Jeffrey Marsh is currently a costumed interpreter in the Live! At the Tenement program. I was lucky enough to speak to him in and out of character. See Jeffrey perform as Harris Levine tomorrow night at Live!.
Jeffrey, who are you portraying here at the museum?
I will go back in time more than a hundred years and be Harris Levine who lived in the building in 1898.
What responsibilities do you shoulder to keep your character accurate?
One of our speakers, Karen Lomen, called it a delicate illusion. It’s my job to keep that world of 1898 intact from the tour’s start to its finish. There’s a whole comprehensive, cohesive world that these [visitors playing the role of newspaper] reporters can tap into.
How do you maintain the interest of your audience?
Well there are so many layers to costumed interpreting. Part of it is being charming; part of it is using tools like soliciting help from the people you’re talking to, respecting them so that that turns into a respect for the interpreter. And having the tools that [program coordinator] Sarah Litvin gave to us really helps in that space.
How is it different to play this role than to simply be an educator?
A lot of us have felt that this is so special. It feels like we shouldn’t be allowed to do it. It’s so much fun. It’s supposed to be about educating and the history and all of that stuff but this program has taught us that that process of interpreting the past, of looking at these lives, can be so interesting and so fun to us. That will translate, I think, in two directions.
You’ve told me what’s the most fun about this program. What’s most nerve-wracking about it?
Really keeping a respect for the lives we’re talking about. Nerve-wracking may not be the best way to put it. But that is the main focus because he’s an actual person and I want to have as much reverence as I can have for his whole story, the complexity of his life. It’s easy to be charming and entertaining, but we also want to convey how it may not have been in that living situation. That complexity can inform the interpretation as well.
Now, as a reporter for the New York Times all the way back in 1898, some questions with Harris Levine…
I just want to know a little bit about your family…
You know I can’t read the Times? You know that? But when it comes out, you tell…
I’ll tell you how it goes. Could you tell me about your family and how you make a living?
Living? You mean work?
Well, that Mrs. Goldberg next door, she got a joke for everything. She come running in last week and she said, “Well you know in America, in English, they got the word “home.” Got four letters in there: W – O – R – K.
So you work in your home?
I do work in my home. We got the contract now from the goniff on Hester Street. He tell me this color’s gonna be in for the fall. I think it’s schlecht. It’s bad. But he says ladies gonna be wearing that color head to toe in the fall. Rose is what it’s called. Rose here, rose there, rose in the kitchen and every part of the apartment.
Do you make all of this clothing yourself?
We sew. It comes to us cut. It’s delivered up here.
I see. And do you have a wife? Children?
I do. Jennie. She comes with me. We get married right before we come. And now we got three. Max just been born. He’s new. Jennie’s not here though. She’s down with the fish peddler trying to get two herrings for a penny. The kids went with here because they want to get out. It’s so hot in here. So Jennie’s gonna be sad; she missed American reporter.
What do the kids usually do each day?
Pauline plays a game… well, she’s at that age where she wants me to be nice, right? So she goes and she waits for the coal truck to come by and she chase after. Anything that falls off that truck, she get it and she bring it to me. She brought me three pieces last week. And the other one’s a baby. You know what he does? Lie around. You know what happens if I lie around all day? We don’t eat. [Laughs.]
You seem like you have a nice home here but if you could change one thing about the tenement, what would it be?
Listen, you heard of this place, Brooklyn? In a minute, we’re all gonna be the same city. Over there, they tell me, if you’re Jewish, you work in one place, you open the door, walk out, down the street even, open another door and that’s where you live.
So you’d like to move to Brooklyn?
Yes, a neighborhood called Williamsburg. Work here, live over there. That’s enough.