Friday, November 28, 2008

Tricks of the Trade, Endowments

A lady, medieval nobility by her dress, approaches a family in modern clothes who are looking around them with some enjoyment and not a little trepidation. She walks swiftly towards them, and almost past when she pauses, approaches the older man in the group and exclaims:

“Henry? It is you! Why Henry it has been quite a while. How long has it been since we last saw each other?”

Now the woman has the entire family’s attention, but no one, not even “Henry” responds to the question. She hurries on to explain:

“Henry and I knew each other many years ago. My father was arranging for us to be wed when Henry’s father found him a richer bride. And is this your family?”

This elicits a few laughs from the crowd, especially since the lady appears to be in her twenties and “Henry” is in his fifties.

The lady goes on to explain to those in the party who may not have met her before that she is the eldest daughter of a duke, now married to a count with three children of her own and she is looking for husbands for them. She solicits recommendations of what she should look for in a husband for her daughter, then bids adieu to Henry and his family, and continues on her way

The man in this story is not really named Henry, and the lady is not really a noble lady. She is an actor, and he is a visitor to the Connecticut Renaissance Faire, or any other number of immersive history events all over the US. But why in the world would a noble lady wander up and introduce herself to a large group of people when those people are centuries away from what she is depicting? By drawing the audience in and giving them a place in her world, she was able to enter a dialogue with this group of people, that hopefully did not feel too out of place or awkward.

The above endowment is fairly straightforward, a single person is given a name, a role, and a relation to the performer, but that is not the only type of endowment.

The tall, lean, mustachioed man approached the seated audience. He hooks his hands into his suspenders and asks for a show of hands:

“Now how many of you have brought your own horse today?” When no one raises their hands he asks how many have brought their shotguns. When this elicits a laughing response he asks how many have ever before participated in a posse before. While a few brave souls who have caught on might raise their hands Wild Bill still gets to say,

“Well we’re up against some pretty fierce cattle rustlers this time so you better pay attention if you’re going to survive as a member of this posse.”

In this case the performer playing Wild Bill has an captive audience, seated, waiting to hear what he has to say, but why in the world would Wild Bill Hickok tell his life story to these modern folks sitting in a modern classroom? Even though the life of Wild Bill is thrilling, the audience now has a stake in the story, much more than they did before they learned that they are a posse, newly deputized to take down the local cattle rustlers. This endowment has also established Wild Bill as a lawman. He is leading a posse to take down a gang of cattle stealers. He has done this in a way that seems much more natural than a more explanatory approach.

There are as many, if not more types of endowments as there are historical roles to play in this world. Some endowments only go so far as to establish the audience’s place in the performer’s world without getting into specifics of a name, or even a place in a posse. In fact, most interactions between performers of historical roles and a modern audience assume that the audience has a place in the character’s world. Sometimes this is gotten around by assuming the visitors are only visitors from another geography and not another time, that way they might still need the goings on explained, but they have not broken any rules of physics.

If you were living in 1627 Plimoth and a group of modern school children barged in, you’d probably react very differently than a historical interpreter does. Endowments get around this problem. Maybe they are a fresh boatload from the old country, neighborhood children that need to be taught, or settlers from other settlements in the new world. Sometimes we need to do some translating to accommodate modern sensibilities. A German tourist in a world war two museum would be incredibly uncomfortable if the first person characters treated them the way that many German Americans were treated during World War II. The German tourists at Strawbery Banke Museum’s WWII general store are greeted as refugees escaping the fighting or as allies, so they can have a meaningful conversation. There are very few situations when reenacting the prejudices of the past on to a modern audience will get your point across. Now I’m not talking about more theatrical reenactments, where all of the people involved are actors, then it can be very informative, like Colonial Williamsburg reenacting a tarring and feathering. The aggressors and the victim are actors, they have worked together towards a goal of greater understanding and are prepared to take the abuse. A modern audience needs a little more careful handling than that.

So the next time a funny dressed person rushes up to you and asks if you have seen their falcon fly by, play along. I bet you’ll learn more, and you just may have some fun too.

Photos taken at Reenactorfest in Gettysburg Dec. 2007, by Rob Mohns

1 comment:

  1. The term "Endowment" seems to come from Gary Izzo's book: Acting Interactive Theatre. The term does not appear in Performing the Pilgrims or Past Into Present.