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
  • ESOL/EAL
  • 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!