Sunday, November 2, 2008

Breaking the 4th Wall

Though there are plenty of plays and movies, on historical topics some of the most dramatic theater is often done at museums, renaissance faires and history events. There are many things about these performances that make them unique, but it is my opinion that audience participation and interaction are key. In theatrical terms, there is a name for the wall that separates the audience from the action, the 4th wall. Most plays and movies subscribe to the convention that there is an invisible wall --invisible to the audience but real to the characters in the play/movie-- in between the audience and the action, so we as audience can see the characters acting as if they are alone. Modern plays invoke the 4th wall less and less, while movies only rarely break the 4th wall to address the audience directly.

Actors in “Historical event” settings, like museums and renaissance faires, often find their best work is done with the audience. Sometimes performances in these settings look like story telling sessions, where the characters act more as if they were telling a story than if they were living the moment, other performances are interactive, with the needs and wants of the audience dictating the direction that the performance will take. It is very easy to get emotionally invested in this type of performance, often the loose script revolves around this emotional connection. Sometimes the connection is made through humor or entertainment, as is often found at renaissance faires, while at museums the connection is often based on biography and the personal connections a character can make to our own time and place.

Though I have seen some dramatic “staged” performances at historical events (i.e. the kind where there is a 4th wall, or at least some audience separation) my favorites are by far the interactive performances.

Photos of Richard Bingham (left, played by Stephen Pasker) talking swords after an ATACC demo, and Sheriff Bracken (right, played by Ron Beaudion) giving an audience member a "ticket". Photos by Jess Boynton.


  1. Alena,
    I love your blog and find it very interesting. I have been to several theatrical performances over the years at historical museums, playhouses, colleges etc. I have been around re-enactors and have attended Renaissance fairs. I have only been a re-enactor once at Fort Ticonderoga and I didn't like it. I like to see other people be the re-enactors and attend the re-enactment or show. I found the guidelines for re-enactors at the Fort to be rigid but I know they want to be accurate. I felt some of the re-enacting could be racist in some ways depending on the culture that was being interpreted. I also talked to some re-enactors there who were "playing Indian". Some people who are there really understand what they are doing. Others did not. What do you think about this? Also, I love living history cause you can get people into learning and have it be fun at the same time. Interpretations in my opinion should be well rounded and inclusive. I found some people that wanted to represent their heritage but others who found it as a hobby. How do you feel about this? Hope you have a good day and thanks for posting about this.

  2. Hi Elizabeth,

    You're right that it can be done well and it can be done poorly. Some of that is context, the sort of training that a reenactor recieves, whether they are reenacting for a job or for a hobby, but personality has a lot to do with it too.

    As a costumed roleplayer (reenactor in thier terms) at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, every timeperiod and culture represented had to deal with the parts that would be considered prejudiced and unacceptable in a modern context. It is also a tricky situation representing a culture of which you are not a part. Geographical and chronological distance can make this a little easier, it is easier to get away with representing a medieval european person even if I am not one. On the other hand it is important to tell local stories and it is not always possible to get representatives to do the reenacting.

    I know that reenactors at museums, historic sites, and events are often paid very little. I wonder if there might be a little more accountability, and a little more separation of those who want to do it well (many who are volunteers now) from those who want to do it just for fun (and would not pass a more stringent hiring process) if reenactors were paid more.

  3. At Mass General Hospital we're planning for our bicentennial in 2011, and at a recent Bicentennial Planning Committee meeting we were abruptly interrupted by a character actor's entrance. In walked Dr. John Collins Warren (1778-1856)! This was obviously planned by the chairman, and for about 10 minutes we had a fun time interacting with the actor. This encounter was not only fun but also gave us a glimpse into the life and time of Dr. Warren. It was also great motivation for our committee! I do think that the interaction and questions and answers made the experience highly educational.