Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sitting down with Live! at the Tenement staff

I recently got the opportunity to sit down with Sarah Litvin, coordinator of Live! At the Tenement, and Jeffrey Marsh, one of the Museum’s educators, who had a lot to say about the program that runs from June 24th to July 29th.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Live! At the Tenement program and your role in it?

SL: Sure. Live! at the Tenement is basically a new way of looking at the spaces that we as a staff have talked about in third person. What happens when we look at it in first person? What are all the tiny little details that come up?

JM: A million details.

SL: A million details about what life was like for these people. Generally, this program is an opportunity to visit three different apartments in the building, to see more of the recreated homes that we offer, and to interact with the actors playing the part of these characters who really lived in the building. It’s a chance to get inside of their heads, interact with them, find out what their lives were really like and how they created a home, oftentimes their first in America.

JM: It’s a human way, a very touching way to encounter them.

SL: It’s about learning emotionally. With a lot of our tours, it’s so much about the history, and people are very interested in specific details of architecture and so on. But it’s also really important to look at these spaces with an emotional eye and say, “What was this like? How can I relate to this? What does my life have to do with the people who lived here?”

JM: And that’s the real bridge to the present, the contemporary mission of the program.

Sarah, did you take the brunt of the work putting this program together?

JM: She did. I can answer that.

SL: [Laughs] It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a really big challenge to think through all the millions of details but also to create a big cohesive thing. It’s six different characters, eight different actors playing the parts, and educators who have to make the framework to bring everyone through it. And then all the details on the administrative side of how to make all the ticketing work, how to promote it, how to get marketing and education on the same page…

JM: Timing for the tours…

SL: Timing for the tours, timing for scheduling, and there are all the different educators with lives outside of this place. It’s been a lot of logistics, but also a lot of content and a lot of research which is really fun.

How long has all of that taken? When did you start?

SL: The first thing we did was throw together a program in a couple of weeks [in October 2009]. It started out as a Halloween family day and we realized this wasn’t just for kids. Lots of people who showed up weren’t kids and they loved it. So we said, “Let’s just make this into an interpretive program suited for any audience.” Then, really since December, we’ve been working on creating [Live! at the Tenement].

How did you choose which real-life people should be portrayed by the actors?

SL: The short answer is that there are thousands of people who lived in this building, but we only have the set pieces for four different families. Our staff determined who, of those families, we decided to interpret. We wanted to get different types of people involved in costumed interpreting – right now the only program we have is for women who can pass as fourteen years old [on the Confino Family Living History tour]. There are a whole lot of other people who are excellent costumed interpreters so we started out with Bridget Moore, Fannie Rogarshevsky, Harris Levine, and Al Baldizzi. Then we just went from there and said, “Well, let’s bring in Al’s wife Sadie and Harris’ wife Jennie and go with that.”

How are these historical men and women similar and different from one another?

SL: That’s what I think is so fun. We didn’t really know at the beginning. We were just focusing on each character individually. As we thought more and more about who these people were, we thought, well, for Harris Levine who had a sweatshop in his home, home was very much work. For Al Baldizzi, as a carpenter who wandered the streets trying to find work, coming home was most decidedly not work. He was doing his work in other homes, seeing a lot more of the city. So we had to think about how to bring out that contrast.

For the women, for instance Bridget Moore, when she worked as a domestic in somebody’s home uptown, it was not her own kitchen, she was cooking their food, she was being told what to do, there were serving bells there that were driving her crazy, and now here she is at 97 Orchard Street and she has her own kitchen, the biggest space she’s ever had for herself. Compare that to Jennie Levine who’s sharing this tiny space with a presser [from her husband’s garment shop]. They have no space and they can’t get their work done because they’re in each other’s way all of the time.

JM: So it’s not just a contrast of time periods or countries of origin. It is a contrast of attitudes toward home and what that concept means.

What resources did the actors use to try to nail their parts?

JM: Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork.

SL: The first thing we did was use the information in tour content, and then we started going to the oral histories, to the archival records, all the prior resources, thinking, “Who was on Harris Levine’s naturalization papers? Jacob Vogelman. Great! That’s a name we can use in the program. We know they knew each other.” So that’s helped us. If we don’t know exactly what soap opera Sadie Baldizzi listened to, we know what soap operas were playing generally, at the time.

JM: You need to be trained on a specific level with information and day-to-day stuff but also on this meta-level on how to craft that into something that fulfills the mission of the program.

Is it fair to say that it’s about half the real-life person and about half a composite character of that community?

SL: For Fannie Rogarshevsky, we have two different oral histories and all different kinds of documents. She lived in the building for a long time. She had a big family. So it makes it really hard because that constricts our options in some ways: we know so much that we have to be true to those facts. It’s easier when we have specific guidelines but we can interpret the rest of it.

Another interesting resource we have is a furnishings plan. Pamela Keech, the furnishings curator, researches what [these immigrant families’] homes would have looked like, so we have a perfect basis to interpret why they bought these things. She used a lot of historic context.

JM: In addition to all that homework stuff, we’ve also received dialect training, stuff to fuel us as actors in this space, crafting a dramatic story that connects with the visitor.

And you have an acting background?

JM: Correct, as do most of us in the program.

This program seems unique because it’s so immersive. What role do visitors to the museum play in the reenactment and what do you encourage them to do when they experience Live! at the Tenement?

JM: When you interact with an interpreter, you will be a reporter from The New York Times, which is just a certain way of looking at the world, a certain attitude to take into that space. An attitude of inquisitiveness, of being engaged.

SL: Inquiry, observation.

JM: And it all comes back to that curation that Pam did, the spaces, the physical aspects of what they’re looking at, which we thought would be a great and easy tool for folks to use in order to jump to larger issues.

So you fully encourage all your visitors to ask as many questions as possible?

SL: Oh yeah! That’s what makes it fun as an interpreter. Sometimes visitors ask you things that you just don’t know so you have to be on your toes.

- Interview by Joe Klarl

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