Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review: Easy Street

I've just finished Ann-Elizabeth Shapera's book Easy Street: A Guide For Players In Improvised Interactive Environmental Performance, Walkaround Entertainment, And First-Person Historical Interpretation. What a fascinating read. It was written as a guide for Renaissance Faire performers, and for the most part that is exactly what it is, but it reads like a self-help book. I recommend this book to folks starting out at RenFaires, but also for long time living history presenters who have lost their spark and are wondering, why the heck am I doing this?

Shapera performs at many Renaissance Faires as the lovable Jane The Phoole. I've seen her perform, she is very good. I've also run into her at several Reenactorfests. Jane the Phoole is a walk-around character. She spends most of her time on the streets of the faire, interacting with groups of visitors or "patrons". While she does sometimes appear on stage this book deals with the "street" interactions: how you make a street character, how to interact with all kinds of people, how to make interactions positive, uplifting and meaningful to every participant.

It is the uplifting part that Shapera excels at. If your venue is a museum or reenactment, and you want the ability to make magical connections the way performers at Renaissance Raires do, then I highly recommend Easy Street. But if that is the case you might want to skip from chapter 13 right to 18. While the pleasant insights continue in those chapters, a person can get bogged down in the bits that do not apply outside the RenFaire. If you are a participant in the world of Renaissance Faires Shapera does not have much new to say about improvisation, physicality, or Elizabethan England, but she has nicely condensed those staples of RenFaire training.

Throughout the book Shapera stresses the importance of remaining positive, especially when interacting with those that have paid money to come see us. A point with which I highly agree. She includes chapters entitled, "It Only Takes a Moment", "Say Something Nice!", and "Why You Must Never Exclude Patrons, Ever, Not In A Million Years." Her big points of emphasis include  "Include and Elevate" the people you  encounter while plying this craft and "Making it Worth It" for both the audience and the performer reading the book.

Easy Street is self published through Lulu Press and it shows. Many of the chapters could have been merged into longer, more comprehensive sections. Also, Shapera's capitalization of Every Important Bit got very tiresome. It is an Elizabethan mode of writing, but in my opinion, was over-used, especially when paired with the heavy handed formatting.

Of all the training I have undergone to make me the history presenter that I am today, my most meaningful training has been in how to do historical research and how to be a Rennaissance Faire performer. A-E Shaera's Easy Street touches on all the best parts of RenFaire performance, and includes many points from which all presenters of history can benefit. I am glad to have this book on my shelf, it is a worthy addition to LH library. Read this entry on entry page

Saturday, July 27, 2013

School for 1st Person Interpretation

The other day in Shapiro house I had a group of New York Jews visit. I could tell they were NYC Jews a little by  how they looked, more by how they sounded, and I knew for sure when one of them said: "My mother had a stove just like that in the Catskills." and another chimed in: "We had one like that in the Bronx!"

We had a very nice interaction, we talked about leaving Russia, about the community in Portsmouth. NH, about buying kosher meat. The part I want to share here was towards the end when one member of the group asked: "what acting school did you go to?"

If I had had the chance to answer I would have talked in character about the fact that back in Russia only the boys went to school. Instead one of her fellow visitors jumped in and said "she is in character, she can't tell you that!"

It is true I could not answer her question. If I could have had that conversation, if I was not in character when it was asked, the answer would have been: none. There is no school that teaches what I do. There are one or two books, but really, we all learn by watching others, and by doing.

I've talked to many others in the field, and had many conversations about the possibility of classes, info guides, magazines, anything to share our skills and expertise. But I'm not sure we've reached a critical mass yet.

Maybe some day.

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, July 22, 2013

Importance of Visual Aides

Researching history, learning more about the timeperiods I am interested in, or just more about the way people work, is always exciting to me. You can keep psychology, anthropology, I like learning about people and the world in which we live in a historical context.

At the moment my historical obsession is visual. Blogs like Shorpy put up more historic photos every day. a bunch of awesome museums have photos of items in their collections online and A Stitch in Time does a good job of letting us know when new museums come online. and then there is Pinterest. I admit, I'm really enjoying having a place to store all the images of historic things. I have spent many a lunch break going through museums and blogs and pinning away, making the historical world I portray richer by adding to my own knowledge. Feel free to take a look at what I have been pinning, and let me know about your own boards. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

History IS fun!

When Alysa came to us almost three years ago now, she really didn’t like history. She had failed it at least once in school, and really could not see the appeal of dead men and stuff that happened long long ago. Since then she has worked a Renaissance Faire, visited ancient cities in Israel, watched countless costume dramas, and absorbed quite a lot by living with Stephen and me. Last year at Christmas when she came to visit the museum she caught one of the junior volunteers who gave the incorrect date: Alysa actually corrected her with the right date! And for her birthday this year she asked to dress up and join me in the garden at Strawbery Banke for the day!

I borrowed a dress from the museum costume supplies, she had a corset she had purchased through Amazon, she had boots she wore horseback riding, and I provided the petticoats. The night before, she read up on the person she was to play and even read an article I gave her on the dreaded disease of consumption. She woke up in plenty of time the next morning, we both got into our fancy victorian duds, and hit the road.

She was quiet in the morning, helping me water the garden beds and potted plants. She listened to me interact with all the school groups, and admitted to an unknown talent for croquet.
In the afternoon when she had relaxed we had a marvelous time. We pulled vines and saplings out of some bushes that had been neglected, we collected straw flowers to dry for the winter, and we had a tea party with some pastries I had managed to smuggle in to celebrate her birthday. She even grew bold enough to answer visitors’ questions. We both had fun, but more important, she did exactly what she wanted for her birthday.

I am proud that in the past two years she is calmer, happier, more polite, more self confident, but there is a little part of me that warms when she admits that history is now something she enjoys.

Alysa in Goodwin Garden.

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, July 8, 2013

Solo Living History

My Facebook feed has been full of photos from other people’s weekend reenactments and I must admit I am pretty jealous. I know that tons of folks in those photos would give a lot to have my job and be spending their time being historical in houses surrounded by all the right furniture, tools, the whole environment. I am mostly jealous because in my job I get lonely.

There are usually 3 or four other roleplayers at the museum, but we all play very different roles from very different time periods. There is usually someone in 1870, someone in 1919 and someone in 1943. Sometimes there is someone in 1777, or  1907. We can not really interact with each other. Not only are we supposed to stay close to our hoses, but we’re in completely different times! The closest two, 1907 Mrs. Aldrich and 1919 Mrs. Shapiro actually are located right across the street from each other, we could almost get away with it except the original Mrs. Aldrich put up a massive fence to separate herself from the undesirable neighbors across the street. Even if the modern folks that play Mrs. Aldrich are way friendlier, we really probably should not socialize.

Yes, I have people wandering through all day long, but most of them only stop by briefly. Often they come through just to look at the house, or they are unsure how to interact with a roleplayer. Even those that stick around  are separated in time. They are in 2013 and I am in 1919 (or 1870.) We can make connections, but there is always a block, that big gap of almost 100 years. I love when I can connect with visitors, and often I do, but it is totally not the same as spending a day surrounded by people who are all participating in the same event.

I miss my reenactor peeps, all of us working together. Even when we are set to our separate tasks we are united in time and focus. At the beginning and end of each day at an event we all work together. If one of us is struggling, there is someone on hand to sympathize, lend a hand. And we all laugh together, all day long.  I miss that.

Read this entry on entry page