Sunday, August 30, 2009

Who are we educating?

We’ve started a new endeavor this year, an entire historical encampment at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire. While some faires have multitudes of well established encampments (places where groups of volunteers set up in the most historical way possible and cook food, often do military drills, show crafts, and generally try to be a bit more educational than the faire) CTRF has not had any historical encampments so this year we’re trying to inject a little more history into the faire. So while we will be having fun being historical our goal is also to educate patrons at the faire.

But also important for this year is educating ourselves. As a crew we’ve done school shows, home days, parades, commercial events, renfaire cast and indie acts, but we’ve never done a total history encampment. We’ve had it in mind for years, so we’ve done some of the research, gathered some of the props, but we’re still scrambling to cram enough historical knowledge into our brains and historical objects into our cars and trucks for the trip south this fall. While all this research and craft making is fun, even more rewarding is the chance to involve new folks.

When Autumn Tree Productions ran the cast of the Connecticut Faire, one of the parts that I looked forward to the most at the beginning of the season was seeing the new faces that would be joining the group, especially the teenagers. While we’d be teaching them history and acting skills throughout the summer and fall, what we were really giving them was a creative outlet, a community composed of different age groups and abilities, and a chance to learn some social skills in a relatively safe and contained setting.

There are some pretty big geeks and nerds who like history enough to do this sort of thing, and those types of folks (myself included) do not have the highest levels of social interaction skills. But as teachers of the cast it was our job to make sure that all cast members felt comfortable enough to get in funny clothes with funny accents and go out to interact will all the different sorts of folks that came through the gates on the faire day. We had to teach people to read their audiences, to have safe sorts of interactions, and make sure everyone had fun. One of the best compliments I think we got was a cast member coming back to us when the year was over and telling us he was better at his normal job, because he had put his new skills to work in the workplace (though without the clothes and the funny accent.)

This year is a bit different, we’ve left some of the acting lessons behind. But we’ve still got new folks involved, new folks who now have a safe community where they will learn history, getting along in a group setting, public speaking, even how to sew! So if we do not reach a single audience member at the faire (which I doubt) I think the endeavor will still have been worth while as an educational pursuit.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

As A Jewish Reenactor

I’ve been feeling very guilty lately, about the fact that I’ve reenacted so many different time-periods, geographies, characters, in so many different settings, but I’ve never reenacted a character that was Jewish. Am I Jewish? Well, sort of. I have only been inside a synagogue once in my life, which probably counts against me, but my mother is Jewish which by Jewish law makes me Jewish. I am not religious, but neither are a lot of Jews that I know. Of all of the holidays that are important to me, one of the most important is a Jewish Holiday. So yes, I am (sort-of) Jewish. But I’ve never reenacted a Jew.

I spend most of my time reenacting Medieval and Renaissance Europe and, let me tell you, there were plenty of Jews around in Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Some really famous ones too. The 16th century rabbi who created The Golem of Prague might be the most famous. Maimonides is known by many as a great philosopher and physician -- we actually mention him in our medieval medicine show, but the kids remember the talk of urine samples and bleeding more than they do the names of philosophers. And 1492 might be famous to Americans for one reason, but for Jews it symbolizes the ultimate exile from Spain, where Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived if not in peace, at least prosperously for many hundreds of years. So there is a ton of cool Jewish stuff to reenact, why don’t people do it?

Most of my recent reenacting has been done at renaissance faires; not all of it, which means my historical muscles have not gone totally flabby. At renfaires you do not often get the most complete picture of Renaissance society, there are an awful lot of knights, princesses, and fairies wandering around the faire. But there are a heck of a lot of gypsies too. So the other day I asked a friend why it is that a roving minority like the gypsies are so well represented while another roving minority like the Jews are so neglected. He answered that the gypsies are sexier, which is true. I also think that it is harder to make fun of the Jews. Renfaires are all about be jolly and gay, and while it is easy to laugh at jugglers, jesters, even knights and princesses, modern Americans might be understandably reluctant to make fun of Jews, even long-ago Jews. So that might be one reason.

For a while I thought it might be that while your average American, religious or not might not have a problem playing the role of a catholic king, they might not want to portray being Jewish if they are not. But since then I have met a number of Jews at the renfaire, playing everything from Italian pirates to English peasants and everything in between so that excuse only sort of pans out. So why aren’t these Jews playing Jews?

My most recent hypothesis is that Jewish custom and culture already has its own historical reenactments in quite a number of holidays. Purim is the Jewish holiday that tells the story of Queen Ester and involves dressing up, sometimes as Queen Esther or the evil Haman that she defeats. The holiday of Sukkot involves the recreation of a hut that nomadic ancestors used to use in the harvest season. Passover is an even better example, not only is the story of the Jews escape from Egypt read at the Passover seder, but the meal is made up of foods that are recreations of foods those Jews ate, or symbolize their struggles, or at least are representative of the cultural connection. Jews have many holidays that involve historical reenactment.

I still hope, that some day I will get the chance to reenact a Jewish persona in a more typical reenactment environment, but for now I will look forward to the next Jewish history holiday and continue on with the reenacting opportunities that come my way, no matter what culture they are grounded in.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Continuing the blog, changing the scope

I started this blog as a class assignment. I was taking graduate level Museum Studies courses at Tufts University last fall in hopes that I could get a job at a museum preferably involving history, but doing something that I would find interesting. I took a class called Museums and New Media where we studied web 2.0, made podcasts, wrote blogs, and tried to keep up with an ever changing technological landscape in a setting that is often fairly backward looking. The class was incredibly practical as well as theoretical, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I am no longer taking classes at Tufts. I now have a non-profit job that is highly rewarding even though it involves very little studying or presenting history. It is also further away -- I was 1.25 hours away last year now I’m well over 2.

That doesn’t mean that I’ve left history behind, I don’t think I will even be far from living history, though my current involvement is relegated to my spare time. So we come to this blog, What better way to keep track of the living history world, than to write about my experiences in it?

I’m hoping that my posts will be shorter, that they will be more frequent, but no less thought provoking (even if the only person whose thought they provoke is myself.) And that I will continue to be able to write about all the different ways that I am living history!

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