4 Things Reenactors Can Learn From Theater

Although I have since returned to a more mundane job, my previous job was the head of costuming for a park district run community theater. During that time, I realized just how many things in theater apply in reenacting as well. It seems to me that many reenactors have forgotten, or chose to ignore, a big part of the word that we use to describe ourselves. Re-en-ACTOR. In that vein, here are the 4 things I think reenactors can learn from the theater world.

Give it a Dress Rehearsal

In theater we call the week before a show “tech week” but it could also be called any number of obscenities, all in the name of putting on a flawless show. Tech involves long days & nights of dress rehearsals & running through every minute of the show multiple times to work out kinks. In theater, as in life, there are always problems that don’t come up until you are actually trying to do something. So we practice, we go through every costume change, every lighting cue, all the music, blocking & scene changes over & over again. We spend every minute fixing new problems that no amount of planning could avoid. But when that play goes live, everything is smooth sailing!

I’m shocked how many reenactors never give their reenacting a “dress rehearsal”, never testing anything out at home ahead of time or trying things on beforehand. How many times have you shown up at an event to find missing buttons, clothing that doesn’t fit or isn’t packed like you thought? How many times have you had a “brain fart” while talking with the public & wished you had reviewed a few facts the day before? How many recipes have you tried for the first time over the fire, only to realize they don’t cook as quickly as you thought, or taste quite as good? Giving everything from your clothing, kit, demonstration and meals a “dress rehearsal” can solve some, if not all of these on site problems and make the experience at an event as stress free as possible.

It’s What’s Outside That Counts

You all would be appalled at some of the things that theater people do to make a costume “work”. From mismatched thread & bobbins to hot glue & safety pins, there are a million ways to keep a piece of clothing fitting just right for just long enough. Heck, I should have stock in fashion tape the way I went through that stuff. There was always a button that popped off at the wrong moment or a hem that fell out. As long as the outside looked right, all the mess on the inside didn’t matter. The same applied to the backside of the set & everything backstage.

A lot of reenactors have this idea that the interior of their clothing needs to be as pretty as the exterior. But we know historically this isn’t always the case. Look at some of the messy interiors of historic clothing in any museum. Not to mention, in all my years and eras of reenacting I have literally never had anyone inspect my interior seams! Sometimes they look great but those first few hand sewing projects. Lets just say it’s a Christmas miracle that they held together at all, much less looked decent. Yes it’s nice to have perfectly tailored, perfectly fitting clothing with all the exactly perfect undergarments. But ultimately, as long as it looks right from the outside, is anyone going to see it, or care?

The same goes for our “backstage”. While I am constantly striving for Zero Farb, there are times when being able to hide a modern cooler, comfortable air mattress or other non-period items in a tent or back room is necessary. Bringing kids for their first event, go ahead & hide the modern stuffed animal that will help them sleep. Need modern medication or contact lenses to survive the weekend, hidden in a period looking box & no one will be the wiser. As long as the main stage looks good, the audience will be too busy to even realize we’re hiding modern life in our tents.

It’s Not Just About the Costumes

As much as I’d love to say that costumes are the most important part of a theater production, I’d be lying if I did. Because let’s be honest. A play that was nothing more than well dressed actors standing on stage, with no music, no lighting, no set, no dialogue, etc. would be the most boring thing ever. That’s not theater. That’s a human mannequin.

Unfortunately some reenactors seem to think that being dressed “right” is all they have to do to contribute to an event. Why would a museum invite reenactors to do the job a mannequin could do for free? In fact, there are museums that have interactive displays, historically dressed figures that speak when a visitor walks close enough to trigger an infrared light. They are very interesting, and less work than bringing in real people to do the same job.

If you’re not interacting with the public (the audience) or doing something historical (dialogue & blocking), using the right tools and equipment (sets & props), then are you really anything more than one of those red-light triggered dummies? Rather than focusing on only the clothing aspect of our portrayals, consider all the supporting activities and experiences that make reenactors more engaging than those mannequins. Mannequins can’t really spin wool, teach kids to play Whist, ask a veteran about their time in the war or really interact with the public in any way beyond their canned speech.

Consider Your Audience

The theater where I worked was community based. That meant we did productions with and for every age group from adults to preschoolers. But putting on the same show, for so many different groups, would have been foolish. Adults aren’t entertained by funny dressed pigs & their elephant friend while preschoolers don’t sit still during Hamlet endless soliloquies. Tailoring our shows to the types of audiences we had, allowed us to really reach them on their level.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen one to many reenactor give the same canned speech to every person who stops at their demonstration. While this is easier for the reenactor, it’s worse for the public. Instead of an interested and engaged audience, the public ends up bored, confused or both. But making a demonstration interesting to a variety of age groups doesn’t have to be difficult. If you use a wide combination of senses you will attract broader audiences without having to add or subtract from the focus of the demo. For example, when doing the coffeehouse, kids were bored to tears by the financial significance of coffee. They weren’t, however, ever bored grinding coffee in the reproduction grinder. So while they worked, I would chat with the adults. By having a variety of experiences & senses built into your demo, you can address the needs of all kinds of visitors, which makes your demonstration that much more interesting.

I hope these few tips from my experience in live theater will help my fellow reenactors in creating deeper, well rounded portrayals and demonstrations. While we aren’t all Humphrey Bogart and there are no Oscars in reenacting, we all have a little “actor”in us somewhere.

See you in the Past!