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 belongs.....in 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.


  1. The main difference seems to be that 'reenactors' are doing it for themselves, and let patrons in. Actors are there for the audience- which to me as an actor, means educating through theater. Personally, I find that shower at the end of the day to be some of the most beautiful I will ever experience. Other people want to sit around the fire all night and experience the magic with each other.

    Both groups really do have a lot to learn from one another. "Reenactor' events tend to have a lot of good demo stuff going on- military drills sure, but also crafts and the like. However I frequently wonder what the point is if they are unwilling to reach out and engage the audience to explain it to them. Some folks will come up and ask questions, sure, but others will not be so outgoing, and there is an opportunity lost.

    I hear 'reenactors' tell me that they are there for the experience. They want to see what life was like, etc. However unless you put in the character work into how these people thought, spoke, moved, where they came from, what issues they faced, what they believed, etc., I dont' think you can really capture that. These are not small surface details- they are integral to understanding the people you are trying to portray.

  2. I come from both perspectives, but I do feel that there's little point to having an audience if you're not going to consider how/whether you're getting anything across to them. And, I don't see the point in "reenacting" if I'm being my modern self/3rd person -- how am I having an immersive experience if I'm being my 21st c self?

    My experience with attending 3rd person reenactments (thinking of colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown) are that shyer members of the audience may feel more comfortable talking to a 3rd person reenactor. If the reenactor is 1st person, I think some people feel performance anxiety -- "this person is being theatrical, crap, I have to play along!"

    Either way, as the actor/reenactor I find it more fun to try to be in the period, and that means having an appropriate character to the time/place.