Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ask Dashing Downward

In my first installment of "Ask Dashing Downward" a reader asked me:

"How do you balance some amount of historical accuracy with audience interest as regards the proportion of entertainers at an event representing different class levels?"

In attempting to remain true to the flavor of life in another time, while keeping the audience's interests in mind, We are always performing a balancing act. It is also a reality that, especially at the all-volunteer west coast events, we are limited to the number of actors who are willing to come and spend their time and money to populate the lanes of our events. In order for it to be worth it to them, they need to enjoy themselves, so it is best that they be allowed to portray characters that please them, and with which they personally resonate.

This usually results in a population that doesn't necessarily represent the spectrum or proportion of people who might have attended the theoretical event. Due to the highly individualistic nature of "creative" people, in order to stand out, or be "special", or "different", or "glamorous", they adopt anomalous characters, which is a pity, because it offers the audience a skewed idea of life in the target place and time; when everybody wants to play the exception, the mean gets lost.

I see nothing incompatible between an audience's pleasure and a realistic representation of a population. If we have done our homework, are thoroughly grounded in the time and place, and are enthusiastic and engaging, a tenant farmer, a goodwife, or a merchant can be remarkably entertaining, without stepping outside the bounds of the target place and time.

At the event I direct, I have established a more or less "English Only" policy, and restricted the cast to characters who would most likely be found at a Michaelmas festival in Warwickshire, England in the late 1570s. Naturally this excludes many performers who usually play Germans, Italians, Spanish, Scots, Irish, Bushmen of the Kalahari, Ninjas, and Roman legionnaires. While I have made exceptions, I believe the policy contributes to the thematic integrity of the show, which is certainly in the audience's best interests.

When I first began working for that event, I was so insistent on my vision that I wanted to exclude the idea of Queen Elizabeth and her court being present. After all, the probability of them visiting such a common, lowbrow happening would have been absolutely nil, and the historic record contains no references to such a thing happening. But our producers felt it was vital to have that element, as that is what the public has come to expect from a "Renaissance Faire." More balancing act.

There was one group, which normally portrays Scottish border rievers who wanted to appear at my event, but their group's concept didn't fit into the theme I had established. I wanted to accommodate them and find a win/win scenario for all of us. I guessed that part of their motivation was in wearing "The Black Hat", so I asked that they consider portraying a gang of organized thieves, something that was certainly present at an Elizabethan festival, and they set to the task. They met my expectations beautifully, and they enjoyed it enough to make it worth their while. I had simply offered them a different black hat to wear.

Education and communication are the key to getting the performers on board with the program, and some work on the part of the event's Entertainment Director. Unfortunately, very few events have somebody acting in that capacity. Yes, there are "guild coordinators" and people who hire stage acts, but they're more logistically than creatively oriented. But for an event which is essentially a theatrical environment, I think that such an officer is absolutely necessary in order enforce the theme, and create and enforce theatrical and historical standards.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Acting vs. Reenacting

In historically-based, interactive theatrical events, I have observed a division between two camps of performers; the "actors" versus the "reenactors".

The divide is not so very broad; both believe in presenting a slice of life for the benefit of the attending audience, yet the means of arriving at that destination, and the product to be offered to the audience are very different.

Myself, being primarily an actor, value a lively, dynamic, and interactive performance, that engages, entertains, and informs the audience. I use my theatrical skills to bring the guest into the proposed time period and location. The drama of life is played out before, and with them, demonstrating both the differences, and the similarities between our world and theirs. Dramatic interest and tension is created by establishing encounters that contain a sense of importance or urgency. An environment, such as an annual celebration, is created which allows for extraordinary circumstances to occur. Admittedly, in many cases, "actors" may sacrifice historical fidelity in the name of entertainment, connecting with the audience, or a good laugh.

There is a belief among "reenactors" that this is not a true, or pure representation of history…and admittedly it is not. It is a heightened, idealized version of it intended to lure the audience into learning a bit about the target period.

My own observations of "reenactment" groups frequently leave me puzzled. They generally consist of historical military or crafts groups who pride themselves on absolute aesthetic authenticity, but are not generally theatrically motivated. They rely on visual display to illustrate a piece of history. They are happy to answer questions regarding their equipment or activities, but give little thought to expressing a character, or reaching out to the audience to make them feel like part of the environment. I have heard from one audience member that seeing one reenactors' environment was like observing The Akashic Records.

In many ways, both sides of the divide have a great deal to learn from one another.

The "actors" should remember that they are in a historically-based environment and that they need not depart from the historical reality to attract and hold an audience (Will Shakespeare's been doing it for centuries). "Reenactors" should remember that the audience has come for an experience that they can't get sitting at home watching television or reading a book.

Education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. We require both in equal measure.


Then there's another part of the division.

When I complete a performance, whether in a county regional park or in a theatre, I am happy to remove my costume, go home, take a hot shower and flop into a warm bed. I leave my historical persona at the venue, and the past where it the past.

A reenactor seems to have a desire to not merely represent a period, but live it. I will happily leave it to the reenactor to eschew the comforts and conveniences of the modern era to indulge in his fantasy.