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.