My Life as a Live Interpreter

LJ stylist
Image: Stylist magazine

This month we’re focussing on creating empathy with our interpretations of historical women. 

Here, History Riot-er Lauren Johnson takes us through an average day as a Live Interpreter, and how immediately impactful and affecting this form of Historical Interpretation can be for visitors.

Today when we meet, I’m Lauren Johnson, historian, writer, and twenty-first century scruffbag. Tomorrow I might meet you while I wearily clean dishes in the scullery at Audley End House. Or perhaps you’ll be kneeling before me, your queen, at Hampton Court Palace. If you’re really unlucky I might be shooting a siege engine in your direction at the Tower of London.

These are just some of the multiple identities I inhabit in my weird working life as a costumed interpreter. For the past five years I have worked at some of the most beautiful heritage sites in Britain, pretending to be people from the past. From the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, I’ve worn a lot of uncomfortable clothing, an enormous array of unflattering headgear and I now have very defined calves thanks to half a decade of stamping about on cobbles in completely flat shoes.

If you’re still not sure what I do for a living, you’re not alone. Live, sometimes called Costumed or Historical, Interpretation is still relatively unknown, despite there being a daily costumed presence at both the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace since the early 1990s. Live interpretation sits somewhere between re-enactment and theatre. The simplest way to explain it is to say that I dress in the costume of a particular era and engage visitors to a heritage site by, basically, pretending to be a historical character. For instance, I’ve quite often played Katherine Parr at Hampton Court Palace. As Katherine, I’ll do a mixture of timed performances with other interpreters – which all adapt to the audience we have – and wandering the Tudor route in ‘freeflow’, inhabiting the spaces and talking to visitors as if it’s still the 1540s.

Costumed Interpreter

However, my job is even a little stranger than that. I am the Research Manager for Past Pleasures, one of the oldest Live Interpretation companies in the UK. So I spend half my time in costume and half of it researching for the team. It’s a bit of a bipolar existence. One day I might be a princess holding court at Dover Castle in front of a packed great hall, standing to attention and cheering what I say. The next I’m all alone in a silent library, huddled over a pile of books. As Research Manager I produce research packs for the whole interpretation team at Past Pleasures, which gives them a way into an era or event that we are interpreting. That’s over 80 people, and during the four years I’ve done the job I’ve produced 60 packs, which is not a bad output compared with the number of essays I did during my degree!

You might be wondering how I got into a job like this. And certainly I would have done a few years back. I studied History at Oxford University, and during my whole time there I never knew that such a career existed. I had rather assumed I would go down the academic route of immersing myself in dusty tomes and hushed reading rooms, channeling all my desire to perform into the improvised comedy group I was part of, The Oxford Imps. However, while studying for my Masters I realised I didn’t necessarily want to just keep focusing more and more intently on one single era, or sit in silence for the rest of my working life. I wanted to communicate with others about History and explore all the periods I had never really looked into during my degree. It was after my Masters, while I was working as a classroom assistant in Bristol, that I heard on the improv grapevine about this job where you dressed up like a Tudor at Hampton Court Palace and I thought, ‘I have to do that!’ ‘That’, I learnt, was working for Past Pleasures, and after sending in a CV and essay, going for interview, and having training I finally started as a Live Interpreter in early 2008.

‘As we stood in the very rooms that the real Catherine Howard would once have passed through you could see a ripple of grim understanding pass over the crowd’s faces… We had come face to face with the past.’

I still enjoy attending conferences – it’s great to dip back into academia and meet world experts in their chosen field – but I think I have the best of both worlds now. I undertake research – sometimes quite intense, and always rigorous, combing through primary sources or historiography of different eras – but I also get to educate, perform and debate with the public about history more generally.

You do butt up against some strange preconceptions in this job. I once had a woman insist I could not be a real medieval character because I had eyebrows. On another occasion, my colleague – who was dressed as the seventeenth-century Duke of Monmouth – was asked, over the course of a single day, if he was Henry VIII, Robin Hood or Jesus. However, those peculiar moments are massively outweighed by the rewarding interactions you have, however briefly, with members of the public.

I remember doing a scenario about Catherine Howard’s arrest at Hampton Court, and it ended with me as one of her ladies in waiting being dismissed from Court. I had to explain what that meant to the crowd, and ultimately what would happen to Catherine, a character they had just seen escorted away to the Tower. As we stood in the very rooms that the real Catherine would once have passed through you could see a ripple of grim understanding pass over the crowd’s faces – there was one woman in particular, who went from grinning and playing along, seeing it all as a bit of fun, to realising that this really had happened, a matter of yards from where we were now standing, and it ended with a young woman being killed. By the end she had tears in her eyes. She had come face to face with the past, and it really affected her.

Costumed interpreter with crowds

I have also had moments where the driest of historical topics have utterly fascinated visitors, in a way that I think only costumed interpretation – and the human interaction it engenders – can achieve. Most children visiting the Tower of London want to know where the executions took place, where people were tortured and imprisoned, but one ten-year-old I met became absolutely entranced by a reconstructed document we had. It was the household account of a fourteenth century noblewoman, listing the number of herring being moved from one of her estates to another. Not exactly ‘ghoulish tales from the Tower’. But this boy sat with me at a table in the Medieval Palace for a good quarter of an hour, just reading through the clerical script, getting excited when he recognised words and asking where the herring ended up. His parents looked completely bewildered. I really hope that one day he becomes the leading academic on fish transportation of the high Middle Ages, and dates his interest back to that juvenile encounter with a lady in costume at the Tower.

I am incredibly fortunate to be doing this job. It combines things I am absolutely passionate about – History, teaching – with activities I love doing – researching, reading History books, and performing. But probably one of the most amazing things is simply working in the spaces that I do. Our breakroom at Hampton Court is in the old queens’ apartments. So Jane Seymour gave birth and died somewhere in that complex of rooms. Anne Boleyn lived there, and Catherine of Aragon.

At the Tower of London I’ve been in Thomas More’s cell and on the roof of the White Tower, which for 800 years was the highest point in all of London. The men’s changing room at the Tower is next to a portcullis and medieval painted beams.

It is just the most incredible place to work. Sometimes when you leave after a rehearsal at night you’re walking through these totally deserted, ancient spaces and you can feel that you’re a part of the history of that building. Which, for a historian, is pretty much the best feeling in the world.

This piece was originally blogged at Mother’s Always Right as ‘Life as a Costumed Interpreter’ in 2013. Here at History Riot we prefer the term ‘Live Interpretation’ (just because).

If you want to read more about what that is, have a look at our piece explaining Live Interpretation here.

Empathy – Historical Sanitisation or Human Celebration?

Rosanna Heverin, co-editor of History Riot, museum educator and live int476604_10151472031725257_417221119_o - Copyerpreter, discusses the role of empathy in the presentation of two exceptional women, Anne Boleyn and Amy Johnson.

Whilst walking round the Museums and Heritage Show a couple of weeks ago, I came across the Association for Heritage Interpretation’s stall, and they were kind enough to give me a copy of their bi-annual magazine. The theme they were exploring was empathy, and it got me thinking.

In my professional life, outside of being a History Riot-er, I am a museum educator. I have been lucky enough to teach at a glorious range of sites on a glorious range of subjects, from a rather frantic demonstration of the Tudor great chain of being in the splendour of the Great Hall in Hampton Court Palace, to handling Second World War artefacts underneath the fuselage of a Lancaster. But the one thing that doesn’t change, whatever it is I am teaching about, is that it is my job to engage and enthuse people of all ages about history. And the best way I can do that – irrespective of what era I am teaching about or what age group I am teaching – is with empathy. Getting children to imagine what it would have been like to be in Dresden or Berlin and look up at the night skies and see hundreds upon hundreds of Lancasters in formation. Asking women to imagine a world where they exist legally as property, first of their father and then of their husband. It is both a brilliant way into subjects and ticks a National Curriculum box for those stressed school teachers who are heroes for organising school trips to these amazing heritage sites.

A Lancaster flying over Germany on a bombing raid

But I have been thinking – for more specific learning experiences or heritage interpretations that are centred around a historical individual – how should we be empathising with these people? Is there a wrong way and a right way to empathise? Is it hiding the more negative aspects of these historical peoples’ characters to promote the good?

“Historians don’t agree on whether Anne was guilty of treason or innocent, so it is no wonder it is difficult for popular culture and fiction to decide”

It is no secret that one of my favourite historical women of all time is Anne Boleyn. I believe she features on many peoples’ lists of favourite historical women (because I’m not the only one who writes these kinds of lists…right?). I have seen Anne interpreted myriad of ways. In Wolf Hall she was a rather sour faced, highly strung piece of work (played exceptionally by Claire Foy); in The Tudors she was ambitious and infatuated with the King (a hugely popular portrayal by Natalie Dormer). In The Other Boleyn Girl she is, brilliantly, a truly horrific human, bizarrely quick to decide sleeping with her brother is the only logical way to deal with the fact she has not yet given Henry VIII a son…Now I’m not saying these are wrong or right (although the last one is completely ridiculous). Historians don’t agree on whether Anne was guilty of treason (the Eric Ives school of thinking) or innocent (the Alison Weir version) – so it is no wonder it is difficult for popular culture and fiction to decide on an Anne. But a heritage site, and educators and interpreters at those sites, have a greater responsibility than novelists or screenwriters.

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors_
Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors

 Last summer, I saw a portrayal of Anne Boleyn in which she giggled, simpered, snogged Thomas Wyatt and shouted a bit. On stage, on film or on the page, this could have been an interesting dramatisation of a character. The problem is that Anne was a real person, not a creation, and we weren’t watching a play, we were stood in a historical site with an incredible reputation.

This interpretation had been chosen – it had been written by a playwright commissioned by the management team of the heritage site, and directed to be this way. It will have been researched and discussed and selected by the department in charge of live interpretation. The interpretation formed a free part of the site’s regular daily offer – people did not buy tickets for their day with the expectation they would see some museum theatre. Instead it was placed alongside static interpretation and knowledgable guides, so for those visitors who may not know too much about Anne Boleyn, this interpretation had every appearance of researched, reliable, trustworthy interpretation.

Heritage sites have a high cultural capital. Visitors, quite rightly, expect heritage sites to deliver accurate research in an engaging way. Watching Anne flirt with Wyatt was faintly amusing, but almost certainly inaccurate (there is no documented proof that Anne and Wyatt had a physical relationship of any sort or at any time), which felt wrong to me, and utterly devoid of empathy. Listening to the murmurs of visitors around me (“ooh, she was a right madam, wasn’t she?” “you can see why she had to get her head cut off”) was difficult. I have taught about Anne and I have interpreted Anne, and whatever camp you fall into – innocent or guilty, Ives or Weir – the un-debatable truth is that she was a person. A woman who lived and breathed, and loved and danced, and argued and felt afraid and frightened. A woman who died when her daughter was only two years old.

“Empathy is as vital to me as research in creating balanced, accurate and intelligence interpretation at heritage sites.”

In creating Anne as a caricature, the portrayal lost humanity and so invoked no empathy in the audience. Every fascinating, engaging, controversial, thought-provoking aspect of her life, of Tudor Queens and of Tudor womanhood was ignored. And I realised – it is the pursuit of empathy for the historical people we discuss that helps create this vital dialogue between visitors and heritage interpreters, especially live interpreters. Empathy is as vital to me as research in creating balanced, accurate and intelligence interpretation at heritage sites.

There is, of course, a flip side to this. I am currently writing an education session for Key Stage 2 children about Amy Johnson. Amy Johnson was undeniably an incredibly fascinating woman. She was the first woman to fly to Australia, she was at one point the only woman in the entire world to be an engineer and she was the inspiration for many young women who took up flying in the 1930s, who would make up a part of that vital force, the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) in World War Two. Jane Cartwright, as a part of Spectrum Drama, does a lovely workshop about Amy when she completely enthrals children with the tale of Amy’s flight to Australia.

amy j
Amy Johnson

 What she doesn’t mention, and what I am not planning to mention in my session, is that Amy was also referred to as the ‘Gimme Gimme’ girl for her apparent love of freebies; that she was not necessarily a great pilot; that she had a sense of entitlement borne of her fame and that, simply put, she probably wouldn’t be the easiest person to sit and have a coffee with. Yet all these traits make her incredibly empathetic and are very understandable – she had worried about money most of her  life (hence the love of freebies), she had the guts to fly to Australia so who cares if she wasn’t great at landing, she had had to fight for every scrap of her fame and she had lost her sister at a young age and been treated horribly by men so yes, perhaps she was a little prickly. So why am I not going to mention them?

Primarily it is because we need more STEM role models for children, especially girls, so that is what I am going to focus on. It is also largely because it would be slightly ridiculous to try and get Year 4 pupils to consider the long-term ramifications of childhood austerity. But also because Amy, like Anne, was a real woman who lived and was brilliant. Empathy isn’t the sanitising of the aspects of history we don’t like. Empathy is the discussion and celebration of what made historical people just like us; it is a way of bringing a site to life; it makes research sing and sparkle from the page and it brings the past closer than any other skill heritage interpreters have.

Empathy is vital. Without it, we have a country of soulless and dull museums and historic houses, and the people who lived there once upon are relegated to being caricatures. But with empathy? Then we have something magical.

Rosanna Heverin is a museum educator, heritage interpreter and and co-editor of History Riot.

Follow her on Twitter: @RLHeverin

Meet an ATS Girl

Amy Rhodes, actor and live interpreter, talks us through the process of creating and delivering a interactive costumed presentation, “Meet an ATS Girl”, and introduces the fascinating role of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in the Second World War.

Since 2012 I have been engaged by Griffin Historical, on behalf of English Heritage, to deliver a talk, ‘Meet an ATS girl and learn about many of the important roles women played in the Second World War’. The talk is part of a programme in a performance tent at the World War Two weekend at Dover Castle. Armed only with an aircraft recognition poster, a set of model planes and my trusty ‘37 pattern uniform, I love the challenge of enticing people away from the life size spitfire and the living history encampments to learn about the early history of women in the military.


When I started researching the ATS (women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service) I was fascinated by the subject. The ATS was formed by Royal warrant in 1938, but its origins can be traced back to the middle of the First World War. The Women’s Legion was formed in 1915 to enable women to volunteer their time and cook for the Army. By 1916, and with heavy casualties on the Western front, the British Government acknowledged that women could take over certain non-combatant roles to enable more men to go and fight on the front line. In 1917 this voluntary service became the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) who received Royal Patronage in 1918 becoming Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC).

Some of the cooks of the WAAC

In 1939 there were only five jobs suitable for ATS recruits: cooks, orderlies, medics, clerical staff or drivers. But as the war went on more job opportunities opened up. I chose to concentrate on the role of women in the Anti-Aircraft (Ack Ack) mixed batteries on the Home Front who worked alongside the gunners of the Royal Artillery. General Sir Frederick Pile of AA Command suggested that women be allowed to fill in the manpower gaps by undertaking all duties on the battery, with the exception of heavy manual labour and the actual firing of the Anti-Aircraft guns.

“With the talk beginning to take shape I had to consider how I could include the public. The talk was publicised as a ‘learning’ experience, and was taking place in a performance tent, so how could I make it interesting and engaging for all ages?”

 I settled on the idea of getting the public to have a go at aircraft recognition using the public warning poster. I prefaced the task by explaining about the importance of swiftly identifying any approaching aircraft. Then I issued the children with binoculars, and using either model planes or original playing cards – used for training by the ATS – I would endeavour to engage the public and provoke some audience participation. I asked them to think about the four key aspects of aircraft recognition: WEFT (Wings, Engine configuration, Fuselage Shape and Tail type). The response to this activity is always positive, with everyone having a chance to join in and be included without feeling coerced.

On to the next challenge! How to present this topic when there are many people, both men and women, whose military service during WWII, either as a volunteer or through conscription, is in living memory?

For the first couple of years I presented the talk in character as Private Whitfield, an ATS aircraft spotter and telephonist, but I found that being in first person made it confusing – people were believing I really was in the army! So this year, 2016, I decided to present the talk as myself – in uniform  – which instantly solved the problem of misleading the public. I amended all of my seemingly personal experiences, borrowed from accounts written by members of the ATS, such as Vee Robinson, author of ‘Sisters in Arms’, who recalled having to soak her badly blistered feet after her first day of square bashing with the drill instructor, to general observations and experiences of the ATS.  The result this year was that I only received one question about whether I had served in the military – prompted by a uniform faux pas.

In ATS uniform at Dover Castle

“These women were creating opportunities of higher wages, skilled employment and better education.”

The feedback I generally receive from the public is varied, from ex-servicemen having an opinion on working alongside women, to people who had mothers who served in the ATS. However, many people did not realise that women featured so prominently in the Second World War. Or that by 1945 the jobs available to the ATS had swelled from 5 to 100 – not only serving at home but also overseas in Europe, North Africa and the West Indies. These women were creating opportunities of higher wages, skilled employment and better education. They moved away from the domestic roles of their mothers and carved a brighter future for the women of Britain.

The ATS memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum