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..."

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