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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The Boleyns and the Bechdel Test

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Lucy Charles and Rosanna Heverin, costumed heritage interpreters, Tudor historians and women’s history advocates, discuss the day their interpretation of the Boleyn women passed the Bechdel Test at Hampton Court Palace, and argue for the inclusion of intelligent females in heritage interpretation every day, not just International Women’s Day.

 

For nearly 500 years, Anne Boleyn has been interpreted by popes, princes, ambassadors, historians, actors, writers and, for the last 20 odd years, historical interpreters. She has been the revered mother of the English Reformation, a romantic heroine, a naïve tragic victim of Henry VIII’s tyranny, and an ambitious ‘heretic.’ Anne has appeared as a named character in 41 television and film productions; her portrayal unique to her socio-political environment. Intertwined with interpretations of Anne are varied interpretations of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford – Anne’s sister-in-law. A darling of Henry VIII’s court before Anne came into the King’s view, Lady Rochford has been shown as the vicious reason behind the Boleyns’ downfall or a manipulated weak woman, intimidated by her in-laws.

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Charles and Heverin in role as Jane Boleyn and Anne Boleyn

On International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2013, History Riot’s resident contributor Rosanna Heverin and fellow historical interpreter and actor Lucy Charles were performing as Anne and Jane Boleyn respectively at Hampton Court Palace for Past Pleasures, in a daily scenario called ‘Making History Happen.’ This live interpretation performance explored the events of the late 1520s – Anne Boleyn was angered that the French Queen had refused a meeting with her in an imminent state visit to France with King Henry VIII, and was engaged in a religious debate pushing Henry to consider the radical ideas of William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man. At midday there was a scene in which visitors were welcomed by the Boleyn women, who, unaccompanied by the men of court, would discuss these events from their point of view. Usually, the scene played out as an exploration of the role of marriage in Tudor society, and gave interpreters the chance to unpack Henry’s marital history for the visitors.

However, on this day, Charles suggested we celebrate IWD by playing the scene to the rules of the Bechdel Test. To pass the Bechdel Test, a film or play must:

  1. Have two named women
  2. The women must talk to each other
  3. They must talk about something other than a man

“By moving the dialogue away from a ‘romantic’ discussion, both women had the chance to be portrayed as well rounded, intelligent, entire people in their own right.”

 Seated on cushions in the middle of the Great Watching Chamber of Hampton Court Palace, we encouraged visitors to sit and share opinions and garner advice in an improvisation which discussed politics, gender roles, society, court etiquette, issues of religious tolerance and the human attitude to change, against the back drop of the Tudor world. By moving the dialogue away from a ‘romantic’ discussion to something more substantial, both women had a chance to be portrayed as well rounded, intelligent, entire people in their own right. Anne was able to discuss her reformist beliefs, Jane was able to showcase her political intelligence, and the audience were able to see the similarities and differences between women now and then. It also provided a wonderful opportunity for us to share individual research and interests about women’s history in Tudor England, and to develop more informed ideas as historians and heritage interpreters around the character and the motives of Anne and Jane.

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Anne is an important character to get ‘right’. Amongst the disagreements of contemporary sources, there is one aspect all agree on – she was not conventionally beautiful. It was her wit and her intelligence that captured the King’s attention, and she was an advocate of education for women. These traits are vital to communicate to young people, whose world is soaked in media images promoting ‘looking a certain way,’ and which can belittle intelligence rather than celebrating it. If heritage interpreters can use the interest Anne sparks to promote self-worth dependent on one’s abilities in young people, rather than one’s looks, then we have done a worthwhile job.

Jane is important to portray in a humane, truthful and informed way. Most interpretations of Jane in literature and live/recorded media seem universally damning, accepting that she and Anne were ‘enemies.’ Some visitors, knowing the destinies of both women, can be incredibly judgmental towards them – one colleague of ours was literally chased upstairs when interpreting Jane by a visitor particularly furious at her ‘betrayal’ of Anne. It is important to find something likable, or relateable, in the person you are playing, no matter how reprehensible their reputation by today’s standards.  What sort of woman assists in the condemnation and subsequent deaths of her husband and sister-in-law? Well, perhaps one who understood the ruthless nature of court, who knew that to survive the inevitable death of her husband she would have to collude in his guilt.

 “They were no longer familiar caricatures, but real women who had lived, breathed, hoped, plotted, debated and laughed”

So on that IWD in 2013, the audience heard things about Tudor society and how it worked that wasn’t just about two women’s relationship to and with Henry VIII. After a brilliant, interactive half hour, Anne and Jane emerged as remarkable individuals, intelligent enough to engage in polite, lively and informed conversation, who respected each other’s positions and opinions, and could survive and thrive at court (albeit only for a time). They were no longer familiar caricatures from popular history, but real women who had lived, breathed, hoped, plotted, debated and laughed in that very room.

It was an experience that only costumed interpretation could have provided in such a vivid, immediate fashion.

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The feedback received from visitors in the audience was wonderful. Instead of asking Anne about Henry, or Jane if she really betrayed her family, we were asked political questions, questions about law and religious reform – questions that are usually directed to our fellow (equally brilliant!) male interpreters. Visitors that day went away knowing that Tudor women were not all simply fodder to Henry VIII’s marriage cannon, but were influential, intelligent human beings who had to operate and find their standing in a world where they were seen as chattels and the property of their fathers and then their husbands.

 “History where women are solely romantic interests and men are the leaders is wrong and damaging”

Given that women make up 50% of all historical populations, being able to showcase their remarkable abilities as individuals is vital. Heritage interpretation brings history to life for visitors, and it must always include these women who used their strengths and smarts to build the world we live in today. History where women are solely romantic interests and men are the leaders is wrong and damaging. Children particularly need to see a world where men and women stand as equals. Men and women have been equals throughout history in many ways, and it’s time that this is illustrated at every historical site, every day and not just for one day in March.

Lucy Charles is an actor, director, voice artist and heritage interpreter.

To find out more about her, visit www.lucy-charles.com.

Follow Lucy on Twitter: @lucy_charles_

Rosanna Heverin is a museum educator, heritage interpreter and resident contributor and editor of History Riot.

Follow her on Twitter: @RLHeverin

What Is Live Costumed Interpretation?

Across this blog, all sorts of historical storytelling is discussed, but we are particularly interested in the practice of Live Costumed Interpretation (LCI).

If you’re wondering what that is, read on!

What Is It?

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Kathy Hipperson

“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.” (Lauren Johnson, talking on Mother’s Always Right)

LCI has three defining elements:

1) Live. LCI has to be live. Visitors are not watching an Audio-Visual presentation, or listening to an audio guide, or leafing through a guide book, or reading information boards. They are watching real people invoking the real people of long ago. If history is a human construct, then I think it is one of the best ways to portray history. When a group of interpreters know their history and know how to work a crowd, LCI is an incredible, interactive visitor experience. Visitors may laugh, even cry; they almost undoubtedly learn something and are usually thoroughly entertained. I’ve even seen visitors faint or throw up, which, whilst perhaps not the ideal reaction, demonstrates the incredibly immersive nature of LCI.

2) Costumed. Practitioners will dress in dress in period appropriate clothing. The authenticity and the quality of these costumes can vary, dependent on company and site, but the over-arching point is to create an immersive environment in which visitors can see what these historic houses and buildings may have looked like when they were lived in. And unlike a portrait, visitors can see the back of the clothes! They can see how you move in them! They can touch them and smell them (especially in the summer) and ask you if you are hot in them (yes, yes we are. It’s 29 degrees, we’re standing in direct sunlight and are covered in velvet and fur.)

3) Interpretation. Interpreters, who can be a wide variety of backgrounds – actors, educators, musicians, museum professionals, academics, re-enactors – use their skills as entertainers, researchers and historians to explain and bring to life historical buildings, eras or moments. Interacting with LCI professionals can be educational and unforgettable. A former housemate chose her degree thanks to a troupe of LCI professionals coming to her school when she was 8 to teach about the Romans. LCI isn’t just people in costume; it should interpret, explain, educate, inspire and make a site accessible for everyone. LCI sits under an umbrella with re-enactment and museum theatre, but it is this interpretation element which truly merits its worth.

Annie Gray

Why do we think it is such a good way to interact with visitors? “What is brilliant about historical interpretation [is]…it is not theatre, it is not a history lesson or a library class, it is its own thing; and when it is done well it is absolutely phenomenal.” (Research conducted for unpublished Masters, 2015). LCI is a fairly unexamined aspect of museum education and heritage interpretation, which, when done well, has extraordinary potential.

In the past, LCI has been “praised for….historical research…but damned as frivolous show-business entertainment” (Leon and Piatt 1989:64). When research, costume and performance skills all come together in a perfect LCI moment, it can be entertaining, light hearted, affecting, surprising, challenging – never frivolous.