Time Traveller's Vade Mecum
Tips for Better First Person Interaction
for Workshop Presented by Kathryn Coombs, Midwest CW Civilians
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Don't "Act", just "Be":
(The only "ham" at your event should be in the
Tailor Your Impression to the Event
(Who were the citizens at the historic event portrayed?)
Research the History, the Locale & the People (This
IS Living History, right?)
Be Yourself (or rather, a 19th c. version thereof, in
the context of the event)
Find Other Like-Minded Folks, and Build a Community in
(No man is an island)
Plot flows from Character. (The best "scenarios"
are often unplanned)
Avoid and Ignore Anachronisms (and don't dwell on mistakes)
This Isn't a Point-Scoring Game (so don't try to trump
the other guy)
When in Doubt, Leave it Out (especially the "Lucky
Take a Break if Needed
(but don't drag others into the 20th century who don't
want to go)
No. 1: Don't "Act", just "Be"
Every ReenACTOR is an Actor:
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.
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)
No 2: Tailor Your Impression to the Event
Case for Event-Based Impressions:
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:
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?
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)
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?
for this kind of portrayal:
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
No 3: Research the History, the Locale and the People You're
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.
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.
No 4: Be Yourself:
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
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.
No 5: Find Other Like-Minded Folks and Build a Community in
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?
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.
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.
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)
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.
No 6: Plot Flows from Character
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
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.
No 7: Avoid and Ignore Anachronisms
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.
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.
No 8: This isn't a Point-Scoring Game
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.
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).
No 9: When in Doubt, Leave it Out
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
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.
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.
No 10: Take a Break if You Need One
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Person Resources Online:
Living History Company: First Person Tips
Authentic Campaigner: (articles section, click on First
Person Worksheet (Vicki Rumble)
Trent excellent article "The Art of First Person Conversation"
originally printed in the Citizens Companion
to Speak 19th Century" (Minnesota Historical Society)
Documenting the American South project, diaries/narratives:
(Assn. for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums)
Authentic Campaigner Civilian Forums (click on "discussions)
The "Szabo Forum" at www.CWReenactors.com
addition to books about the era and about the event you're portraying,
and the civilian experience in war time, the following might
into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical
Interpretation, by Stacy F. Roth
Actor Prepares, by Constantin Stanislavsky