watch the "Extreme Reenacting" program on Nat Geo.

It was pretty much what I expected.

It reminded me of what happened a few years back with the folks at P.B.S. They had a concept program I think it was called "Colonial Homestead" and the idea was to transplant a bunch of modern folks into a 1600's period farm and see how they could cope. They were advertising for recruits all over the place and a buddy of mine sent in his application with all of his qualifications and experiences in the Living history field. The production company sent him a
"Thanks but no thanks" letter. That same buddy, used a different address and sent another application in, completely different in tone and listing no experience. The cover letter made it sound like my buddy would go through withdrawal symptoms without his computer, and thought that meat comes from a cooler in the grocery store. Wouldn't you know that the production company sent him three or four replies as well as a phone call about how interested they were in him, how he sounded like he would be "perfect" for the show.

It seems that most of these programs are not looking for a true representation of recreating the past. Rather they are looking for strangeness, drama, crisis and failure. That's what passes for entertainment these days, mores the pity.

Historical Ken said...

I had heard about the way PBS found volunteers for their "House" shows but what you write more or less confirms it.
One needs only to look at the British "House" shows to see they do a great job - living historians trying to live in the past and viewers seeing through a portal in time. The show on Victorian Farming is a fine example of this sort of thing done right and the American Colonial House to show how not to do it.
I appreciate your insight Michael. Thanks.

Cabbage Stack said...

"....we did utilize the modern bathroom facilities."
Then you're just farby ! No two ways around it. Don't carry cell phone but it's OK to crap in the portapottie? Selective farbyness. Basically whether progressive or farby, most if not all, reenactments are nothing but themed camping trips.