Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Anachronists Just Wanna Have Fun!

Last month, the time-space continuum experienced a blip when two former residents of 97 Orchard Street packed their bags and headed down to Delaware where they dined with George Washington.

Let me explain: Last month, the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums sponsored a First Person Interpreters retreat.  My co-worker Jeffrey Marsh and I went to learn from others who portray people of the past.  In addition to giving tours as 21st-century Educators, Jeffrey and I also work as costumed interpreters, portraying two former residents of our building. In these roles, we talk with visitors as they tour our recreated apartments. I portray Victoria Confino, (featured in Meet the Residents: Victoria Confino), a teenaged Sephardic Jewish girl who lived at 97 Orchard Street from 1913 to 1916. And Jeffrey portrays Harris Levine, (featured in Live! At the Tenement) a garment shop owner who lived in our building from 1890 to 1905. 

Sarah Litvin as Victoria Confino and Jeffrey Marsh as Harris Levine

The retreat included sixty participants from across the country, both volunteers and paid professionals. Some portray real historic personages , others play composite characters created to give a sense of the period. The retreat helped us improve our abilities to create accurate, believable, empathetic characters to foster connections with visitors. Workshop topics included storytelling, tackling taboo topics, movement in character, and incorporating a character’s religious worldview. It was fascinating to learn about the challenges of portraying other characters at different sites, as well as the strengths of our programs.

It turns out our program structure is pretty unique in that our visitors are given a role to play in their interaction. For example, in our "Meet Victoria" tour, visitors play the part of a family of newly arrived immigrants. In "Live! At the Tenement", visitors play newspaper reporters on the lifestyle beat. These roles help visitors feel more comfortable during the interaction.

On Saturday night, we gathered for a banquet at the Air Command Museum in Dover. All attendees came dressed in character: George Washington sat next to Lydia Maria Child, who sat next to Harris Levine! Many participants made their own detailed costumes, using complex historic patterns. It was a fun event, and yet I couldn’t help shake the feeling, as George Washington handed me the sweet potato delight, that the real Victoria Confino would think me awfully strange.
If this sounds interesting, check out what our colleagues are up to! Here is a list of the sites that offer First Person Interpreted programs.

-- Posted by Education Associate Sarah Litvin

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