Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Vacation for my Role-Playing Soul

Stephen and I spent this past weekend down in Williamsburg, VA at a retreat for role-players sponsored by the Association of Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums. The FPIPN conference runs every-other year, Stephen and I have attended the past three. They have each been very different, but good and are a great chance to re-charge, and renew our energy.

This year we presented two talks: one we entitled “Get Real” about connecting our audiences to the past by portraying real people: using the emotions, conflicts, life issues that all humans face. The other talk was a long session (two hours) where Stephen and I did a version of the LH Triangle I presented at Strawbery Banke last fall.  Unfortunately doing so many presentations of our own meant that we missed out on attending many other people’s presentations, ah well.  Our talks went over fairly well, and most excitingly, there were two folks there who asked if we go out and do trainings at other museums. The answer is most definitely yes!

One of the joys of this year’s conference was that it took place a little later in the year, and was held in a location far enough south, to be a nice break from the winter. We left NH covered in 2 feet of snow, and found Virginia to be full of songbirds, and spring shoots, 20 degrees warmer, and pleasant enough to sit outside to eat our lunches. We took afternoon walks, Stephen had a morning run, we left our coats in the car and just walked around in sweaters. Turns out I really needed a couple of days in the sun.

Even better than the break from the weather, was the company. The population of people as obsessed with the highest level of Living History Interpretation as me is very small. It was wonderful to spend a weekend with other folks who worry about how to present prejudices of the past (it would be false to leave them out, but alienating a visitor can shut down learning) and how to get beyond our own modern mind-set to give a truer impression of life in the past. We got to tell some of our funny stories, and hear the funny stories of other folks. I was a grumpy-puss at the fancy dinner on Saturday night, but I did enjoy listening to other people’s conversations. There was also a great moment where one of the participants got up and sang a tavern song with a chorus that he taught us all (actually Stephen and I knew that one already) and inspired other people to get up and sing. I sang a bit of a Yiddish tune since I was presenting Mrs. Shapiro and Stephen sang Finnegan’s Wake since he was there as George Rose.

I always wish these things could be twice as long. So that we could talk to more of the participants, attend more of the talks, see more of each other’s work. We also did not get a chance to visit Colonial Williamsburg during open hours. We were in CW’s training facility, but on Saturday we did not get out until most of the museum buildings were closed, and on Sunday Stephen had a flight to catch. Now I guess we have an excuse to go back.

What a nice re-charge.



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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Not Universally Accessible

We just got some feedback on the Christmas program here at the museum, it is feedback that I have heard before, on an issue that I have struggled with for many years: universal access for those of all levels of mobility. As a historic site, one must travel the roads and paths to get to the historic buildings, all of which are entered by going up stairs. We have retro-fitted some buildings with ramps, but entrances are not the only problems: getting around inside the buildings can be tough, and just getting to the buildings from the visitor center can be a challenge.

The busiest day of this year’s Christmas program was also the most problematic in terms of visitors navigating our site. The weekend before we had received a foot and a half of snow, then on Tuesday we got another 8 inches. All that had been cleared off the paths, but Friday and Saturday were warm and the light mist had been melting the snow all day. Since it was fairly cold, the ground was mostly frozen, forcing the snow melt on to our nicely shoveled paths and either re-freezing in to ice slicks, or mixing with just enough thawed ground to cause massive mud puddles. The grounds were totally a mess. I wore my rubber boots and muddled through, but those visitors who had dressed up in fancy shoes, or had mobility issues were having trouble on the grounds.

What could we do about this particular situation? We were certainly salting and sanding the icy patches, pushing back the snow, but even with a dedicated grounds crew there was not a lot we could do about the mud puddles. The water was not being absorbed into the frozen ground, and in order to soak up all that water we would have needed to invest in a couple tons of sand or gravel, or possibly several industrial vacuum cleaners. Do they make vacuum cleaners that suck up mud puddles?

So short term we could not do anything about the rough walking conditions, but that does not mean we can not improve for the future. So what are some of the long term solutions? The easiest and most cost effective solution to weather conditions on roads is to pave them: wooden walkways, cobblestones, concrete, asphalt. All of these would significantly reduce the mobility issues of our modern visitors. However, we are a historic site and none of those methods of paving can be documented for the time when most of our houses were built, which is the late 1700s early 1800s. At that time the roads were dirt, so that is what we have: dirt. By having piles of snow and mud puddles in December we are giving visitors a taste of winter in times past, and all the limits that go with it.

So yes, a number of elderly visitors and those with mobility issues do have trouble navigating our grounds in bad weather, even if nothing is falling from the sky at the moment that they come through. From a modern perspective that is totally unfair. I think universal access is an incredibly worthy goal and I do try, in my own little way, to work towards universal access for people of all abilities. But I am also a historian and can tell you, folks with disabilities did not really get to enjoy the “good old days.” Aside from the stigma a differently-abled person had to endure, in the time before electricity there were no elevators, no electric wheel chairs; heck, all those muddy paths were dark and even more treacherous before the cheap modern light bulb. What happened when older folks were no longer able to walk all that well? They certainly did not expect to go out with the grandkids to a nine-acre site in the middle of the winter and expect to walk around for several hours. But just because they were excluded in the past does not give us permission to exclude people today. BUT we don’t want to give up on presenting history, that is what we do!

I know there are people out there in the museum world doing wonderful work on universal access, but I have found very little of it on historic settings. If a reader has any insight, please share. I’d love to put more brains to work on this.


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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review: Telling History

Telling History: a manual for Performers and Presenters of First-Person Narratives by Joyce M. Thierer was published just a few short years ago in 2010. I did not hear about it when it came out, I did not hear about it from any museum conferences or mailing lists. I located it during a Google Books search. Since I DO first-person interpretation, and I'm fairy well connected to the pseudo-community of Living History, I was surprised I had not heard of a new book.

Telling History is very specific, it is for those that do big-audience performances, 30 - 40 minute monologues on a stage followed by question sessions at the end. I mostly do interactions in-setting of limited duration, but I'm willing to mine any resource for useful skills and info.

Thierer starts by writing an introduction to the genre, then in her first chapter talks about other types of living history and why they are inferior. She uses generalities, and worst-cases for her opinions, then writes about what she calls "Historical Performance" by calling up its best practices. A fairly messy way to justify your book. Starting with chapter 2 Thierer starts in on the "how to" stuff, and immediately references a PDF document online, on her website. She does not describe the document but continually references it for the next few chapters, practically forcing me to put down the book, wait until I had access to the Internet and enter her URL. Then the URL didn't work. Actually she had a number of different URLs, none of the ones I tried worked. The book does have appendices, I don't understand why the worksheets could not be included in the appendix, with the amount they were referenced.

All that being said, I do still think the book is worth reading. Thierer's guidance on how to pick a person to portray and how to do historical research would be very useful for those just starting out. I found her script writing chapter very informative, and made me think I could actually write my own script to present an interesting historical program. I am not as big a fan of the sit-for-40-minutes sort of program, but if someone manages to follow all of Thierer's best practices, I bet the performance would be pretty good.

I found her chapter on business to be the hardest to get through. It was long, and not as good as a book on the subject of starting a business. Yes, historical theater is unique, I wish she had concentrated on just those parts that were unique. The following chapter, written for museums and other institutions, was much shorter, and crammed full of useful information for the institution and those that want to be hired. Thierer's list of questions that every institution should ask before hiring a performer (and that every performer should be able to answer) is challenging, geared towards those who do a lot of scholarship, and are really professional. It is an aspirational list for those of us not employed as college professors.

Her final chapter is the most ambitious, but possibly the most inspiring. She writes about her dreams for historical theater and includes reaching wider audiences, and a professional organization that develops standards and provides training. These have been goals of mine at some point or another, though at this point I have found enough small groups or institutions doing these things that it is now my goal to organize the groups, or at least make sure people know they exist.

She sticks to basically just two example performances that she keeps returning to: her own experiences playing Calamity Jane, and her partner's experiences as Amelia Earhart. This allows for continuity, but got a bit boring after a while. She was very focused on American History, and specifically mid-west history, but this is what she knows. Those of us who have different geographic or temporal focus can still use a lot of what she presents, just know that the bits on costuming, picking themes, identifying research material can vary widely from her examples.

Thierer's book is well written. It is easy to read just a chapter at a time, but if you stop in the middle of a chapter be prepared to go back and at least skim when you pick it back up. Her book is ambitious and assumes some pretty high standards. These are both good things.

Anyone involved in Living History who is looking to find the book that best describes their own experiences is in for a long search. I have become a gleaner of advice and information, picking up bits from all the diverse books out there. Though Thierer's book is very specifically for those doing performance monologues, there is plenty to be gleaned for those of us who do other sorts of Living History. Read this entry on entry page

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2014 - Or at least the beginning of it

I seem to have lost my Thanksgiving post. I'll hopefully find it soon, and put it up before the end of this month. That is not too late, right?

I also have some more thoughts on the Candlelight Stroll program I would like to share. Plus my thoughts on the historical sites visited over Christmas, that should not be too much to get done soon, hopefully.

What I do have to share at the moment is my historical schedule for the next few months. These next few months used to be the quiet months where we'd jump on almost any excuse to get in garb and out of the house. Now I think our schedule is full:

Jan 10: 12th Night Ball in Sudbury, MA
Jan 25: Market Day at Birka in Nashua, NH
Jan 31 - Feb 2: Military History Fest in Chicago, IL
Feb 8: New England Reenactor's Fair in Sturbridge, MA
Feb 22 - 23: First-Person Interpreters Conference in Williamsburg, VA
March is empty right now, but...
April 11 - 13: Early Modern Muster of Arms in Fort Wayne, IN
April 25 - 26: Plymouth State Medieval Forum, Plymouth, NH

Late spring, early summer is being left relatively empty, but I'm sure it will fill up fast!

That is just the stuff outside of the museum. I think that is plenty for now, but if anyone knows of something going on in March, let me know!




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Monday, December 16, 2013

Candlelight Stroll 2013


Family Parlor in Goodwin Mansion
This past weekend was the second weekend of Strawbery Banke Museum’s Candlelight Stroll. This is the Big Event for me in my position of Manager of Special Events. The month leading up to this past weekend, and the last couple weeks in particular have been hellishly stressful, but the weekends went off beautifully. Yes, the first hour of the first Saturday was spent running around fixing all the things, and there was a bunch of stuff that I wanted to do that did not get done in time. But visitors seemed to have a good time, I got some compliments, and only the nit-pickers found anything to complain about.

So Candlelight Stroll is big.

Eight of the museum’s houses are set up how they would have looked in December, in eight different time periods. That means 8 different research bases, 8 different stories to tell, 8 different sets of costumes, music, food, everything. Oh, and eight different sets of decorations made from local botanicals in historically appropriate designs. Every house is full of light, and role players, and activity.

Then there are the demonstration and exhibit houses. During regular museum open hours there are demos of: Hearth cooking, weaving, pottery, coppering, and blacksmithing. This past weekend those were joined by: windsor chair making, tin smithing, and basket making. Then there was all the food: the museum has a new cafe, plus this year we served booze in the 1777 tavern, free hot cider and cookies, and museum members got their own food-filled reception.

Then there was all the live music. Local choruses singing carols, piano music in the Visitor Center, bands in the Cider Shed, Roving guitarists. And puppet shows, and wandering role-players, and a kid’s treasure hunt, and Saint Nick handing out candy, and horse-drawn carriage rides, and hands on crafts...

Yes, I am in charge of all of that.

I get a ton of help from the Horticulture Department, Curatorial, Education, Development, heck, every department. This is by no means a one-woman-show. But ultimately if it falls apart or succeeds I am the one responsible.

Making magic like this event, I absolutely love that. I love that visitors have a magical-non-commercial experience. I love creating safe, celebratory experiences that have a ton of really rich history thrown in.

But I really missed role playing. I was not in historical costume, I was not personally bringing the past to life. I got to hire a bunch of really talented people to do it, and that was definitely satisfying, but not the same.
Peek in the door to Rider-Wood
I’m looking forward to next weekend, when we get to do it all over again for the final time this year, and I’m looking forward to the next time I get to dress up, even if it won’t be for a while. Read this entry on entry page