Do you harbor a secret desire to become an actor or actress? Have you encountered an encampment of Civil War re-enactors and wondered what it would be like to visit the past, even for just a few hours? Maybe you endured an endless reading by a faux Charles Dickens and thought: I could do so much better.
Bringing a historical character to life can be a fascinating and very satisfying project. It can also be surprisingly lucrative.
Before Sarah Ban Breathnach wrote the book Simple Abundance and became a bestselling author, she invented and portrayed a historical character, a perfect Victorian mother named Mrs. Sharp. The inspiration for Ms. Ban Breathnach’s alter ego grew out of a stack of 19th century ladies’ magazines she had picked up at an antique shop. The magazines offered tantalizing glimpses into the world of the genteel Victorian household. They included recipes, craft projects, childcare advice and suggestions for creating memorable holiday celebrations.
Ms. Ban Breathnach began offering events on old-fashioned family traditions, hands-on workshops where participants learned how to do or make something. The workshops were conducted by the gorgeously costumed Mrs. Sharp, every detail of her appearance just right from her poofed Gibson Girl hair to her high-topped boots.
The workshops were incredibly popular and it wasn’t long before Ms. Ban Breathnach was offered a publishing contract for her charming book Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions: Reviving Victorian Family Celebrations of Comfort and Joy.
All from a pile of old magazines.
Who Could You Become?
Which comes first, a character or a time and a place? It’s a chicken and egg sort of question. Some people know exactly whom they want to portray. However, everyone isn’t so sure.
If you don’t have a character in mind, ask yourself a few questions. If you had a time machine, where would you go? Ancient Egypt? Elizabethan London? Jazz Age Harlem? Do you want to watch Babe Ruth play baseball? Discuss military strategy with Eisenhower? Exchange recipes with Fannie Farmer? Catch up on court gossip with Marie Antoinette?
One of the biggest decisions you need to make is whether you are going to portray a real person or create a character.
Let’s say you’re thinking about becoming Abraham Lincoln. Almost everyone has a clear image of Lincoln. He’s a tall, gangly, dark-haired, bearded, homely middle-aged man. If you’re short, fair and dazzlingly handsome, your appearance will be a distraction. Even if your presentation is flawless, a significant portion of your audience will be thinking: That guy doesn’t look like Lincoln.
Maybe you want to portray Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. We don’t know exactly how old Anne was when she was beheaded, but she was probably about 35. If you’re 43 you might be able to pull it off. But if you’re 58, even if you’re young looking, your age is going to be a problem for your audience. Have you ever seen a version of Romeo and Juliette in which portly middle-aged actors play the teen lovers? It's more than distracting; it's sort of creepy.
Does this mean you have to give up on bringing Lincoln’s or Anne’s story to life? No. There’s an easy way to neutralize appearance and age problems. Become someone close to Lincoln, a secretary or a trusted servant. Assume the role of one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting or her favorite cousin.
When you invite a secondary character to step forward, you can select an actual person or invent a composite as Sarah Ban Breathnach did when she created Mrs. Sharp. Composite characters have many advantages. They can know what you need them to know, say what you need them to say and look the way you need them to look – just like you.
Christopher Hart, a living history performer from Ohio, portrays a variety of characters real and imagined. One of his favorites is a doctor who was on duty at Parkland Hospital in Dallas the day President Kennedy died. He is able to relate the entire story of that awful day without attempting to adopt the persona of any of the well-known people associated with the event, which – as versatile and talented as Mr. Hart is - probably would not work.
Developing and presenting a historical character, whether real or invented, requires research, planning, thought and careful scripting. This is not the sort of thing you throw together on a whim. And you should never, ever wing it.
What do you want to achieve with your program? Do you want to entertain the audience, educate them or both? Setting a clear intention will help you shape your material and decide what to include and what to leave out.
Keep in mind that not all audiences are the same. A group of sixth graders will appreciate a different program than the ladies’ garden club. The same character can appeal to both groups, as long as the program is tailored to meet their needs.
Consider developing two or three scripts for each of your characters. A short, simple program might last 15 – 20 minutes. The longer, more nuanced version should not exceed 45 minutes.
Setting the Scene
You must anchor your character in time. What’s going on in the larger world? Is World War II about to breakout or has Caesar just crossed the Rubicon? After you establish the big picture, zoom in. Focus on the small, ordinary details of everyday life. What did people eat? What kind of music was popular?
If you can find a few representative slang terms, by all means add them to your script. Use a light touch though. An occasional 23 skidoo can be the cat’s pajamas, but if you toot the wrong ringer or go tail over teakettle, your audience will know you’re not the Real McCoy.
The same caution applies to accents. Unless you are really, really talented – and the odds are, you’re not as good as you think – avoid adopting language quirks. When accents are done poorly, they quickly become fingernails on a blackboard. Speak in your own voice.
Funny You Should Ask
Engagement is one of the most overused buzzwords in tourism and marketing. But it is important to think about how you will relate to your audience. Will you allow them to ask questions? Are you going to stay in character as you answer?
Not all living history actors are comfortable with off the cuff questions. If that’s how you feel, that’s fine. It’s your program. However, if you’re on the fence, consider interacting with the audience. It’s an opportunity to bring them further into your world, deeper into the past.
Taking questions is not without risks, however. What do you do if you get one you don’t know how to answer?
Christopher Hart, who plays the JFK doctor, developed a program in which he and another actor played Nicholas Tesla and George Westinghouse. They transfixed an entire auditorium of schoolchildren with tales of the early days of electric power. As soon as they finished, dozens of hands shot up. The kids were stunned when neither Mr. Hart nor his partner could answer their very technical questions about the science of electricity.
You may want to come up with a standard way to hedge certain questions while remaining in character. “Proper ladies certainly don’t know about that sort of thing!” or “I’ve heard rumors about those contraptions but we haven’t seen them here in Circleville yet.” Keep your time period in mind and structure your responses around what your character would or would not know.
There are many possible places to offer a historical character-based program. Service clubs such as Kiwannis and Rotary are always looking for interesting meeting themes as are senior centers, boys and girls clubs and other community organizations. Historical societies, museums and museum houses are perfect venues. Work with the public library and develop a series of literary characters or author portrayals to compliment the summer reading program.
Don’t overlook commercial collaboration possibilities. A fun program focusing on common household items could be held in an antique shop. If there’s a historic restaurant, tavern or inn in your area, consider developing a character from local history who can appear and share stories, legends and lore. There is a paddlewheel boat in a nearby town that offers excursions throughout the year. The cruises that include a historic character spinning tales of riverboat days are perennial favorites.
Keep an open mind. Once people learn you’re doing historic programs, you may be asked to develop a character that isn’t even on your radar.
The most important piece of advice, as trite as it sounds, is to have fun. Pick a period you’re interested in and a character you like. Your enthusiasm will come through loud and clear. The second most important piece of advice is to get started. Your cast of characters will develop, expand and evolve as you go along, but nothing can happen until you take the first step.