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.

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