Part II of the two-part guest posts by Sharon Burnston. Part I is here. ( Just below, if you are scrolling)
In the previous blog post, I explained the concept of “Yes, and”. But in the case of the naval press gang reenactment last summer in Newport, the “Yes, and” dialogue that I expected didn’t happen. When the press gang invaded the tavern I was mistress of, and started grabbing sailors, I attempted to intervene. This would have allowed me to put into words, for the benefit of the public watching, what this intrusion into our community would do to the town, in terms of the loss of the local men both collectively and individually.
In attempting to defend my customers, I as tavern mistress could have functioned as a token representative of all the other women of Newport, all of whom had economic, social, and maybe personal ties to the impressed men. The public would have had a better chance to grasp what the impressment actually meant to the people of Newport. But this failed to happen. Nobody in the press gang picked up on my gambit, they went about their business with a very convincing and no doubt authentic silent ruthlessness. One brandished his club and snarled, “Silence, woman!” which effectively shut down my efforts entirely. However one of my “customers” picked up on my gambit and began pleading to be released on account of his wife and children, but he got essentially the same response that I did, and he was also shut down.
I didn’t put all that effort into my tavern and tavern mistress impression just to be a scenic backdrop for the press gang. It was my expectation that there would be interaction between the tavern owner and the naval crew, which would serve to better educate the public by exteriorizing what we roleplayers were thinking and feeling about what was happening. My mistake was in taking for granted that this would be obvious to the other role players, and that the naval crew would give me a “Yes, and” response for the benefit of the audience.
In short, I think we could have done a better job of *interpreting* what was happening if we hadn’t all been quite so focused on doing it as *authentically* as possible. I do not in any way fault the guys who were portraying the naval crew. To their credit, they played their roles with superb accuracy. If anything the fault was mine for assuming we’d be all on the same page, and ready to interact with one another. It is my opinion that as an interpretive exercise, this living history scenario would have benefited from being just a teensy bit less “authentic” and a little bit more theatrical.
In talking afterward with members of the public, I found too many of them confused, they saw the action but didn’t really understand what was going on, nor what was at stake for the various individual characters involved. It would have been so easy to get the essential points across while the scene was unfolding, and it doesn’t take long, a few sentences exchange is enough. But all participants have to understand in advance the merits of this, and be prepared for it when it happens.
In my opinion it’s great, but not enough, to know the best possible historical information on the event we are presenting, and to replicate the clothing and equipment so meticulously. We also should be prepared to join together to learn how to portray it in the most informative and articulate way possible. This can only make our first-person historical reenactments even better than they already are.
Steve Ragosta said:
In all the first person events I was involved in it it came very apparent that a sit down of all involved was needed so what happened to you as the mistress and your attempts to inform the public would have been known to the others and the dialogue between you and them could have proceeded to inform the public of what was happening and why. It also was helpful to have someone ” set the stage” for the public by informing them this would be in first person and the general idea of what was going in and about the area the public would be walking in. I always love first person though and these scenarios!!!
Tim Abbott said:
Sharon, thank you for both of these thoughtful posts and the “Yes, and” critique is right on point. Even with the kind of intensive preparation that went into this event – and as one of the principal organizers I have a good grasp of what that entailed – we had no opportunity before the day itself to rehearse, to discuss, to try doing variations on the main action as a group. The nature of the event, including the exceptionally long travel distances involved for many participants, did not offer us that kind of rehearsal time. Nonetheless, fifteen preparatory minutes of presenting the basics of what you have so helpfully conveyed here would certainly have raised the interpretive and theatrical value of the tavern sequence. I was more concerned at the time about the fight choreography which can go so badly wrong if it is just improvised, and missed an opportunity to go further with the bystander engagement. I’m curious whether some of what is planned for next Month’s vignettes prior to the Boston Massacre could offer an opportunity to underscore this important element of public history. Cheers, Tim