Tomorrow is “Talk Like a Pirate Day.” I am glad that it has never really caught on down here. One of the biggest hurdles we have as historical interpreters is to separate our characters from how they were, opposed to perceived perceptions of what people think they should be. After four Pirates movies in recent years, everyone thinks that pirates have to look and act like Johnny Depp.
At the Collier County Museum about two or three years ago was a group at Old Florida Festival that did a World War 2 impression. They had all the equipment and toys, topped off with an attitude. One person in particular with this group called the visitors by derogatory names. An offended visitor wrote a letter to the county commissioners to complain. The museum had to promise that the group would never be invited back for an event, even though the museum had not invited them. The Friends group at the time had a president who is enamored by anything WW2 that had invited them. They also did not seem like they were hardly aware that the visiting public was wandering in and out of their encampment at the festival. The whole purpose of the festival is to educate the public, and appearances come secondary after that. The only thing that they did was make a bad name for people doing living history.
This makes us look at overall impressions. And why do we create the ones we do?
If the WW2 group was trying to do first person, it did not work out well. And doing a first person impression really was not the purpose of the event--educating the public was. You cannot do first person unless the audience is guided or prepared for the experience; not the casual passerby. You have to coordinate with all those involved in order to make first person effective. Otherwise the people passing by will not understand what is happening and why someone is dressed funny and acting rude.
Another example happened recently at St. Augustine, where an actor portraying a historical figure apparently thought that he needed to be rude and abusive to portray this character. He said some things that really should have been worded differently, and others participating took offense. Is there any evidence that this historical figure acted ill-mannered? I really wonder at that. We probably do not have enough information on how the historical figure acted in a social setting, and it was very improper to portray him as a rude person.
Now this second example I just mentioned was given to me third-hand, but that is how it was perceived by the offended individuals, and I have seen it play out that way before.
A problem in both of these examples is that the individual or groups are doing their impression from mistaken notions that their characters have to insult and be raunchy. That is Hollywood and not anywhere near reality. Soldiers in WW2 would be disciplined for such behavior. We need to make sure our impressions are not guided by stereotypes of what we think they should act, instead of what was real. It ends up badly when people try to act like John Wayne or Johnny Depp.
They are being actors, and not historical interpreters. It shows a lack of effort to attempt to develop their historical impression.
Below: Why is there a modern dance bustle on a period tent? Apparently someone thinks that all they need to do is to have things that look Indian, instead of knowing if it is proper attire for that time period.
I have unfortunately seen this occasionally with Seminole reenactors, who feel they needed to act like Hollywood Indians. That is what happens when someone develops a character without research. It looks really bad if they do this in front of Seminole tribal members, who are probably thinking that they do not remember their great-great-grandparents looking or acting like that.
Has our perceptions of what our character should be, based upon our biased, limited knowledge of history? Have we created a persona that is more Hollywood and further from the actual character?
And the final thing is that we are trying to be educators, not actors. Which is why I do not like the term reenactor. I am an interpreter. How serious am I as an interpreter? Enough, that I have paid $1500 for a lifetime membership with the National Association of Interpreters.
The solution is that we do not need to act like Johnny Depp or what we have seen in movies. Just be ourselves, and research how this person would have been.