Wednesday, 1 October 2014

"I can't define it exactly, but I know it when I see it."

In which I visited Cambridge for some large-scale live interpretation.

The title quotes a famous explanation of pornography given by Justice Potter Stewart in the USA in 1964. To me, the same 'non-definition' applies to good live interpretation.

I know good live interpretation when I see it, but defining it is quite another thing.  I've felt the need to define, explain, and indeed, justify, what I do on more than one occasion (imagine: 'so who are you supposed to be?','well, what's the point of that?' and 'is someone paying you for this?'). Live interpretation is not exactly teaching, not exactly acting, and not exactly re-enacting. It flutters, bee-like, between all three, collecting elements from each.

I'm lucky. I not only get to wear fabulous clothes and talk about history, but also to engage, inspire, make connections, empathise, provoke, entertain and inform about the experience of people- real people- who lived long ago. Quite an audacious conceit, to imagine that I know how they felt. But be clear: I am only imagining, albeit based on a lot of reading.

My imagination was put to the test in early September when I was invited to be Queen Elizabeth I for a creative recreation of her 1564 visit to Cambridge. (I got the job via a chance look at Twitter - you see, social media does have its advantages). Matthew Ward and Gill Fraser Lee of History Needs You organised a right Royal spectacle.

Having no actual experience of being a Queen - Tudor or otherwise- I imagined instead what I would expect from a Tudor Queen if I were in the watching crowd. I figured I would expect a visual extravaganza, so immediately set to work adding bling to the frock. I also thought a modern audience would expect warmth and grace from the monarch, even though a Tudor monarch could have been more aloof. 

By George, I think I got it! Click on this link 'Elizabethan Pageant' to see a splendid video of the day by HistoryWorks.

We started at Great St Mary's Church, where 'QE1' gave an audience and met with subjects, then we proceeded to St John's College for an oration about Margaret Beaufort by 'my spirit' Cecil. Passing a statue of Henry VIII, we finished with a walk to the chapel of Kings College, where I walked the length of the aisle then presided over an Elizabethan evensong. Stunning surroundings; the Queen was quite overwhelmed by the beauty of the building -and the enormity of the occasion- as the evening sunshine projected the stained glass colours all over the ancient stonework.   

I met some wonderful people: friendly re-enactors from Kentwell Hall, supremely helpful PhD students as Ladies in Waiting, the lovely musicians of Passamezzo and Merrie Noyse, and the staff and volunteers of Great St Mary's -not forgetting the 500 public who joined us for Evensong, and the thousands who lined the streets.

 What was the point of it all? Well, it was public history: we didn't give lectures or get bogged down in the minutae of costume detail. It was about the spirit of the occasion, tourists today connecting with an event that happened 450 years ago, people of all ages responding to a famous character from history, and most notably, the Cambridge colleges opening their doors for free for the first time for Heritage Open Days. As Queen Elizabeth I, in my massive, bejewelled costume, my function was to draw the crowds, grab the headlines and form a focus and figurehead for it all. 

People loved it. From the three year old who insisted most earnestly that her dress was every bit as pretty as mine, or the patrician who wrote me a poem, to the Spanish lads taking selfies with me in the street, the occasion brought a sparkle and a buzz to Cambridge.  

What did the onlookers think? Was this good interpretation? 
Only one answer will suffice:

"They couldn't define it exactly, but they knew it when they saw it..."

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Developing a character for Live Interpretation? Here's 8 simple questions to help you find your way...

They say that the past is a foreign country. Well, Live Interpreters are there to translate! 

Popular misconceptions may be that a historical interpreter is 'just someone in a costume', a living display, an embarrassing sideshow or a better class of animatronic. 

But we know that 'Disney Princess Carnival' this ain't. Nor is it re-enactment. And nor is it 'History Lite'!

Read on for my 'how to' list for creating accessible Live Interpretion characters without dumbing down the history.

We, the Live Interpreters, are the lucky ones. Why? because we have the opportunity to 'light the blue touch paper' for our audience. We're there to inspire everyone to find out more about objects, buildings, events or people from the past. We can make history accessible, thought-provoking, current - and dare I say it -enjoyable?

Many museums and heritage attractions blithely offer the visitor a 'Meet the Historical Character' experience. Sounds tame? Don't be fooled. For the person in the costume, this is the Ultimate Live Interpretation Gig. It's top speed improvisation mixed with a quick fire knowledge test under pressure, with super duper customer service skills - and a photoshoot thrown in for good measure.

You could meet ANYBODY; families,   students, interest groups. Easy? Think again. A 'family' could include every generation from great-granny to baby to a totally uninterested teenager who's been dragged along. 'Student groups' may bring a teacher who wants to compete with you on knowledge, or the students may have English as a second language. That friendly U3A group might include a professor who has just had a book published on the character you're playing... you get the idea. 

Each one of those visitors will expect to interact with you at their level. Or they might studiously ignore you, in which case I strongly advise you to resist the urge to tease them.

Questions, though, could be anything. It could be a testing academic question (scary, but fun) but it could be more random. When dressed as Queen Elizabeth 1st, I've been variously asked a) if I'm Queen Victoria, b) if I'm real, c) where the toilets are, d) if I'm a virgin.* True!

Here are my 8 top tips for dealing with your audience with confidence, knowledge and of course, a smile.  As always, it's all in the preparation.

Ask yourself some simple questions:

1) Why is character there?
Work out a clear reason to be there, or you may find yourself feeling like a bit of a lemon. Is your character there to provide 

  • information
  • entertainment
  • education
  • a specific learning outcome
  • way finding/signposting, 
  • living scenery (-woe betide, but it can happen)
  • ..or something else? 

2) Who will you be interacting with? 
...And will they be expecting you? Audiences could include 

  • the general public of all ages
  • special interest groups
  • people with additional needs
Be prepared to adjust your language and approach (but not your character) for each type.

3) What kind of interaction is expected? 
Check beforehand with organisers what they want: 

  • Long/ short interactions
  • promenade performance
  • monologue
  • conversation only
  • activity/object handling-based
  • storytelling...

Whichever it is, you will probably be the one to 'make the first move' of the interaction. Think about how you'll do this without scaring people off. Give yourself three or four 'openers' to have at the ready; make sure they suit your character, the tone of the day, the heritage site and the visitors themselves.

4) Who is the character? Is it a real historical figure, or a representative of a viewpoint/time/place?

If you're 'doing' a real character, people may try and test your knowledge. Make sure you know all the basics: 

  • full name and any nicknames
  • birth & death dates
  • relatives
  • context
  • big events
  • relationships to other characters. 

Consider personality - will your interpretation follow 'received' opinion, or will you offer alternatives? IE; Henry VIII as 'sex crazed despot' or 'thoughtful statesman'?  Whichever you decide, be able to back it up.

If your role has been freshly created as a composite character to represent a specific viewpoint, job, time or place, you still need to decide on all the above! Have fun, use stuff you'll remember easily like stories from your own family- and don't change your character half way through.

5) Any props? 
Handle them like you own them. Offer anecdotes about objects relating to your character, ie 'see my knife? It used to be my grandfather's. See that mark on it? That's because he once used it to open a box for my grandma...' Etc etc. 

6) Is there an elephant in the room?
Heritage sites can make the perfect backdrop, but they often also contain displays that are irrelevant to your character. If you ignore them, chances are your audience will too. Inevitably, sometimes someone will ask about the irrelevant displays. In this case, I suggest giving a brief factual explanation of 'the elephant', whatever it may be. To get your message across firmly but politely, end your explanation with 'but of course that's nothing to do with me today'. 

Historical room settings often include dressed mannequins (shudder). If you notice people looking at the dummies instead of you too much, I advise this technique: 

Pause, grin, look at the offending mannequin, look back at the audience, grin again and say 'That's [Arthur]- he doesn't say much!' and grin again. Pause until you've regained the majority of the audience's attention again. 

This method is tried and tested, and acknowledges the situation with a touch of humour. You can then ignore 'Arthur' like you would any other irrelevant display. 

If 'Arthur' happens to be a relevant character to you, you can still refer to him, but as a ghost character. EG: 'I said to Arthur not to sit there but he never listens' or 'look at these ploughs/ irons/ books! They belong to Arthur but he won't mind if I show you' or 'Don't get too close to Arthur, he's quiet now but he's a right chatterbox when he gets going. You can't shut him up...'

7) And finally...costume. 
Make sure it all fits and is right for the character before you start, then forget it. 
However, you'll need to be ready to talk about it if your audience wants to, so know the names of all the items you're wearing, as you would with your own clothes!

Don't think of it as costume, it's just the clothes your character happens to be wearing that day. 

Ready?  What could POSSIBLY go wrong?!

*my answer to this question was, of course, 'Off with your head!' in mock outrage...

Friday, 6 June 2014

A Very Busy, Busy, Busy Bee

Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?

I've been so busy doing this project:
Living the Workhouse Diet... 

...that I have had no time for reporting or reflecting upon my activities as Queenie, or all the other stuff.

But all that will surely change from this moment.

A quick update. Since 'Down Among The Wines & Spirits' I've been a murderess in the Museums At Night event at Gressenhall. Every year I co-write this with the Learning Manager, Jan, and it has become a staple part of the Gressenhall Museum year. This year it was set in 1914- hence the enormous hat!

I've also continued Queenie-ing as Elizabeth 1, Victoria and Marie, and singing with my long-standing group, The Upper Octave, a lovely excuse to wear fabulous sparkly clothes rather than dressing as a Victorian workhouse inmate.

Speaking of which, I spent a fun day as Jacket Woman Martha Middleton for the Workhouse Experience Day on May 26th at Gressenhall, working alongside re-enactors from Black Knight historical, and of course, my usual co-conspirator and live interpreter actor colleagues Jim Carpmael...

...and Neil Scarlett...

 with me looking more glamorous than ever...

 I'm also full steam ahead with The Pop Up Proms Project as it moves into its final months. This is the year-long, voluntary singing project I've created to entertain in care homes for the elderly. It continues to be a total joy to do it, and feedback from our audiences and their carers has been extremely positive.

My new talk for WIs and groups is completed. A new take on Will Shakespeare's famous lines, it's called 'The Seven Ages of Women' and is a celebration of what it means to be female, expressed in songs, poems, and anecdotes. For further details visit my website here.

And finally, I have a new talk just in the pipeline for 2015 to commemorate the centenary of the death of Edith Cavell. 

Martyn's well, George is well. Very busy, very happy. Long may it continue!

Friday, 14 March 2014

Reflections: Down Among The Wines And Spirits

'You think I'm making this up...'
It's been a while (8 years to be precise) since I was in a full show in a theatre. I've done loads of concerts, and I'm in front of audiences every day for work, but for a long time now I haven't experienced the joyous, sequin-encrusted, make-up-smeared, heart stopping, foot blistering, so-tired-but-wide-awake-at-1am treadmill that constitutes the full run of a 'show'.

Enter 'Down Among the Wines and Spirits'. A proper show all about the old Music Halls, at Norwich's super Sewell Barn Theatre! With audiences and everything!

Devised and directed by Cassie and Selwyn Tillett, it was an expressive theatrical interpretation of what we call the Golden Age of British music hall- the bit that went from about 1880-1920. The Golden Age came after Song-and-Supper clubs, but before Variety, and encompassed great names like Alec Hurley, Vesta Tilley, George Robey and of course, my gal Marie Lloyd. We still know these names today because they were the big headline stars, but Cassie and Selwyn also wanted to shine the limelight on to the lesser known names, the ones listed 'down among the wines and spirits' at the bottom of the theatre bills.

Cassie and Selwyn used songs from the era, together with some imagined and documented conversations between performers, to present a dynamic onstage/offstage glimpse into the world of the music hall. Selwyn, indefatigable at the piano as 'Mr Fitt' the theatre manager, accompanied all nine other performers as we each did our best to characterise two or three bygone stars.

My hat was quite something as Ada Reeve.

I also sang as Marie Lloyd (of course) and Gwendoline Brogden; the latter best known for the WW1 recruiting song 'I'll Make a Man of You' used in the musical 'Oh What a Lovely War!'.

Marie Lloyd we all know about, but Ada Reeve was a very long-lived comedienne and singer who worked the 'Alls in the 1890s and was still performing in films in the 1960s.

 I sang a hit from early in Ada's career: The Bird on Nellie's Hat. You can just about see it peering over the brim in this photo.

Needless to say, we all had great fun. We had lovely audience feedback and good houses for each of our four performances. I hope that this encourages the Barn to put on more shows featuring music as their central ingredient.

In this show our music addressed the broadest themes of wonderful, horrible, breathless, groaning, sighing human experience; marriage, death, poverty, superstition, love, laughter.  Yet I know that there are those that dismiss music shows as the slightly ill-bred cousin of 'proper' plays. I couldn't disagree more. My experience of singing is extensive and, from classical arias to 'Knees Up Mother Brown', without exception every performance I do demonstrates to me unequivocally that music- of any type- engages audiences on an altogether different level; a more visceral experience, more emotional, and equally as powerful as any mere spoken words.

So thank you, Judi, Gill, Steve, David, Johns x 2, Angela and June, and of course the back stage crew Anne, Adrian and Jane, for sharing this wonderful experience with me and with our audiences. And thank you to Selwyn and Cassie for creating a jewel and allowing me to sparkle in it! Long may it continue!

For more photos and information on DATWAS see Cassie's blog about the show here, and for details of forthcoming shows at the Sewell Barn following the link here.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Tunic Or Not Tunic?- That Is The Question.

Here are a couple of pictures of my latest costume creation. 
This is a silk tunic, made from an old long skirt in a beautiful shade of turquoise. I had to make it from an online picture of the front of a 1913 dressmaking pattern, as I didn't have time to wait for the pattern itself to arrive from the USA.  

It is a versatile piece designed to be worn with a skirt, which can be either attached, or separate, as mine is, and the tunic can be worn alone or with a blouse underneath. I'll be wearing it without a blouse (but with a tiara!) as singer Gwendoline Brogden for Down Among The Wines And Spirits, and with a blouse and THE enormous Edwardian hat as Elizabeth Mickleburgh-Kett for Gressenhall's 'Murder Most Grave' Museums At Night Event (scroll down to 16th/17th May on their website for full details).

It was, as these things usually are, trickier than it looked. For one thing, I was making it for myself, which makes fitting sessions difficult. I was also converting a circular skirt and although I had plenty of fabric, the grain was going in all the wrong directions due to the cut. As a result, the skirt of the tunic didn't fall quite right. Therefore, the inside of the garment doesn't bear close scrutiny because of the numerous, finicky adjustments I had to make. It's still not perfect, but will just about 'do' for on stage.

However, the finished piece looks pretty nice -that wonky bottom edge has been adjusted since I took these photos- and it's just right for 1913. As it's a stage costume, the silhouette of it and the overall effect is the most important thing. So it is a bit Belle Epoque- floaty with a slightly raised waistline and soft gathers over the bust - and I decorated it with some vintage sparkly bits. I think they're actually 1940s, but they look eminently suitable. The blue waistband and collar tone in with the skirt (original 1914) and I did a nice-but-fiddly oversewn finish along the raw silk edges. 

And all this on a borrowed sewing machine. Within an hour of beginning, I put the wrong sort of bobbin in my much-lauded new Singer, and knocked out the timing, so it had to go to the repairers (not cheap).

Instantaneous practical rescue was available: luckily a friend was able to lend her machine to me for the three allocated days of half-term I had in which to make the darn thing. 
And my Other Half provided emotional rescue (yes, it really was necessary) in the form of my favourite biscuits, Lemon Puffs. 

It was a good lesson. Because it was a borrowed machine, I was more careful than I usually am, and reaped the benefits. Aesop's Hare and Tortoise would have approved- as did my cat!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Previously Unseen Photos of Marie Lloyd

A quick update to showcase some action photos of 'Marie Lloyd: Queen of the Music Halls'. These images were captured by my web designer Cassie ( her website is here ) when I visited Taverham WI on Valentine's Night this year.
Taverham was where I grew up, and the village hall is an extremely familiar performance space for me. Lots of the WI ladies are my school friends' mums, and I am always assured of a warm reception there. Thankfully, the ghastly weather hadn't kept too many people away.

Marie Lloyd; Queen of the Music Halls is proving as popular as I had dared to hope for, and I am currently taking bookings for mid-2015 onwards.  Please click on the contact details page for booking information.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Enormous Edwardian Hat has Lift-Off!

...and quite literally! Although I look composed in the picture below, it was a windy day for a photo-shoot and I lost the hat several times. Big brim + no hat pins + windy day = hilarity.

Every year, lots of museums participate in the national Museums At Night campaign; today's pictures were taken to publicise 'Murder Most Grave', which is Gressenhall's contribution.

Last year our area manager, Robin, remarked to me that the Murder Mystery Night had become a staple part of the Gressenhall calendar. Quite right too: it's fab!

Our first Whodunnit was four years ago, set in the Victorian Workhouse. Then we travelled to a World War Two farm, then to a Victorian Brothel, and this year the Gressenhall Tardis lands (with an archaeological theme) in May 1914. Hence the smashing outfits.

This is a ticketed event for the public and will be running on the evenings of May 16th and 17th 2014. It always sells out, so book early! Contact details are here.

Monday, 3 February 2014

How to Make an Enormous Edwardian Hat (Tutorial- Part 2)

So we are in the process of making this:
From this:

And we have got this far:
So next we need to make it look proper pretty. Here we go...

Decorating your Enormous Edwardian Hat
I decided to put a big bow around mine, just like a few of the pictures I had seen (Here's some, on my Pinterest page). As my base fabric was a bargain lining fabric (reduced to 80p per metre) I was able to spend a little more on the fancy bit, so I got some beautiful peacock blue polyester satin.
I cut a rectangle about 150cm x 50cm and folded it right sides together lengthways. I machine-stitched down the long side and one short side, turned it the right way and hand-stitched the remaining short side to make a long, sumptuous 'ribbon'. I did consider lining it to stiffen it, but this proved too heavy to wear!

I simply tied the blue ribbon around the crown of the hat with a knot, then popped a few stitches here and there to secure it in a suitably attractive position. This also hid the elastic band and any unwanted creases in the base fabric. I also added a lace bow at the front- flowers or feathers would have been just as nice!

Lining your Enormous Edwardian Hat

You'll need to cut another circle of your base fabric for lining the underside of the brim. Turn the hat upside down and pull a couple of tiny stitches through at the top centre of the crown to fix the centre of the lining to the inside centre of the hat. 

Take a deep breath.

With the hat still upside-down, staple the edges of the lining fabric to the outer edge of the brim. As the circumference of the fabric is greater than the brim, you will need to pleat it as you go- much the same as you did with the pleats on the top side of the brim. 

The technique I used for the lining part of the process was very much Trial And Error, but I found that stapling the brim at the 'north, south, east and west' positions on the brim before beginning, and pleating loosely at first to allow room for adjustment helped a lot. But it was fiddly and I did swear a little bit.

NB Make sure you let the excess 'middle' of the fabric fall into the well of the hat so you can still get your head in. 

Then I trimmed the upper and lower fabric edges back neatly to the cardboard brim's edge...

I then concealed all these rough edges with some more lace. I glued it- first all around the top side edge, then when that was dry, I flipped it around to the underside and glued it under there. For a clear, quick-drying glue, UHU is always my choice.

Then- hey, presto! It is done! I've included a shot of me wearing it so you can see the proportions, plus another angle of the finished article.

Good luck with your own hat-making. I do hope this tutorial has been helpful.

I'd love to see pictures of your own creations!

Email me! 
or post them on my FB page! 

How to Make an Enormous Edwardian Hat (Tutorial- Part 1)

I always say it makes all the difference to a costume if you get the hat and shoes right. Many museums, heritage sites, re-enactment societies, schools and theatres are gearing up for WW1 centenary commemorations this year (and for the next four years).My Pinterest page here has lots of examples from historical pictures.
If you are female and you work in any of these areas, as I do, the chances are at some point in the next four years you may be needing a Very Large Hat.

Disclaimer: This isn't a professional hat-making tutorial with wooden blocks and damp felt and all that specialist stuff!! Oh no, this is for mere mortals. If you were a professional hatter you wouldn't need this. And you'd be too busy having tea parties with Alice anyway...

What This Tutorial Does
This tutorial shows how to convert an ordinary cheap straw hat into one of those enormous Edwardian/WW1 hats, using fabric, cardboard and heaps of ingenuity. I've done it in two parts to allow time for Actual Real Life (mine as well as yours).  So here goes:

Creating the Enormous Edwardian Hat shape
You need a reasonably stiff hat as a base, preferably one you can get a needle through. I used this cheap theatrical straw boater:
Then I drew around it on a sheet of card to create my new mega-sized brim (it was just a flattened-out cardboard box- but avoid the creases if you can). You need enough card to make two brims, but just draw on one for now.

The circle you've drawn will be the same as the outer edge of the existing brim. You now need to draw the inner edge on your card. This will become the hole where your head goes. I drew it by measuring the brim width, then marking the same distance inside the circle on the card- the picture to the left shows this.

Join up the marks to complete the template for the inner edge of the brim. Then mark out the new external brim edge- oval or circular is fine, but if it's not a symmetrical shape you'll need to remember where the front is supposed to be!
Cut out the inner circle and outer edge, then use this card as a template to make an identical second piece.

Put one card brim over the hat, turn it over and tape it lightly into position with something like duct tape (normal sticky tape won't stick easily to straw or fabrics).

Take your second card brim and sandwich the original hat brim between your two cardboard pieces.

Tape the outer edges to hold them, then bind all the edges with duct tape all the way around.

Hats from this era hat a large crown measurement (to hold all that Big Hair) so to create this effect and to soften the original hat's shape, cover the crown with a layer of wadding. Hold it in place with big stitches going through the hat.

Covering the Enormous Edwardian Hat

Cut a circle of your base fabric about 15cm larger than the hat.
Lay your circle of fabric centrally over the hat...
Use a large elastic band or loop of elastic to pull in the fabric at the crown.
 Pull the fabric carefully through the elastic until the edge of the fabric aligns with the brim.
 Staple the fabric close to the brim- even out the creases as you go.
Your basic hat is made! 
See part two of the Enormous Edwardian Hat tutorial for the next stage.