Saturday, September 28, 2013

Preparing to lead a workshop

Recap of This Post: I was unhappy with SBM’s level of Role-Player training, and I was unhappy with our spring workshop. When given 5 paid hours of research time I decided to research first-person historic interpretation.

When given the opportunity to research what we do, my first thought was to go through my bibliography of Living History and pick out some bits from each book to share with my co-workers in the form of a paper. It gave me a good excuse to go back and actually read some of the books on my list that I had only skimmed, and pick out the more relevant parts. I started in on two of the skimmed books, then buckled down on three of the never-read ones. So far I have completed (and reviewed) only one, but I’m really close to being done with one of the other two. I’ve promised myself I’ll get at least two more of them finished and reviewed before the end of October.

This spring we role-players were scheduled for two workshops, one at the end of March (the crappy one) and another in mid-April. It was scheduled for a Monday morning, and I was spending the weekend in Fort Wayne, Indiana (I blogged about that event here.) I drove through most of the night trying to make it back to the east coast for that workshop, and at about 2 am somewhere in the depths of New York state on a very empty highway I decided what the workshop would look like if I ran it. In order to stay awake I wrote it all down, and that basic outline is what I eventually used for the workshop I ran this past week. I did not make it to the second role-playing workshop, we stopped at about 4 am and I overslept, ah well.

The basics of that I wrote down that night are this: the skills needed for historical role-playing (sometimes called costumed interpretation, sometimes called first-person interpretation) can be broken down into three categories: history, education, and theatre. Without skills in any one of the three categories you will have a much harder time role-playing, good RPs have skills that fall into all three. That night I started my list of skills, and listed them in the category I thought was most appropriate. Over the next few months I kept thinking about my list and adding to it.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Leading Up To Leading a Workshop

Advance warning: this is part one of a three part series on a workshop I recently conducted at Strawbery Banke Museum

A few weeks ago I lead a workshop and discussion for my fellow interpreters and role-players at Strawbery Banke Museum. I designed the workshop in response to a training that the museum offered us role-players last spring. I did not blog about it because April was very busy, also because it was so bad, I really had nothing good to say about it other than that it got all us role-players together, and it convinced me that I could lead a better workshop.

One of the things that I had noticed about becoming a museum role-player this time around (as opposed to when I started back in 1999) is that the museum provided tools in only two varieties: historical research, and the other role-players. Every role that the museum fills comes with a big 3-ring binder full of history articles. The binders include information about the house where you will be role-playing, the family you will represent, a timeline of known facts about the person you will be portraying, articles about the general history of the era, and more specifically about Portsmouth and about New Hampshire’s role in that era. In addition to the binder there are file cabinets full of photocopies of primary sources, articles written by past employees, and yet more history articles. Plus there is a small library of history books that we’re encouraged to borrow. That is all history-research related, which is useful but only one part of becoming a role-player. When one of the folks in horticulture asked what is wrong with just giving only the history stuff I kind of blew up at him (sorry Eric) and said it would be like giving someone a book of plants and telling them to go garden. Not a book on how-to garden, just a book with facts on the plants in the garden, he would never expect someone to know how to transplant seedlings without step-by-step instructions, or at least watching someone else do it.

Now for new role-players they are given a small amount of time shadowing a well established role-player, where they get to watch someone who knows how to do it. But from what I have gathered, the amount of time a new RP gets depends less on their need and more on the museum’s scheduling difficulties. How much the experienced role-player gets to share, and if it is compatible with the way the new RP learns is left entirely up to chance. In the little library there were no books on role-playing. Heck, there were not even any books on museum interpretation!

But back to the spring workshop. I was very excited going in to the workshop because we were actually having training! I was hopeful that the workshop leader would establish some professional vocabulary, that she would talk about the books about roleplaying, and that we would get a chance to bond as a group outside of the mess of interpreters. Well we got to bond about what a crappy workshop it was. The worst part was that at the very end of the workshop the leader passed around some hand-outs that did include a vocabulary list and a tiny bit of a bibliography! She did not talk at all about her hand-outs which would have made a great workshop, she just passed them around with apologies and basically told us to ignore them!!

By the time the workshop was over I knew that I could better meet the needs of my fellow role-players, and at the same time I was offered an opportunity to do so. We were all told that the museum was offering us RPs 5 hours of paid research time. It was expected we would research some aspect of history from the era that we represent, then write it up in a paper, so the other folks who do the same time period could benefit. I knew that my co-workers would be better served if I was able to share my research on role-playing instead of any research on history that I may do. Thankfully my bosses at the museum agreed to let me try.

Thus ends part 1 of my journey to workshop, I’ll post about the actual workshop soon.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Feeling Pretty

Last month I spent a lot of time thinking about getting into character, and why I had been having so much trouble with the new role in the Victorian Garden. I've been struggling to learn all the gardening, to finish my clothing, to find ways to get into character and relate to my visitors. Often it takes some time for me to feel comfortable in a new role, but this one has seemed almost torturous (though that could have been the corset.)

The day in the garden that I felt the most confident, the most "in character" had a lot of things going for it, I had time to prepare the day before, I was given garden tasks I knew I could do, and I went into the day feeling very pretty.

The evening before I managed to sew a few more hook and eye closures on my costume, so my pink petticoat was no longer held on with pins, and the back of my skirt at least had the hook, even if the eye was still a safety pin. I know that those two little things made absolutely no difference to the visitors, but to know that I had made even some tiny progress on my clothing made me feel better in the clothes. During the day itself I was assigned a garden task that I felt confident about (watering and fertilizing) and in the afternoon I was joined by the summer camp kids in their cute pinafores, which I always think is great fun.

I had been visiting with a college friend the few days before, and I remembered from so long ago his skills at French braids. I asked, and he accepted so when I arrived in the morning my hair looked fabulous. Those braids, even more than the clothing fixes, and the camp kids made me feel 100%. All day long I greeted every visitor with a flirtatious smile and a story about growing up in Portsmouth. I got the gardening chores done so fast, and I did not second guess myself too often. I know most people could not see my lovely coif under the bonnet, but I made sure to take off my bonnet as much as possible.

Am I being shallow? Is this a weakness on my part? I think it is entirely a reflection of the history I am portraying.

In Shapiro house I wear a big frumpy apron when I am inside, and a massive dark raincoat to go out. I wear an unflattering orange shirt that I made out of flannel, I mix brown, black and navy blue. Mrs. Shapiro was a thrifty woman. She cared about feeding her family well but did not worry about feeding herself. Her husband unplugged the alarm clocks during the day so they would not waste electricity. I do not have photographic evidence of Mrs. Shapiro's fashion sense until later in her life, but I feel fairly confident surmising that her own clothing did not matter much to Mrs. Shapiro.

Victorian ladies are something different altogether. We have stories of them changing outfits three times a day. Even their underthings required help for proper fitting. Susan Dewey specifically was known as a beauty and a charmer. In 1870 she has been married for 3 years and has come back to her home town for the summer. Though I only have a few facts about Susie, I surmise from the mores of the time if nothing else that she would look pretty well put together, which is something I struggle with.

So I often find it tough to have the confidence to play Susan Dewey. To play her well I think I need a servant to see that I'm properly attired before I'm ready to face the world, or the museum going public. Or maybe I just need to find ways to feel pretty.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Every 8 Minutes

In the parlor of Shapiro house there is a large mirror above the fireplace (actually the former fireplace). The mirror is magic, it conceals a television that plays an eight minute video about the Shapiro family and their journey from Ukraine to Portsmouth, NH. The video is on repeat. The interpreter playing Mrs. Shapiro turns it on in the morning when we open the house, and turn it off in the evening when we lock up. On a quiet day in Shapiro house us Mrs. Shapiros listen to the video while we sit in the kitchen and it plays over and over in the parlor. Every eight minutes. In a day we listen to the video play over 53 times, depending on how early we turn it on, and how sick of it we are at the end of the day. I'm sure all three of us could recite the whole thing, narrator's pauses and inflections in place. Luckily, the script is very well written. It is not an easy task to condense the lives of an entire family into eight minutes, and to do so without causing bleeding ears among those of us who have listened to it all season for years is a blessing.

The narrator starts out describing the family back in Russia, talks about names, about Samuel Shapiro’s journey to Portsmouth, about Abraham and Sarah, about life in Portsmouth, about Mollie, then about the family as it is now. Since I have mostly just listened to it for the past two seasons sometimes I’m surprised when I catch the images on the TV that go along with the script that I know so well. It is an odd perspective.

For me one of the parts that stick out the most are the tragedies. There are three events that the narrator describes as tragic: the holocaust, the death of Samuel Shapiro's two oldest daughters, and Mollie Shapiro's death shortly after her marriage. The order I have described above is the order they appear in the film even though chronologically the holocaust happens last. Yes, when sitting there on a really slow day, often a cold and wet day, I think about things like that while I keep myself busy cooking, sewing and reading; waiting for visitors to talk to.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Computer Game for History Geeks

I don’t play a lot of computer games, but I do play a few. Plants versus Zombies is my favorite game ever, and PvZ2 is slightly history-based, but not really. It is just a fun game I play over, and over, and over.

For the past few months I have been playing Civilization 5. And that game has a ton of history to it. For those of you not familiar with the Civilization games, you pick a civilization: Persian, Mayan, German, or many others and as the leader you lead your civilization from the discovery of pottery, through the nuclear age, declaring war on your neighbors, exploring oceans and continents, founding new cities, adopting social policies and tons more. There are many reasons why I am enjoying playing Civ5, not the least of which is that there is so much human history to it! It is not terribly complex history, which means inaccuracies are to be expected, but I still enjoy exploring the oceans with caravels, and founding universities long before public schools become available. I’ve learned things from the game too, I do not know a lot of Asian history, and I’ve been reading up on the real life civilizations that I see in the game.

It is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but I pretend that I’m being historical, so it counts, right?

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Junior Role-Players

As the school year starts back up, we’ve said goodbye to the Junior Role-players at Strawbery Banke. I will definitely miss them. During the summer SBM runs all kinds of summer camps: half day camp for the littles, craft-centered camps for the 8 to 12, and role-player camps for the older kids. They get to try out all the history, all the clothes, and what it is like to be in character out on the grounds of the museum. I have tons of good stories to tell you about this year’s juniors, but first, a memory.

When I worked at SBM while I was in college I befriended a junior role player. He had been involved in the museum a lot longer that I had and knew more about the history and about roleplaying. At the end of my first season I was given the christmas program assignment of the most boring house on the grounds. The Puritan/Protestant winter house has no decorations because they did not celebrate Christmas. We could not have a real fire, the kitchen where I sat had a string of red christmas lights buried in the ash in the fireplace. I was assigned to tell stories to my two “step-children”, two poor juniors who had to sit with me in that dreary house. Cory, the boy assigned to play Jack Wheelwright, step-son to Martha Wheelwright (my character) was such a good sport. We made our own fun, told stories all evening long.

The next summer Cory volunteered a couple times a week, usually in the library, and if i was working he would stop by to visit.We talked about everything. We both loved history, hated high school, and had a theatrical disposition that got us in trouble one day. I forget whether it was early spring or late fall, either way the sun was setting before closing, so the flood-lights came on in front of the house where I was stationed. There had been very few visitors before Cory had shown up, so it did not take long while we were chatting for us to discover a musical we both loved. I don’t remember if it was Les Miserables, or Little Mermaid (probably Little Mermaid.) Soon we were both singing and showing off in the flood-lights. We were not all that different in age, he was almost through high school, I had completed two years of college. I remember getting in trouble for that one!

Sometimes we joked, Cory and I, that one day he would go in for a job interview at the Smithsonian and I would be the one conducting the interview. I hope, wherever Cory ended up he is doing well. Read this entry on entry page