The Charles Dickens Museum in London offers monthly costumed tours with a ‘housemaid’: in reality, live costumed interpreter Jane Cartwright. We chatted to Jane about her work in the museum and beyond…
How did you get into live interpretation, and specifically this tour at the Dickens Museum?
I started working in live interpretation in 1994 at the Museum of Moving Image. From there I joined Spectrum Theatre and Drama Company and have been with them ever since. Through Spectrum I’ve had the opportunity to work in a wide variety of historical sites and museums and in very differing styles. I research, write and deliver events for both family and educational programmes. The team at the Dickens Museum happened to be on a tour that I was giving at Linley Sambourne House and as a result Spectrum and I were invited to develop their costumed tour of number 48 Doughty St. An important place in Charles Dickens’s life where he resided from 1837 until 1839.
You built an immediate rapport with the crowd, encouraging them to clap and join in with repeated phrases. What do you think is the most important or useful tip to get an audience ‘on your side’ from the start?
I think it’s useful to consider what you are asking of your audience in a live performance. Unlike in the usual darkness of a theatre auditorium, playing conditions in museums and heritage sites, such as Doughty Street, emphasise social perception and response; audience members are all on view, both to the performer and to each other. There may be people who will recognise and readily engage in the improvisational and inclusive nature of such performance. There may be people who are unfamiliar with what is happening and are chary of committing to it. There may also be people who recognise such involvement as being potentially embarrassing – how might their conduct, their cultural competence, be judged by others? They may fear being socially ‘wrong footed’. That an audience feels relaxed and safe is essential. I think it is important for an audience to know what to expect and what is being asked of them. How an event is organised and framed and how you signal and facilitate the theatrical conventions in play are crucial and can be essential in influencing the degree to which an audience will engage in a performance.
You seemed to adapt very easily to questions during the tour, taking the story in different directions. Is your tour scripted or does it change every time you deliver it? How did you research the tour?
I did originally prepare a script, though rather than being a definitive acting script, it serves more as a series of ‘prompts’. It changes with every tour as I try to respond to the visitors and their interests. As the housemaid, I am only one half of the performance, or experience. The visitors also play an active part, so no one is ‘just watching’. The nature of this event is such, that a fluid, improvisational style works best.
However, in the context of interpreting a historical site, such as Doughty Street, this degree of improvisational style does need careful preparation. For the tour to work effectively, I must try to have a thorough and intuitive understanding of the subject. So the ‘script’ I created, serves as a set of factually correct information, approved by the team at the museum, and developed through rigorous research. I needed to cover the social and historical background of the area, the architecture, the role of a servant, etc, as well as knowledge of the life and works of Charles Dickens.
Is your character based on a real historical figure, or an amalgam of several people?
The character is based on the historical fact that, numbered amongst the staff at Doughty St in 1839, there was a housemaid. Beyond that, unfortunately, specific details are unknown. So, I decided to base her on an amalgam of several different characters drawn from various accounts of housemaids at that time.
Your language was very ‘of the period’. How did you create that style?
A hugely rich source for inspiration when creating the character, were Charles Dickens’ novels. I wanted to try and draw on his wonderful character descriptions, the voice that he gave his characters; their style of speech, their idioms and vocabulary. At Doughty Street, I feel that the ‘realism’ of the setting, and the close proximity of the audience, demand a naturalistic performance style and so the signification of language, costume, gesture and voice, hopefully, combine together to build a psychologically believable character.
Inevitably, visitors will ask questions about things your character could not really answer (like your own future). How do you respond to those questions without undermining the sense of a historical world?
There is much in the house that relates to Charles Dickens’ life after he left Doughty Street; there are items of furniture, clothing, a lock of hair, flower from his funeral, and so on, and the team at the museum very specifically wanted me to address these anachronisms, answer questions as they arose, and not be totally bound by the conceit of the event, i.e being visitors to the house in 1839. This doesn’t seem to be an issue, or, indeed, undermine the sense of a historical world. I feel it’s possible to cross the boundary between time periods and address questions from a modern perspective, without causing confusion, and without stepping out of character. As the combination of period character and contemporary commentator mutate, so the visitor hopefully blends the concepts of ‘actor’, ‘identity’ and ‘character’, and these complex transitions are simultaneously enfolded into the lived experience.
What do you find the biggest challenge of being a live interpreter, and what do you think is the most rewarding aspect of the job?
Its hard to think what might be the biggest challenge. Sometimes the environments in which you find yourself working, battling with the elements, (and sometimes noisy helicopters!) when working outside, and noisy exhibits when working inside can be taxing. Clambering into a Victorian costume in the confines of a very small toilet cubicle can also be seen as very challenging!
The most rewarding aspect? When the lines between performer and spectator become blurred, and no one is ‘just watching’.
Where else do you work, when you’re not being Mr Dickens’ housemaid?
I also work at the Florence Nightingale Museum, Museum of London, London Transport Museum, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Royal Astronomical Society, Linley Sambourne House, Docklands Museum, the Royal Observatory Greenwich and the Firepower Museum at Woolwich.