When chatting with some of the other folks that were new role-players at Strawbery Banke one of them mentioned that when she started she had a hard time getting into character and talking to visitors as if she was her historical role. This is an incredibly common problem, especially since she was given only one set of tools in training: the historical record. Don’t get me wrong, the historical record is incredibly important. Without facts, historical documents and scholarly interpretation, we would not have a foundation, nothing to stand on. Knowing how to write does not make you a journalist, or novelist. You can have the best costume in the world, and know the most knowledge, but if you can not get it across to your audience then you are not an effective first-person role-player.
There are two other sets of tools that I think someone needs to be an effective first-person role-player: interactive improvisation, and educational presentation. I believe both of these can be taught, and that they should be taught. The new roleplayers at SBM were not taught about education, it is expected they know a bit about teaching before they get to the museum. And many “professionals” look down on theatre as fiction, it is certainly not serious study, like us role-players. But without being able to teach, and without interactive improvisation, I would be much poorer at what I do.
I’ll talk about education tools first, since I think these will be the easiest for most folks to agree with. Every teacher out there will tell you that there are skills needed to be an effective teacher, I think many of those translate to being an effective first-person role-player. Not every visitor needs to know the exact same fact, there are many different ways to learn, not everyone makes a good discussion leader. A teacher can tell you all this and a role player can use them to get across all those great stories they’ve learned through research. Modern folks can empathize with folks from the past, we can learn about ourselves by learning about where we come from. Sometimes just knowing that our jobs as roleplayers is not only to get across the past, but to teach it, to relate it in ways that are meaningful to our audiences can boost our effectiveness.
The third tool that I use in every visitor contact is interactive theatre (yes, I went to a posh sort of college and spell it “re”.) There is an element of acting in Living History portrayals. It is not the same as acting in a play, or movie, but interactive theatre is very different from those too. When the audience is right there interacting in the story, you need to be willing to throw the pages of the script out the window, but not loose sight of the underlying story you are telling. It takes flexibility and empathy; you need to be a good listener, know how to stay positive, and not be afraid to look like a complete donkey. Theatre techniques, practice, and yes, games can be a lot of help. I promise your audience/visitors/MoP/students will never know.
I started doing this crazy dressing up and acting like a person from the past (i.e. first person roleplaying) nineteen years ago with a little theatre background, a little history research, and basically no educational training. Since then I’ve not only absorbed a lot of history and some educational theory, but I was trained in interactive improvisational theatre. I am a much better role-player for my training, and I think all of us role-players could continue to improve with more of all three.