Sunday, October 21, 2012
Strawbery Banke Museum role-players use a method of interpretation called First Person Interpretation in our daily interactions with visitors. Since I was trained at Renaissance Faires I am very comfortable with first person, normally I have no problems making my way through a different century than those people around me. This season is my first reenacting someone in the 20th Century, and I am finding that first person is much harder the closer that you get to today.
When people walk into Shapiro house, especially folks of a certain age, the exclaim over the sewing machine, the ice box, the big stove, the carpet sweeper; many of them remember their parents having very similar items. As Mrs. Shapiro I chat about coming to the USA from Ukraine and many visitors have family stories also about emigrating from Eastern Europe. Mrs. Shapiro's story is important, but the visitors' stories are just as important. Why does first person interpretation make this a particular challenge?
When a visitor who looks to be old enough to be a grandmother herself comes in talking about her grandmother having a sewing machine just like mine, the real Mrs. Shapiro might react with incredulity that someone of her grandmother's advanced age would be around to have something so new. When a visitor mentions growing up with the same type of plumbing and had it in the house until the 1950s, is Mrs. Shapiro supposed to accuse the visitor of making up tales of the future? How could someone visiting her house have grown up in the future? In the buildings that are centuries earlier a gentle scoff in the direction of a visitor that is trying to play with the interpreter is fine, but as a museum professional I can not very well negate the personal connections that the visitors are making. I would not want to.
But I can not drop out of first person, that would not do at all. So what am I to do?
Sometimes it is enough to nod and smile. For Mrs. Shapiro, English is not her first language, so I play it that she probably thinks the mis-understood the individual words, but she understands the main point: a personal or family connection to her home. If folks go on too long I get a worried look on my face and then very deliberately say that I do not understand. Usually that is enough to make it clear to the visitor that Mrs. Shapiro must remain in 1919 while they talk about their own past. Sometimes I can steer them to talking about iceboxes, or immigration in a way that is less time specific so we can both talk about it.
Sometimes, I am lost for what to do; so I just go back to my cooking, cleaning etc. while the visitors chat with their own companions. I hate to walk away from a conversation, so if anyone out there has any advice on how to stay in first person while acknowledging the validity of modern visitors' stories, please let me know.