A few months back, someone described a situation at a reenactment event. She and her children approached a progressive group because the kids had some questions. They were ignored, which she assumed was due to snobbery. Many people agreed that the progressive group had an attitude of being too good for everyone else. I was the dissent with a different idea: sometimes the people with excellent material culture are introverts who are bad at talking to people.
In the past few years, as clothing standards are written, an approach has been used of Best, Acceptable, and Unacceptable. While there will be some discussion on the details, it’s believed that most people can be at the level of “acceptable” in their outfits with some effort.
What if we used Best, Acceptable, and Unacceptable as a framework for interactions with visitors and each other?
I think we can agree on the unacceptable behaviors, such as ignoring someone or putting them down. Reenactors all have their stupid visitor stories, which are best saved for retelling after hours.
Best are those who can can talk to a group and hold all their interest. There are brilliant first-person interpreters who can stay in character, speak in dialects, and handle “modern” questions without interrupting the illusion. Sadly, such skills can seem unattainable to others who will refuse to even try. Slightly Obsessed says to give it a try anyway.
This brings me to “Acceptable” and, like good historic clothing, will take some effort.
Greet the visitor. Often the “stupid” questions or comments are the visitor’s attempt to engage. Why leave it up to them to do that? If you were sitting on your porch at home and someone walked up, wouldn’t you say something? I was on a garden tour where, whenever another person or group approached, they were greeted and invited to join the tour. Don’t be so involved with one visitor (or another reenactor) that you completely ignore another.
Have a good opening line. As a visitor to events in the past year, I had some instances where I was greeted and the statement was “Do you have any questions.” I just walked in! Instead, consider the situation and why a stranger would approach. In Colonial Williamsburg the historic tradespeople can presume the visitor is a customer. “What will you buy?” asks Janea Whitacre at the millinery.
Is the visitor a refugee, or perhaps a farmer wishing to sell some food? Are they a traveler looking for an inn or directions? While you can indicate something they are wearing or carrying, pointing out that their modern clothes are strange will pull them out of the moment.
Something else to consider is an emotional start to a conversation. Are you frustrated that the thread is cheap and keeps breaking? Happy that the produce is fresh? Excited that a shipload of goods has just arrived? We know how thrilled we were when the Wells Fargo wagon was coming down the street.
As a visitor, I approached a small group of reenactors and asked what they were doing. “We’re just gossiping.” Awkward pause. No juicy tid-bits to share with me? Yes, I know they were probably chatting about non-18thC things and I caught them off guard. It’s possible to have something to say, though, even better if the gossip is about a person who does not exist.
Don’t block out the visitor. Some years back, I took a workshop with Mark Wallis of Past Pleasures, Ltd. He had us go through some exercises, and it was an eye-opener to see how many of us did exactly that. It’s a normal thing for people in a conversation to pull into a circle. Arranging the group in an arc makes it accessible to the visitor. Pausing to see a visitor’s reaction leaves room for their reactions or questions. Both a physical and intellectual space can be allowed.
Whatever your topic, your knowledge should be T-shaped. No one needs to have deep knowledge about everything. A shallow amount of information (the top of the T) will satisfy most visitors, But! They may have just heard the same thing at the last event or even have studied it themselves. I’ve done enough fiber work that a spinning demonstration is something I already know. Tell me how it fits into the person’s life, perhaps with wills or diary entries, as a deeper part of the topic.
Finally, I’ve been a reenactor and, more recently, a visitor. I’ll try to be a “stealth” visitor, but many people still know me. For reenactment groups, have you ever considered asking someone to do a critique of the interpretation? It’s something we could do for each other across time periods. Do you go to sites like Colonial Williamsburg and observe how the pros do it? I’ve often found them open to discussing their techniques.
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