Time Traveller's Vade Mecum
Notes for Workshop Presented by Kathryn Coombs, Midwest CW Civilians Conference 2002
Vade mecum: n. (vA-dE-'mE-k&m), from the Latin, "go with me", ca. 1629, def. 1 : a book for ready reference : MANUAL 2 : something regularly carried about by a person
While I do not pretend that these notes will constitute a comprehensive manual for first person interpretation and interaction, I hope that they will at least be a useful primer for those new to "FirPer" and a handy reference for veteran living historians. Perhaps most useful of all will be the suggested resources for further information at the end of this paper.
In reenacting, it's probable that you'll have the opportunity to do first person in two basic forms: interpretation (e.g. presenting the era to spectators) and interaction (being "real" for the benefit of yourself and other reenactors to get a sense of time travel and "being there".) In addition, there will probably be many times when these two types of first person overlap -- e.g .you're in character at an event, in a period conversation and a spectator asks you a question.
The primary focus of this document is on interaction -- e.g. being real for the sheer fun and learning of it all. This is where reenacting can go beyond mere recreation and truly become living history. By attempting to walk a "mile in the shoes" of the men and women of the Civil War era, we get an inkling of what it might have been like on an emotional as well as intellectual level and gain insights that no history book can give us.
Developing your skills and comfort level with this type of first person will make presenting to the public a lot easier. Interpretation for spectators, and how it differs from a purely immersion experience, will be covered at the end of these notes.
If you really want to "walk a mile in their shoes", the road map isn't really very complicated. I've broken it down in to the key milestones / landmarks:
TEN KEY POINTS:
1. Don't "Act", just "Be":
(The only "ham" at your event should be in the frying pan.)
2. Tailor Your Impression to the Event
(Who were the citizens at the historic event portrayed?)
3. Research the History, the Locale & the People (This IS Living History, right?)
4. Be Yourself (or rather, a 19th c. version thereof, in the context of the event)
5. Find Other Like-Minded Folks, and Build a Community in Advance
(No man is an island)
6. Plot flows from Character. (The best "scenarios" are often unplanned)
7. Avoid and Ignore Anachronisms (and don't dwell on mistakes)
8 This Isn't a Point-Scoring Game (so don't try to trump the other guy)
9. When in Doubt, Leave it Out (especially the "Lucky Charms" accent!)
10. Take a Break if Needed
(but don't drag others into the 20th century who don't want to go)
Point No. 1: Don't "Act", just "Be"
Inside Every ReenACTOR is an Actor:
There are a lot of parallels between reenacting and the dramatic arts. Whether you're presenting to the public or not, it is a form of theatre in many senses. As a result, many reenactors feel like they've got to "act" in order to do firper. This makes many introverted people shy away from attempting first person at all -- sadly missing out on one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of the hobby. It causes others to do stagey, fakey bad firper -- hamming it up for the spectators, doing poorly executed "Lucky Charms" Irish accents, reacting to a "scenario" in implausible manner, etc.
To get away from this kind of school days dram pageant reenacting mentality, a number of techniques used in the acting profession can actually be extremely helpful. For example, reading up on "Improv" techniques or participating in workshops can be helpful (which we're going to do today). Also the classic techniques of "method acting" pioneered by Stanislavsky can be extremely helpful as they focus on the actor "becoming" the role, rather than just "acting" it out. The cliché mental image of the method actor preparing for his role has him pondering "what's my motivation?" That is PRECISELY the sort of question we living historians should be asking. But first, a more fundamental question: "Who am I?" (personality, occupation, family)
Point No 2: Tailor Your Impression to the Event
The Case for Event-Based Impressions:
When I got into this hobby, one of the standard pieces of advice for newbies I kept encountering was "figure out your impression before you buy any clothing." This didn't make a particle of sense to me at the time -- and I'm glad to see that the authenticity-focused end of the hobby is now broadly rejecting this canard. What's the sense in deciding you're a refugee / laundress / visiting officer's wife, peddler, member of the US Sanitary Commission, nun, etc etc. when you're at an event where there were no refugees documented? Taken to extremes, this approach is the civilian equivalent of having Lincoln and Lee at First Manassas. Apart from deciding at the outset which broad social class you want to focus on portraying (essential because of clothing choices), the rest of your impression should flow from the facts of the event being portrayed. Instead, a better way of approaching things is as follows:
1. What event are we portraying? (is this a portrayal of a particular battle or other specific historic event? Or, is it a generic sort of event -- life on the homefront, etc. If the latter, what year is it and where are we located?
2. What kind of non-military people were actually THERE? (Local townspeople / farmers? Refugees? Civilians in documented military support roles?) Who WERE they? Demographics? Econonomic / occupational ranges, key ethnic groups in the local population, prevailing local attitudes to the War, as documented in any period sources)
3. What options do I have for portrayals that fit with my core impression in terms of socioeconomic class and my age group? What occupations were there in the local community that I know something about or would like to research?
Opportunities for this kind of portrayal:
The event-based impressions approach is being taken more and more on the authentic civilian side of the hobby. Two key events in the 2001 season that focused on this approach were McDowell and Burkittsville. In 2000, Outpost was a seminal event.. And many more are being planned. This approach need not be confined only to the "EBUFU" events on the calendar. Realistic immersion experiences can be obtained at big mainstream events too. The picnickers scenario at Manassas 140 was, in effect, a two-hour long mini-immersion. A group of us are working on adapting the Burkittsville experience to the authentic civilian effort for Antietam, to portray the citizenry of the Sharpsburg area.
Point No 3: Research the History, the Locale and the People You're Portraying:
Successful living history involves actually attempting to portray historical events and their impact on those who were there. Before an immersion event, read up on the historic event being portrayed -- not just the military history but the impact on the local population. But who WAS that population? Look at census data? Is this a town, a city or a rural area? What were the main local industries and/or agricultural crops? Were they farmers, shopkeepers, economically well off, poor or a mixture? What were the dominant ethnic groups? Was this a slaveholding population? Were there free blacks living in the area? What were the loyalties of the local population? What military units were recruited from the area? How did the battle / presence of the military affect the local population and how did they react.
At this stage, you'll want to determine whether to attempt to portray an actual historical personage in the local community, or develop a generic impression based on the local population. E.g. if there was a miller at the edge of town, you could either portray that individual, taking his name from the census, researching him via genealogy websites, contacting descendants, etc. OR merely develop a generic miller's impression for the event. The latter is considerably easier and less risky, but the former can be highly rewarding if there's some documentation on the individual and you can work with descendants.
Point No 4: Be Yourself:
While the externals of your impression will change from event to event, adapting to the locality and the historical realities, the "inner person" of your impression need not change. Instead of attempting the higher challenge of a professional actor and seeking to portray a person with a substantially different personality than your own, it's a lot easier and more believable to portray someone similar to yourself. Do you have a sense of humor or are you a bit stern? Are you talkative or taciturn? Do you have a temper or does nothing faze you? Are you emotionally demonstrative or withdrawn? Lazy or industrious? Base your character's personality on your own, but adapted into a 19th century context. And don't worry about being shy. There were plenty of shy people in the 19th century too!
What's your occupation? What are your hobbies? If you're a lawyer, portraying a 19th century lawyer might make sense (or a lawyer's wife). If you're a student, portraying a student could be useful. In portraying someone with a period occupation, you should make an effort to learn as much about that occupation as possible, including getting hand-on experience. In this context, developing an occupation generic impression that can be adapted by event -- doctor, farmer, blacksmith, shopkeeper, etc makes a lot of sense.
Point No 5: Find Other Like-Minded Folks and Build a Community in Advance:
No man is an island -- and this was even more true in the 19th century than it is in today's apartment-dwelling society. Communities were interdependent, people had larger families. Therefore, your character, in order to become "real" needs to have a whole set of relationships with others in that community. Who are your children / siblings / cousins / parents / employer / employees / customers / preacher / friends?
If a community can be established in advance and these inter-relationships be allowed to grow naturally, it makes the first person easier, more natural and more fun. The Internet provides an unparalleled opportunity to develop a "virtual community" in advance.
Devices such as writing your biography in advance and posting it for other civilian participants to see, participating in chatrooms and email lists where you can either discuss the event as modern people or actually interact in "VirPer" (Virtual First Person) conversations. This was done with the McDowell event (see website) and with Burkittsville, where civilian participants volunteered for, or were assigned to family groupings based on actual families in the census and then participated in a YahooGroup discussion forum to work out the details.
For McDowell, the Civilian Coordinator developed a worksheet that helped people to develop their characters and was used as a template for all biographies. As many of those at McDowell were also at Burkittsville, most of us continued to use this outline for that event as well. (Copy in appendix)
A further advantage of this kind of preparation is that research work can be shared rather than everyone having to do their own independent research, and that research can be discussed. Having a YahooGroup or other website also enables you to post links to websites that might be helpful to other participants and to post your photograph so that your neighbors will "know" you when you get to the event.
Point No 6: Plot Flows from Character
The best novels and plays focus more on character than on plot. Instead of trying to contrive a full schedule of elaborate "scenarios", which is the traditional approach to first person, it's better merely to establish a basic outline of the key scenarios based on the historical facts -- e.g. military marches into town, public reacts, church service held, battle takes place, civilians treat wounded, etc. -- but then let the rest just flow naturally from this turn of events and from the characters. That way, the "scenarios" are a natural outgrowth of what went before, and the whole thing becomes more real.
The best "scenario" at McDowell was unplanned -- the tragic death of local soldier Josiah Jackson just a few minutes before he was to be reunited with his family and reconciled with his father who had opposed his joining the Army. In fact, Sean Pridgeon, who portrayed Josiah had worked out in advance how he was going to play his joyful reunion with his family. However, in the skirmish in the town, a Yankee reenactor fired at him and there was no choice but to take the hit and go down. It was at such close range that the hit would not have been survivable. Suddenly, he knew what it was like to be cheated out of that joyous reunion and then the whole town sprang into action according to their character and their relationship to the Jackson family.
Point No 7: Avoid and Ignore Anachronisms
In doing first person, it's important to work on expunging your vocabulary of modernism, and use as much period dialogue as you can without it being forced. However, if you make a mistake, don't dwell on it -- chances are to other reenactors and spectators, a modern word will just sound "normal". Just ignore it and keep going. Some online resources for period dialogue and slang are noted in the appendix.
By the same token, if you're interrupted by something modern, either ignore it or make passing reference to it in a period context -- e.g if someone's cell phone rings incessantly to the point of not being able to ignore it, making some comment that the crickets are particularly loud this season, might solve the problem. This works better with spectators, as the catharsis of a laugh will keep them from just getting the giggles and not focusing. However, be careful not to "play to the audience" with lots of asides and modern references. First person should not be played out as a source for one-liners.
Point No 8: This isn't a Point-Scoring Game
If a fellow reenactor makes a mistake and uses a modern phrase or commits some other gaffe, don't call their attention to it or make a big deal about it. Just keep going. Reenacting isn't a game and nobody's keeping score of winners and losers. You don't have to trump the other guy. Nor should you deliberately put others on the spot by asking them questions which they find hard to answer.
Try to keep your questions relatively open ended until the conversation gets going. And don't try to develop your conversation partner's character for them. For example, ask, "has the Army being in town affected any of your livestock", not "Did you catch the Yankees/Rebs who ate your cow Bessie?" (unless, of course, they'd already themselves established this fact).
Point No 9: When in Doubt, Leave it Out
There are a lot of impression embellishments that one might be tempted to add, particularly if they're documented. For example, if you're portraying a southerner and you're from Massachusetts, trying to adopt a Southern accent would seem to make sense. Before you do this, consider whether (1) you can do a plausible job at that accent (chat with a friend who actually HAS that accent and get them to evaluate you and (2) whether in the heat of reacting to events and "getting into" the role, you can sustain it.
If you can't, don't do it. If you've got a particularly aggressive Southern accent and are portraying a New England Yankee or vice versa, you might try merely softening the accent you've got and coming up with some pretext for it in your biography. If wealthy, were you educated in the North? Do you have relatives in the South? If it's an immigrant accent -- Irish, German, etc, perhaps you could adjust your biography so that you came to America as a child and only have a small trace of a foreign accent if any.
By the same token, you might find yourself at an event where you've had little time to prepare. If you don't have the local knowledge, work this into your impression, and portray someone who only recently arrived from an area that you DO know -- e.g. perhaps you're staying with relatives? Perhaps you're a refugee -- not in the classic context of displaced person sleeping in the woods, but like Judith McGuire, having packed up possessions in a wagon and fled town to stay with friends and relatives away from the area of army occupation or battle.
Point No 10: Take a Break if You Need One
Immersing yourself in the 19th century for a whole weekend isn't easy if you're not used to it. It's easy to get tired, which can make you punch and inclined to break into modern conversation. First find out the ground rules of the event. Is it immersion or semi-immersion. If the latter, when are you "out of character" and when are you "in"? If you need to take a sanity break, do so from time to time, getting away from others by going into your tent or into an authenticity free zone like the parking lot or behind the portapots. If like minded friends will also need such a break establish signals that you can use in period conversation so that the two of you can enjoy your break together and talk about the event so far.
Code words are also particularly helpful to establish when "interaction" with the military is too much and stepping over the boundaries. At Burkittsville, the word was "rowdy". Also have a code word for emergency situations, so that people know when they must break out of the 19th century to attend to a modern medical or security need.
Interpreting for Spectators:
The techniques described for interacting with other reenactors will also help to enable you to give a more believable, realistic and historically instructive "performance" for spectators. However, there are some additional techniques to note when you are working with spectators.
One option is to have a few members of your group designated as docents / third person interpreters who can swing into 21st century mode to explain things to people. If you do this, the rest of you might not need to do anything much more differently than you would if it were just other reenactors watching, using the "Third Wall" technique of their observing a scenario unseen. Another option is to interact directly with the spectators, involving them in the conversation and treating them as if they were period people. If done well this can be extremely enjoyable. "Have you got any fabric we can use as bandages?" (just be careful not to put them on the spot.) Once you're used to this, you'll even find it fun and quite easy to give entire speeches / presentations to school and community groups in character.
A few things to keep in mind in this context is to remember that these people are coming from a modern mindset. Be careful using words that are period correct but not "PC", for fear they'll think you mean it in a modern context. Also, making references to modern things as a bit of humor might help break the ice and get people to focus on the differences between the two periods. ("My goodness! You're only wearing your chemise!) but don't over do it, or it can be come slapstick and trivialize your message.
If asked about something that happened AFTER the time period you're portraying, it's a judgment call whether to break character, use a bit of gentle humor ("a clairvoyant told me that ") or simply feign ignorance. The latter might help you stay in character but it doesn't educate the audience. Be sure of your objectives.
First Person Resources Online:
The Authentic Campaigner: (articles section, click on First Person)
First Person Worksheet (Vicki Rumble)
Linda Trent excellent article "The Art of First Person Conversation" originally printed in the Citizens Companion
"How to Speak 19th Century" (Minnesota Historical Society)
UNC's Documenting the American South project, diaries/narratives:
In addition to books about the era and about the event you're portraying, and the civilian experience in war time, the following might prove useful
Past into Present:
Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical
Interpretation, by Stacy F. Roth