Thursday, November 6, 2008

Portraying a Historical Character: 1st person vs 3rd person

All of the people who portray historical characters: museum and school personnel, military enthusiasts, actors, costume lovers, and more, have an important decision to make when interacting with the public, and that is how to address their audience.

I don’t mean whether to be rude or welcoming, I should hope that we’re all encouraging new folks to get into history so we are always kind and open. I mean whether we will address our audience from the first person or the third person. For those of you who do not remember this particular English lesson, first person is when the story is told from a personal perspective “I went to the store”, third person is when the story is told from an outside perspective “She went to the store.” As a costumed interpreter of history we have a choice of speaking to our audience in the first person “I cook food like this” or third person “back then they cooked food like this.”

There is a raging, and probably never-ending debate on the efficacy of both types of interpretation, and they both have their pros and cons. I have seen both done well, both done very poorly, and I’ve even seen some very effective methods in between. I have been asked more than once, by friends and family on the outside, to explain exactly what the debate is, and why it is such a big deal. This is no small task, but there are some main points that I’d like to capture. I would also like to dispel the myth that I favor one type over another, the truth is that I think all sorts of portrayals have their place, and can be effective teaching tools.

First Person: the Immersive Experience
What could be better than going back in time and having a conversation with Mark Twain? Or stepping inside a colonial stockade and really being there?

Portraying in the first person is undoubtedly a challenge. You’ve got to know a lot in order to be able to speak with authority in the voice of someone else. It takes research, rehearsal, and a lot of energy. There are many folks out there who will not attempt it because it does take a degree of acting, but on the other hand there are actors out there who will not attempt it because there is often a lot of deviation from a script, into the realm of improvisation, but still within historical fact. Yet a first person interactive experience can be thrilling and very engaging, and help us connect to a time and place when it is brought to life.

Plimoth Plantation
is one of the museums that does this very well. When one enters the stockade of the village, and looks down the street at the houses, animals, and people in costume one gets a feel for what it must really have been like. All the costumed interpreters have funny accents, and speak as it is 1627, with the same hopes and experiences of those who really did live in Plimoth Colony. Colonial Williamsburg does some first person interpretation, as does Strawbery Banke Museum.

There are definite downsides to first person interpretation. Language can be a barrier, both audience members talking about modern day, or role players being hard to understand to audiences. Portraying a time period or culture that had prejudices other than our own can lead to sticky situations as well.

Third Person: the Explanation
There are a lot of things that first person just can not do. Wild Bill Hickock can not talk about his own death. Pilgrims would never talk about sex in polite company. A nineteenth century factory worker can not talk about how Lowell’s factories shaped Massachusetts’ role in Twentieth Century America. A third person interpreter can do all that and more. A third person costumed interpreter is someone who talks like a modern person, but dresses and demonstrates skills from the time period.

Most starting reenactors feel more comfortable in this explaining sort of role, many find it easier to teach, easier to lead discussions and really bring the realities home to a modern audience. You’ve still got the look, the feel, even the smell or taste, but just not the sound. Old Sturbridge Village, for the most part practices this sort of historical interpretation. Looking down the common and seeing the costumed villagers makes for an idyllic picture, and the guides are incredibly knowledgeable when you encounter one up close. Since walking around a modern city is almost impossible to wrap around an eighteenth century mindset, The Freedom Trail in downtown Boston offers guided tours with costumed characters, but all the guides are talking in the third person, for everyone’s safety as well as education.

On the down side, it is easy to do third person badly. A person who has very little public speaking skills may choose to speak from a modern perspective to take off some of the pressure, but they can still do a poor job. Often third person interpretations can become lecture-like and alienate an audience quickly. Just because it is easier, does not mean it does not take some practice and skill building. Also Third person can be confusing for an audience, if a reenactor is dressed in nineteenth century regalia but talking about modern things, certain members of the audience may have trouble grasping what they are doing, or may not trust the reenactor as a source of information.

In Between: Lively Discussions
In the book “Case Studies in Museum, Zoo, and Aquarium Theater” Lynne Conner, Past Director of Stages in History, @ the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania talks about their decision to work in the first person and never “Break Character” or speak about modern things (like explain museum exhibits) Because it puts the actor-historian in: “an impossible situation, wherein the actor-historian tries desperately to have a foot in two worlds and as a result fails miserably at both.”

I completely disagree that it is an impossible situation, in fact I think it is unreasonable to expect that the reenactor (or actor-historian as Lynne calls them) can forget for even a minute that they are a 21st century person in a 21st century world. Even the best audience is suspending their disbelief to engage with the first person character, but they know what year it really is. In fact, Lynne acknowledges that her actor-historians will tell people where the bathroom is, and will throw a few “winks and nudges” at those folks who do not seem to realize that the person in front of them is an actor portraying another time period.

Autumn Tree Armored Combat Company does a lot of educational shows, at schools, for scouts, etc. explaining the life of a knight, the role of the military in the middle-ages, and what it meant to live in such different times. The kids (and teachers) want to see real knights do their thing, and the reenactors in the troupe certainly do that, but they also explain, from a first person perspective, what life was like, and how life was different then from now. Some justify this as a sort of “time travel”, or bringing folks from back then into the future to do the explaining, but for the most part ATACC does not, during performance, acknowledge that they are referencing modern times. Most audiences are willing to meet the performers halfway (just as they are willing to suspend disbelief to think of the reenactors as knights and squires.) This way they get to explain that the interlocking rings that people now call chainmail was just called maile back then, and that while historically, young boys training to be knights were used as squires, modern laws and inclusivity means that adults, and often females, fill the squire role in ATACC. Audiences tend to accept the in-between perspective of a person speaking in accent in character, but acknowledging a few modern things. ATACC does not talk about members’ 21st century lives, but are willing to put historical lessons in context, and I find that makes all the difference.

Which is best?
I think it completely depends on the circumstance. In imersive type environments, first person can be incredibly effective, and also very emotionally engaging, but not all situations allow us to be completely in the moment, and sometimes getting information across is more important than portraying an historical character. Sometimes it is possible to straddle the line and do a bit of both, but this is not easy, and not always appropriate. So when making your decision, whether you are a hobbyist or a museum professional, think it out, because there is no easy choice.

Photo of Plimoth Plantation (top) and Old Sturbridge Village (middle) taken by Alena Shumway. Photo of Autumn Tree Armored Combat Company at the Vermont Renaissance Faire by Jess Boynton.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that I've seen both 1st & 3rd person portrayals done well, and I've seen them both done poorly. I think so much depends on the skill, knowledge and comfort level of the person involved, but I personally tend to trust the 3rd person interpretation, or the "inbetween" since the person can honestly say "hmm, I don't know" when they don't know (and really, how can they know everything?) instead of having to act as though they do. Having said that, I have had lots of fun at Plimoth Plantation watching the light bulb go off for kids when they get it that the character doesn't know what a camera or a school bus is. But then again, it's confusing when you go to the Wamponoag village area which is not 1st person. As you say, it's tricky.