Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Immersion Experience (with a strong dose of Living History)

I would like to preface this posting in hopes that it doesn't come off in the wrong way, lest anyone think of me as a living history snob. Though I participate in as many forms of reenacting that one is able (yes, even some 'parking lot' events), I am writing here specifically on one type - immersion - with a strong lean on living history, and therefore am excluding the other forms.
You have been forewarned...
(By the way, I am by no means claiming to be an expert here; these are my own thoughts, opinions, and ideas about the immersion experience) - - - - - - 

im'mer'sion (ih-mur-zhun, -shun)
state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorption 

As I delve deeper into the world of living history I find myself wanting to experience a state of total immersion into the mid-19th century. More and more the feeling grows of wanting to sense the feeling of "I am there."
Of wanting to sense the dizziness of "I really traveled through time - I made it!"
And taking every step to make sure that when I transport myself into the past that there is no 1979 penny to unwittingly "bring me back to the future" ~(remember that scene from the movie "Somewhere in Time" when Richard Collier, after traveling through time to 1912, discovers a penny from 1979 that immediately brings him back to his original time in the future? If not, click HERE and bump up to 6:30 on the video to rattle your memory banks and see what farb can do!).
I have been very lucky to have experienced full immersion a number of times. Mostly, however, my immersions have been almost full immersions - - - really fine experiences that, for all intents and purposes, were about 90% there.
It's the 10% that I need to work on.
Now, by using (and agreeing with) the above definition please allow me to clarify a bit here my addition explanation to the definition and opinion of just what an immersion experience is:
Have you ever stepped into a restored historic house and it seemed to totally engulf your every being? Where the sight, sound, smell, and touch of the past almost literally consumed you? Yeah? Now, imagine that feeling while wearing period clothing.
Do you feel it?
With that in mind, imagine seeing others in period clothing while in that same situation. Remember, nothing modern in sight, sound, or smell.
Do you see what I mean?
Just the thought of this while sitting in front of your computer screen has nearly brought you there, hasn't it? That is, until I just now mentioned 'computer screen' - that blew it and brought you right back to the 21st century (kinda like the 1979 penny). Sorry...
Anyhow, that's just a mental taste of immersion. Just imagine actually experiencing it...

Please allow me to define my thoughts for a moment on the 'umbrella' phrase of "living history":  living history, which, by definition, is the recreation of living conditions of the past, can take place at any historical (or make-shift historical, such as at a reenactment camp) location, whereas immersion should have virtually nothing beyond the time you are portraying within sight.
I have done numerous day-immersions lasting six to eight hours - even up to 14 hours - which can give the over-all same sense that one can get when the time frame is, for instance, a full an extent.
Our candle-lit dresser from the 1850's
There are those who have been lucky enough to be at a non-public event, inside of a real period home, able to cook, eat, clean, sleep, and, well, live in said period home for a few days at a time and actually experience the closest one can get to true time-travel: full immersion. To me, however, it's not necessarily the amount of time that matters, but the quality and accuracy of time (though there is something to be said of the idea of knowing you were going to go to bed to the light of a candle or oil lamp and awaken to the same - this is something I dream of doing one day). For an immersion experience, there does not have to be a set amount of time one needs to be fully engulfed in a time-travel encounter, though, as hinted at above, the longer you are in that 'zone,' the better it will be.

A good example of the difference between immersion and living history occurred in the spring of 2012 when I held a living history day (with an attempt at immersion) in my own parlor at my home (An Afternoon in the Parlor). Now, this room is not 100% historically accurate - - it's close, but there are still modern-isms about - unobtrusive, but they're still there. One only needs to look out the windows to see the electrical wires, cars, and the rest of the 21st century world. So, though we did our best to attempt immersion, by my own definition it was actually living history. However, the furniture, wall covering, and lay out is very period, as you can see by the following photographs.
This image shows the one half of our parlor room. The open space is where our dining table normally sits. I moved it out of the way for this photo.

And here is most of the other half of the room. The opposite corner shows the doorway that leads into the kitchen, which is modern.

In this room one can easily block out the intrusions of the modern world, and, as you can see, strong living history can be done here, though technically not immersion. I just wish more men would get involved!

And there was no public around - - it was a day just for us.
Even though it was more living history than immersion, our parlor day went quite well, for the most part, and I learned quite a bit from it, with one of the most important lessons being - and this is a hard one for me - to back off from taking so many photos with my oh-so-modern digital camera during immersion events. Yes, I've known this for a long while and I just simply pretended that pulling the ol' Sony out doesn't affect the experience.
Well, it does.
I suppose what I could do is once the 'time' has ended I could pose the participants to recreate certain moments. That would probably be my best bet. That's what I'll most likely do in future immersion events.
~ (By the way, I wrote a posting about cameras at events HERE) ~

Another thing I learned is that time is needed beforehand to get into the frame of mind required to pull something like this off. This plan helped me greatly at the Christmas at the Fort event in December; I was at the historic house for a couple of hours beforehand, all dressed and ready to go, and that really set the tone. All of us who participated planned out our scenario and got used to our new roles, for to make this scenario work we needed to become a cohesive unit. All of this gave me the chance to get the feel for what was to come and, in being surrounded in history, brought me out of the "visiting" mode and into the "I am there" mode.
Because of touring groups this was not full immersion, but it was an immersion experience nonetheless due to our period surroundings - nothing modern in sight or sound - and the fact that we stayed in 1st person and in our roles throughout the day.

My 1862 family: it was a bit difficult initially but came together beautifully.

And this brings me to one the most important lessons I've learned in all of this: to have any type of immersion experience - to make it truly work - one must present themselves as a person from the past, not only in front of the visitors, but to themselves and other living historians. In order to be there, I had to believe I was there during the duration.
This means all future knowledge and ideologies must be cast aside and all thought and spoken word is of the period.
This means presenting yourself with a full immersion attitude that no matter who is with you, you must continue to keep your period presence at all times (except for an emergency - need I even say this?).

Here is young lady (who I have spoken of in previous postings) that does a wonderful job in her portrayal as a domestic servant. Carrie, like Kristen in the photos below, takes her role seriously and continues her domestic duties even when the public is not around. She has learned how to act as a servant and puts that knowledge to work in her portrayal.

However, this can be rather difficult for a number of reasons. One is the lack of social historical knowledge from so many; there are too many Hollywood historians out there - the folks that get their history lessons from the movies. They know what the directors want them to know, and we all realize just how inaccurate most Hollywood movies can be.
There are others who try immersion but might only have knowledge on the period clothing they wear and maybe attempt to utilize Gone With the Wind vernacular (more Hollywood! oh, fiddle dee dee!), but, unfortunately, have little awareness of the times in which they pertain to be living in. I find this frequently: dressed to 1860's perfection with a 21st century mindset. That's only telling half the story, isn't it? It would be like some future reenactor reenacting 2013 and knowing nothing about smart phones, ipads, digital cameras, downloads, or of the current hot music, movies, and TV shows, yet looking just like my very contemporary daughter or son does now.
We all tend to do this now and again - I know I do - but gaining knowledge of the times is of utmost importance and must be at the forefront not only for immersion but for any reenactment. I am doing my best, for my part, to bring this down to a minimum.
Another difficulty - and it can be a trial - is to be able to overcome the thought that "immersion is acting."  I have actually been told this by other reenactors. But then, if one feels this way, why, pray tell, are they wearing the period clothing in the first place? Why 'die" in a mock battle? Heck! Why even have a mock battle?

Kristen, like Carrie in the above photo, is one who does a superb job in her role as an 1860's school teacher. She does whatever role she takes on - usually a school teacher - very seriously. At the Christmas at the Fort event she portrayed my daughter, and truly acted as such. By the way, notice the children in this school photograph are separated by sex, just as was done in the 1860's.
 There were no modern tourists here - just the teacher and her students. And the kids paid attention! A fine job!

I don't know...maybe living history or immersion embarrasses some people, which can happen. This is why there are the reenactors that should stick to reenactments and not participate in an immersion event; they should graciously excuse themselves and not take away what others are attempting to accomplish. It's a sad fact, however, that many really don't care, for they think "immersion is acting," and, therefore, will refuse to take part, and yet continue stick around and, to be honest, ruin it for the others.
But anyone that does a 1st person/full immersion presentation should pay them no mind.

A Federal army invades a southern town while the townsfolk look on, not sure what to do or where to go. Incorporating the military and civilians should be done more frequently. After all, we are the citizens being affected by the discourse.

Let's break off a moment here and talk about what exactly is 1st person. I have spoken of 1st person in many previous postings, but let's take a quick refresher course - 
To many reenactors, 1st person is this:
(Reenactor speaking to modern visitors): "Hi. Welcome to our home. You have just stepped into 1863 and we are showing you the way we lived back then. This is my wife and she is spinning on her spinning wheel. We are using period utensils to eat with. I am the postmaster and have the kind of envelopes people used back then. My daughter is writing to her soldier brother off fighting somewhere in the south. Honey, can you come over here and show these people your stationary?"
Now, something like this might work while you are at a reenactment on the field in front of your tent where visitors are milling about, inquiring what we're all doing there. And it can work well in that situation.
But it's really not 1st person. Oh, it might have a feel of 1st person, but it's more of a 3rd person, or even what I call 2nd person - a combination of 1st and 3rd. Many museum presenters, such as the Firestone Farm docents, utilize this sort of presentation (though much better than in the way I wrote it here!) and it really does work well for the hundreds of thousands of curious visitors that step through the doors every year.
But it is in no way 1st person speak.

Now, how should I speak to visitors during a full immersion event? Well, if it's a true full immersion event, there will not be any modern visitors about, including tour groups.
Can there be immersion with a few modern-isms around?
I suppose, depending on how obtrusive these modern-isms are. It would not be 'full immersion,' however. It would be more along the lines of a strong living history similar to the Christmas at the Fort event, where tour groups came every-so-often, or the Parlor Day event, with the modern-isms, that are mentioned and linked above.
So, let's combine the two -
Scene: a family is enjoying their time together, spending the evening singing popular songs of the day, reading books and magazines, crocheting a blanket, and playing parlor games. A tour group walks up to observe this portal to the past. One member of the living history group inconspicuously leaves the 1860's scene and moves over to the tour group and begins to speak with the visitors, letting them know - in a combination 1st & 3rd person - about family life during the Civil War. The speech only lasts a few minutes, and the other living historians act as if the tour group is not even there, and they continue on as if their family member (the presenter) only stepped out of the room for a moment, perhaps to visit the necessary. Once the speech/presentation is over, the presenter bids the guests a farewell and returns back to the 1860's group...returns to the past...and continues as if the tour group was never there.

Note: if you look closely, you can see the living historians in the room behind me going about their merry way, totally oblivious to the 21st century folk in the foreground.

This is a fine way to present 1st person, 3rd person, strong living history, and even, dare I say, immersion.
All of what I wrote here is, as I stated at the beginning, mostly my own thoughts and opinion. But I've experienced nearly everything I've written and I cannot express the satisfaction I receive while doing it. The feeling is's really a sort of time-travel...
Reenacting, in all honesty, in its purest form, is more than just clothing, for without the historical knowledge, the clothing only tells a part of the story.
It's more than just historical knowledge, for without the clothing and presentation, historical knowledge would be nothing more than sitting and listening to a teacher in a history class at school.
And it's more than just presentation, for without clothing or knowledge, what would you present? Would you read directly from a history book and show pictures?
Yep - all three are needed, and when done correctly, living history - and especially immersion - is an experience like no other...

~Click HERE for an immersion experience that took place after this post was written~

*I have shown in my photos only a smidgeon of the wonderful reenactors/living historians in the 21st Michigan. I must say that I am very proud of the civilians in my reenacting unit, for they are taking the steps to go beyond the "camping in funny clothing" attitude. Click HERE to read on how our civilian meetings are conducted.
There are many in the 21st not shown or mentioned here, but I have nothing but high regard for them.



Betsy said...

I think the biggest deterrent in a full immersion setting would be just plain talking and holding conversations with each other. We speak so casually and with so much modern slang today, it would be hard to leave that behind. Plus, how do we truly know how people spoke in everyday settings back then? We know their written words in diaries and books, but often the written thought does not resemble the spoken word at all.

Historical Ken said...

Hi Betsy -
Thanks for your comment.
You are right in that we don't know exactly how folks spoke back then, but we can have a fair idea in not only the letters, journals, and diaries (to an extent) but also in the books written at the time such as Little Women, Dickens novels, and others along those lines that can show everyday speech.
It's not exact but it's the best we have.
I also agree that it is difficult to maintain that mode of speech, but after a short while it becomes easier.
Thank you for writing.

An Historical Lady said...

Hi Ken,
GREAT post. So much did I want to live in the 17th or 18th centuries that I bought my c. 1780 house and have tried over the years to decorate it and live a period life as much as modern society would allow.
Often we have only fires in the fireplace and candles lit for light in the evening, just for comfort and escape from the modern world and all it's pressures.
I know that life 'back in the day' was hard and painful, and that we are lucky to have modern conveniences, modern medicine, etc., but our happiest times are those spent here at our home, the 'old brown cape', with friends dressed in 18thc. kit...