Historical Interpretation Methods

topic posted Fri, September 14, 2007 - 2:18 PM by  Mark
The training that we get through the traditional rennfair teaching workshops is nothing to discount...

...but since I got involved in the world of museum living history interpretation, I've discovered that there is a whole *other* set of philosophies and tools that are used by folks in this realm.

Consider Freeman Tilden's, "Interpreting Our Heritage" which is considered a standard among museum living historians... Tilden's work was written for the Nationa Plark Service and Colonial Williamsburg back in the 1950s and has grown to mythic proportions in the museum world... It centers around "the six principles of historical interpretation:"

1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the
personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

2. Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are
entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or
architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather
than any phase.

6. Interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to
adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best, it will require a separate

But Tilden is merely the start of the matter... There is Jay Anderson's, "A Living History Reader: Vol. 1, Museums"; Larry Beck & Ted Cable "Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture"; Midwest Open Air Museums Magazine & the ALHFAM Annual; and most especially Stacy Roth's "Past Into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation." If you are not familiar with Stacy's work, you might take a look at her glossery of terms: ...which a quick perusal ought to fire up all sorts of ideas for the thinking fair performer.

So I suppose this leads me to ask...
Do you bring in outside methods to inform your historical perfomance and teaching of historical perfomance?
Do you look in other places besides the great fair tradition of mining the world of theater, especially improv?
posted by:
Los Angeles
  • What we (Therese and I) teach in our Physical Characterization workshops is the result of us breaking down the methods we use unconsciously or automatically to achive our performances. For general guild training it's our own homegrown hodgepodge built from what we've learned and experienced on stage, in theatre, at faire and through (in her case) stand-up comedy and dance.

    Just recently read Izzo's works, which don't tell me anything I don't know, but organizes it into a simple and comprehensive program. I'll be incorporating aspects of it into all of my teaching in the future.

    For my own part I don't care to get too analytical or technical. I'm not an academic and I'd rather just "do" than think alot. Most folks in this line of theatre are amateurs who don't have the sort of time and inclination to get too deeply into the material. Plus, if one wants to do a really serious, nuanced sort of performance, it's largely wasted on the sorts of audiences we entertain. That should be saved for stage and film. The interactive environment requires broad strokes.
    • This post was deleted by (unknown)
      • Unsu...
        Hmmmmmmm. Mark, this is provocotive in and of itself.

        Are the books you mention available on or some such service? I'm intrigued at utilizing a different branch to modify the method of theater we have used for our framework. Because you are essentially suggesting that we have been taught, and see the work we do at faire through the prism of Viola Spolin and all her bastard children of Improv, which is itself descended from Commedia d.'A. This is probably accurate in many cases, although an assumption that most of the actors at faire see it as a show or even understand it to be a show is probably rooted in error, because the surface appearance is that most of them are busy playing out some role-playing game and are only peripherally aware that this is theater, or a show.

        So, if we shift the paradigm from seeing it as a performance (and dangerously skirting from the stuff in which case this forum would be mis-titled... aw, I don't care about that) and to re-enactment with the purpose of instruction, or better, provocation, would it change the way we entertain?

        Please know that my use of the term "re-enactment" is not meant to hit anyone's hot button or make them think that we're going to turn into an "ignore the audience" sort of manner of playing; we know that isn't what the fair ever was or wanted to be. We are interactive. (Why?)

        Also interesting was Rydell's response to this, which was fierce and negative. That... fascinates me. Is there something underlying this suggestion that rankles? It's almost like we suggested the you use B.F.Skinner's methods of behaviorism to train your children, and you're a good scientologist.
        • Hmm...didn't mean to come across as hostile. Too many syllables freak me out. The cited text of the book had my eyes glazing over by the third paragraph. His paraphrasing in the following post cleared things up for me.
          • Unsu...
            I read it slowly, because the statements are short but the words are long and the concepts aren't neatly linked. Not as much as I want them to be.

            I'd like to look at the source material and see what he's got to say. The theatrical side informs us how to stand, how to say something, even what to say, and gives us details of character and the meaning of it, how it all fits.

            But this sounds like it addresses, more subtly, the motivations of what hooks the customer and the how to communicate to them effectively.

        • A lot of it is learning to look at what most of the better among us already do from a different angle...

          Yes, most of the folks who set the groundwork for fair workshops did it from the world of theatrical perfomance. And it serves a lot of what we do very well. Watching a well-grounded fair-trained performer step into a museum enviornment is alway shock to museum pros...because they tend to suddenly dominate the space and do good presentation because they know all those theatrical tricks like projection, cheating out, engaging the audience, improv, and the like. Moreover, the come to it with a sense of *play* that is contagous to the audience. They are doing it because it FUN....and the visitors respond.

          By the same token, the museum folk are usually much better grounded in educational theory and history... no surprise, since they often come to it from academic training in those fields. And those fields have tools and ways of thinking that have complimentary use to a lot of what we do at fair. Would adding this knowledge "change the way we entertain?" Perhaps... But would it it make it any less entertaining? I don't think so. I've seen some great performance at places like Plimoth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg, and Conner Prairie that was based more on training in historical interpretation than theater....that pretty much got to the same place that most of Fair's gigs do, and was just as entertaining and informative.

          Sure, it's funny that Rydell had such a strong reaction... Not that it's unexpected....
          I've gotten into amazing disagreements with some of the lights of historical interpretation...
          Stacy Roth, who's "Past into Present" is perhaps the most cogent thing written on first person historical interpretation seems to have the strange notion that "living history IS NOT theater... No, no, no!" Sure "it uses tools of theater, but it's a form of communication, not theater." (Yes, she really told me that) Of course, her own academic background in communications theory may play a role in that.... And I told her she was full of it...because of course it's improvisational theater. [grin] We wasted an awful lot of beer discussing why the other was wrong, and agreed to disagree and broke to sing bawdy songs for the rest of the night. But she's a darn fine presenter of the past, and manages to make a pretty good living at it: And she's fit right in w/ fair folk if she weren't on the opposite coast and up to her hips in doing colonial this and that.
    • Here's your text:
      Heaven forfend anyone is required to "get too deeply into the material"...

      [roll eyes]

      None of us doing that 'round here... [grin]

      But seriously, I'm not suggesting that people be forced to analyze what we do in an academic sense (I need something to write about after the dissertation from hell is put to rest), but rather suggesting just like your excursions into Izzo, there may be value for what we do at fair in some of the tools used in the museum world...

      Case in point: #4 of Tilden's principles, "The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation."
      Those of us who have done fair for a while generally know *way* more about the period, our characters, and assorted historical trivia than the audience will ever want to know. Many couldn't teach even the basics of what we know in a whole week of fair.... Not that is stops some of the less skilled performers among us from trying ...
      [EDITED to remove irrelevant bit I should not have included. Sorry. Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa.]
      ... I know we have all seen newbies try to recite their character life details to an uncaring audience member....because they fundamentally think they need to instruct....not provoke.

      The point is that we are not called on to teach history at all.... But to PROVOKE an interest in history. We need to learn to find interesting bits of the past and present them in provocative ways... We need to keep a stock of "what did he just say?!?" or "what did she just do?!?" sorts of historical anecdotes...that we can theatrically

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