Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Midwinter Mischief at Old Sturbridge Village

Stephen and I went on a Midwinter Mischief tour at Old Sturbridge Village on February 4th. It was their first day of the special program. We went on an afternoon tour, but it was still the first day of a new program. The program was a semi-guided tour, with a meal included for $20 for non-members, which is a very decent price.

From the OSV visitor center we were lead by a costumed guide who walked us across the village to the Bullard Tavern. He stopped us halfway through to recite a verse about the experience we were about to have. He was very awkward, dropping his lines and struggling with the tempo and rhyme scheme of the verses. I got the impression this was not his idea of a good time. But when we were met at the tavern by “Mr. Bullard” he was enthusiastic in his acting. He encouraged us to eat first and assured us we’d get on a tour, but we declined since we’d eaten in the car on the way down. After using the restroom, we asked where we could catch our 1:45 tour, it turned out the 1:30 tour had not left yet so we jumped in on the end of the orientation for that tour.

The orientation was lead by the “town gossip” who was very good at making everyone laugh as she handed out cards to each person with the “role” we would be playing. Everyone got a nicely printed glossy card with a silhouette on one side and a paragraph about the role on the other. In the sitting room of the tavern another costumed person came in to tell us , in verse, about the peddler who spent last night at the tavern, ran up a tab he could not pay, and promised the tavern keep that he would return “with a tin cup overflowing with Gold”. The costumed person (who I’m told was supposed to be a tavern regular)told us the peddler then went to the Tinsmith shop, and we should go there to look for him. He did not follow us, but pointed the group in the right direction, we all walked ourselves (I think there were just under a dozen up is on this particular tour) over to the Tin Shop.

Inside the tin shop we were given some basic interpretations by the two men working in the tin shop, and one of them almost sounded like he was speaking in verse but it was so natural and interspersed with info on smithing and the history of peddlers that it was hard to tell. We spent about 10 minutes in the tin shop before they told us the peddler went on to the Parsonage, and we should look for him there. Over the course of the tour we visited:
- The Parsonage, grating chocolate with the parson’s daughter, getting a sermon on the evils of drink from the parson.
- A house in the village, helping dip candles,
- The village store, learning about what was sold there and buying on credit,
- The schoolhouse, getting a lesson
- The pottery, doing some hands-on wheel work
- The barn, sawing some firewood
- The farmhouse kitchen, making sausages
- Another kitchen, baking pies
- The blacksmith shop, shoeing oxen
- Outside visiting, with an oxen pair.
All of these stops were roughly ten minutes in length, all involved some interpretation, at least one hands-on opportunity for someone in the group, plus a few verses of script about “that pesky Peddler.” Each stop felt like a pretty good length, with a good mix of learning and story. None of the walks between buildings were so long that they felt arduous, and even though most of the stops the group had to stand, there were enough sitting stops mixed in that the general visitor did not feel too worn out by the end. We almost bumped into the group before us twice, but both times they were coming out as we went in, and we never ended up waiting for them. We never ran into the group behind us. Nor did it feel like the interpreter/actors were watching the clock, or rushing us through, their timing was very good.

After the last stop, our visit with the oxen, we were met by the last actor, a skinny young man in a top hat who did even more verse speaking, heading back up to the tavern. He was dressed quite differently from the other interpreter/actors, and was a better actor than most of them. Halfway through the walk back toward the tavern he produced a tin cup, giving the first inkling that this was the peddler we’d been “looking for” during our tour. For a little while at the end of the tour it felt quite clever, how the script had worked our group around to “discovering” the peddler, but by the time we got inside the tavern the clever part felt pretty empty.

My takeaway as we sat eating our soup (they’d kept some warm for us when I’d refused to eat before our tour) was that the “Midwinter Mischief” was a cute gimmick to get people on to the grounds during the month of February. The OSV actor/interpreters were the museum’s regular staff, and while a few did a superb job most of them gave off a distinct air of silly. They were portraying silly town characters, reciting silly lines about a silly peddler. This tour was not something to be taken seriously. In the end, everyone knew the peddler would come out on top, the town was no worse off for his visit, and there was no effect on the lives of real people, real history.

I think that did an incredible disservice to the history that they were interpreting. Every visitor was given a lot of information about life in a New England town in the early 1800s on this tour, but since the script was so gimmicky, and the actors so obviously just reciting their lines and not portraying real people, I believe it was hard for the visitors to go away with any emotional investment in what they had learned. Mystic Seaport does an incredible job using engaging emotional content in their programs, as do some of SBM’s roleplayers, so I know it can be done. Midwinter Mischief’s plot was fairly weak, and definitely came off as an excuse to visit the best houses in the village, not as an interpretation method itself. This could be because OSV hired a theatre person instead of a history person to write and direct their program, but I’ve seen amazing theatre that is emotionally engaging, so that can’t entirely be it.

I think the most I can say about the program is that it is a cute gimmick to get people through the doors, and show off the best of OSV in a winter setting. The worst is that there was so much potential if they had put more emphasis on actual history, and if their staff running the program had felt more comfortable playing their parts.

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