Costumed historical interpretation has been widely used by history museums to bridge the gap between past and present, but this form of presentation frequently fails to give museumgoers a sense of fully embodied participation in enacted versions of bygone times. For the past five years, a Canadian theatre company called Live History has attempted to strengthen and widen this bridge by presenting interactive shows with historical content in museum spaces. Thus far, interactivity has proven to be more a laudable hope than an attained goal. Uncomfortable with exchanging the role of detached observer for the role of performative participant, audience members unknowingly compel Live History’s performers to generate imagined performance identities for them. This, in turn, tends to work against museums’ and Live History’s shared aim of making the stories they tell familiar to contemporary visitors while retaining a sense of the often unfamiliar social conditions which created these stories.
Keywords: historical interpretation, museum theatre, interactive theatre, audiences, diversity
Who’s going to be “That Guy” today? That is a question I take with me every time I go to a museum or historic house and prepare to portray some notable figure from the past for a company called Live History. Founded in Ottawa in 2015, and now featuring two companies which tour Canada, the United States, the British Isles, the Caribbean and Australia, Live History company creates and performs interactive site-specific shows for museums and historic houses which “include a mystery or quest based experience” (“FAQ”). The “mystery” element of the shows involves finding clues in the form of written notes and found objects, all strategically hidden in plain sight throughout the museum. By solving word puzzles, logic problems and math equations contained in these clues, the audience works towards its “quest”—the solution of a greater problem.
In shows such as Mary’s Odyssey, the quest is to find a fictional treasure hidden in an historic house by a previous owner; Circa involves helping a museum exhibit who has come to life discover their identity; for In Time, the stakes are rather higher—solving the mystery gives the audience a chance to change history at one of its turning points. A Séance in Time, the version of this particular show I’m going to refer to most often in this account, takes place in August of 1942, just before the ill-fated raid by Allied forces on Dieppe in World War II.
The central figure in A Séance in Time is the person I have portrayed most often since joining Live History during its inaugural 2015 season: William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874–1950). As well as being Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Mackenzie King is a complex figure whose canny braiding of incrementalist progressivism with cool, calculating realpolitik is often overshadowed by his current reputation as one of Canadian history’s great eccentrics. The release of his diaries into public record during the 1970s revealed his fascination with spiritualism and séances: it is fairly safe to say that more people these days casually associate this oddball hobby with Mackenzie King than the reams of sometimes ground-breaking, sometimes controversial legislation he was responsible for.
In principle then, a format which combines a little playful sleuthing with entertainingly quirky people from the past should be a springboard to an interactive free-for-all spectacle; in reality, Live History’s audiences are typically slow to interact when presented with a show’s puzzles, which frequently have to be solved by the performers themselves.
At the same time, audiences for Live History do not seem quite so slow to interact if their interaction can disrupt the show. Company founder and performer Jasmine Bowen’s coppery complexion seems to be reason enough for more than the occasional Caucasian to voice nativist sentiments that obviously never occurred to her British-descended father when he met and married her Burmese mother. Words to the effect of “your missing boyfriend has probably met some nice white girl” have been said to her just often enough when she is in character that when she says something like “it happened again” after a performance, we all know exactly what it was that happened.
The first time I can recall this happening was at Mackenzie King’s former home, Laurier House in Ottawa, in 2015. It led to the company hanging the collective label of “That Guy” on racists or anybody who disrupts for the sake of being disruptive. This also includes people who object to the solutions to the show’s clues, people who object to other people solving the clues before they do, people who muscle past cast members and into restricted areas to get at clues and people who reject the idea that the show requires any level of audience participation, clues or no clues.
Part of the reason the members of Live History were so quick to categorize members of their audiences lies in the company’s reluctance to subscribe to the easy categorical labels others place on it before even attending one of its performances. Is it historical interpretation? Kind of . . . Except these are professional actors who have gone through screening auditions, not minimum-wage interns somebody has thrown a “period” costume on. Is it interactive theatre? You will find out it is not if you talk over a line an actor has to say to advance the plot. An escape room? Well . . . solving puzzles is part of the experience, like in an escape room—but when there is a time limit for a Live History show, as there is for In Time, the stakes for puzzle-solving involve real historical events rather than the imaginary fates of individual members of the audience. Is it sui generis? Well . . . The truth is, it is all these things at once, none of them at all and not a single one of them in total. “That Guy” has a lot of different things to mess with, if left unchecked.
Which brings me back to the question I have had at the back of my mind ever since my first appearance in Live History: who’s going to be “That Guy” today? It is actually the second of a pair of questions I ask myself as I make the final transition from preparation to performance. The first question, which informs the second, is also about the audience I am going to encounter and (on my terms) interact with: Who are these people, anyway?
I already have a partial answer based on experience with these performances, experience with museums and experience within the ongoing need to properly investigate and comprehend history which museums and historic houses try to address. It is something along the lines of “people whose presence and appearance would have to be accounted for in the time period of our show.” Despite this, both presence and appearance usually do not receive any accounting at all. I almost never bring up unconscious anachronisms such as women arriving for a formal gathering unescorted by a man or children arriving for a formal gathering at all. I say nothing about the decidedly casual dress that is appropriate for a twenty-first-century tourist but might have gotten a prosperous nineteenth-century homeowner looking for the almsbox to send these bedraggled, ill-clad unfortunates to the nearest reputable low-cost tailor. I absolutely do not bring up anyone’s non-European ethnicity unless it is brought up by an audience member. The next time that happens with anyone other than Jasmine will be the first.
While this in itself is an obvious tribute to everyone’s good common sense, there are times where it really ought to be brought into issue, as a way for everyone to discuss and understand the history we are trying to portray. One such time involves an old friend of mine, named Roger Taguchi, who came to one of the performances of A Séance in Time. Roger’s Japanese-Canadian parents were both placed in internment camps during World War II . . . and here I was, face to face with him playing Mackenzie King, the man ultimately responsible for it. Roger is a retired high school teacher, so I knew that he could bring up this sticky subject in an intelligent fashion—and really stick it to King while doing so. Not only that, the door was open for subjects like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 (passed by a Mackenzie King government and still in effect in 1942), and the fact that East Asians in Canada had not yet received the right to vote. Yet, neither of us thought to bring it up, even though the show gave us a few opportunities to quietly confer on the structure of a quick scene we could improvise between us.
That truly was a missed opportunity, because it could have sparked a lively—and necessary—debate about how we view the times we live in now in relation to the past. The audiences for Live History’s performances are diverse and reflect the neoliberal discourse underlying modern museums, which cultural theorist Tony Bennett has described as an attempt “to inveigle the general populace into complicity with power by placing them on this side of a power which it represented to them as its own” (Birth 95). This means that my performance has to inveigle audiences into complicity with the attitudes and practices of current public policy by reconstructing a documented personage in a way that suppresses much of its character-restricting historical context. I admit as honoured guests and equals people whom a privileged white male of a given period would not necessarily have had to acknowledge, much less treat like guests. I neglect to invite my friend Roger to use my performance persona as a verbal punching bag for what happened to his family. Heaven only knows what other sins of omission I have committed in the interest of papering over the sins of yesteryear.
In that sense, what I am being is less of a historical personage than an amusing embodiment of an imagined inferior past and an object of anthropological curiosity, a living exhibit whose purpose is to make visitors feel better about who they are in the here and now. Like “primitive” artifacts in a glass case, all we who perform for Live History unwillingly bolster a naively meliorist teleology of history, “underlining the rhetoric of progress by serving as its counterpoints” (Bennett, “Complex” 92).
This rhetoric can make life difficult for those trying to embody people who have been deemed redundant by meliorists. The following words from Scott Magelssen’s “Living History Museums and the Construction of The Real Through Performance” should be the motto of anyone looking to hire a theatre company like Live History, or of anyone looking to work for such a company: “the institutional history is real by the conventions of the museum and by audience agreement, not by ontological essence” (63).
Ontology is to some extent what you make of it. Live History’s audiences are invited to make ontologies for themselves in a somewhat improvised pre-show spiel which encourages people to get into the spirit of a past era by thinking about who they might have been at that time. In theory—in theory—those present then take a moment, review what they already know about the time period they have just been told the performance is set in and cobble together a rough characterization that will allow them to interact with me and the other Live History performers in a way that makes the performance plausible as a potential lived experience and not just a piece of one-sided light entertainment.
In practice of course, this hardly ever happens. I have seen one blank look too many to humour anyone—even myself—by saying that things work any other way. Live History aspires to a participatory model; unfortunately, its audiences do not necessarily share such aspirations. Faced with one group after another whose upper threshold of tolerance for participation is not appreciably higher than that of attendees of non-participatory theatre, my work in museum shows has tended to discard anything that could be considered legitimate stagecraft in favour of the low cunning of the fairground fortune teller. If the marks won’t give me a clue about who they are by what they say, I will have to make some educated guesses based on what they do.
My informal educated guesswork has a certain affinity with part of my formal education in theatre theory. Thirty years ago, Eugenio Barba articulated a rough typology designed to help his Denmark-based but cosmopolitan Odin Teatret prepare for performances in front of audiences whose composition could be drawn from any number of European nationalities and cultural groups. Like Live History, Odin Teatret can’t assume a common set of particular cultural referents and competencies for those who attend its performances; to compensate for this, Barba conceptualized an audience composed of four essentialized and somewhat idealized types:
- the child who perceives the actions literally;
- the spectator who thinks s/he doesn’t understand but who, in spite of him/herself, dances;
- the director’s alter ego;
- the fourth spectator who sees through the performance as if it did not belong to the world of the ephemeral and of fiction. (99)
Here are the ways that my own experience with Live History’s audiences converges with and diverges from Barba’s Four Spectators typology:
Spectator 1: “The child” (seldom seen or heard)
The first type of spectator outlined in Barba’s schema—“(t)he “child who sees the actions literally” [and] observes what is presented, not what is represented” (Barba 99)—can be a tough nut to crack from an actor’s point of view. If someone “sees the actions literally,” does that simply mean that they know what they are watching is only a show? Surely not, because that is (one hopes) every member of every audience for everything, ever. Does what is seen “literally” then refer to the unified, unmodalized, unmediated fact of the performer’s presence? For Live History, this should be something that audiences react to constantly. When audiences do not even act like I am in the same room with them—and this seems in my experience less the exception than the norm—I wonder if a lifetime of exposure to movies and TV is responsible for it. Someone putting on any kind of a show, at any proximity, seems to activate a conditioned response to compartmentalize the presence of the performer. As Stanley Cavell has noted, audiences which do not make a crystal-clear distinction between the ontology of live and mediatized performances risk reducing the live performer to a “subject of study” for the curious rather than something made of the same flesh and blood as those who observe them (28). If, as Andreas Huyssen has noted, “the museum as mass medium is no longer distinguishable from television” (30), then practitioners of museum-based theatre should be ready for their audiences to resemble couch potatoes.
It is the locale rather than the performer that seems to best elicit this kind of “this is here and this is real” reaction from a Live History audience. Witness this anecdote gleaned from an actual child—a member of a tour group of Grade 8 students at Laurier House: “This house gives me a feeling . . . My hands are clammy” (Kirnishni). This may be not so much a “feeling” as a conditioned response to a fact and a fiction. The fact: Mackenzie King hosted séances at Laurier House, which has been uninhabited since King’s death in 1950. The fiction: our somewhat whimsical reimagining of a Mackenzie King séance during the performance.
Spectator 2: “The one who dances” (if they have the chance)
If I had the power while playing Mackenzie King to summon up spirits, I would only summon up ones who got into the spirit of things. Full confession: my preferred spectator for any performance is the one who intuits that the self-sufficient rationale for putting on a show is the defining element of theatre that Keir Elam refers to as “ostension”—demonstrating something, putting it on show, “presenting the stage spectacle for what it basically is, a ‘display’”—rather than talking things to death (19). This is the spectator—or, rather true participant—who “lets her/himself be “touched” by the preexpressive level of the performance, by the actor’s dance of energy” (Barba 100).
To confess one thing further: I do not think that Live History’s performances are structured to sustain the ostensive yet preexpressively-inspired dance that any audience member wants to start, or to join. The standard procedure for a Live History show involves parcelling people off into groups and sending them off to separate locations. The occasions when a full audience is in contact with the full cast are few and far between. At best, anyone who wants to dance gets the opportunity to try out a few tentative steps and see if anyone wants to follow their lead before it’s off to the next room, the next exhibit, the next logic puzzle and the next interruption to the flow which fosters dancing.
The end result is that there is a lot of talking about the dance that could be happening if we were not talking about it, but not much dancing as such. There are exceptions, however. When a group of visitors at a Christmastime show at Laurier House got it into their heads to sing “Jingle Bells” at every available occasion, who was I to say that Mackenzie King wouldn’t have kept both the song and its dance going a little longer by calling out “one more time”?
Spectator 3: “The director’s alter ego” (vs. the museum’s superego)
Barba’s third type of spectator is one you would expect to encounter at a museum or historic site. Even if you come to a show at a museum without being “minutely informed about all the contents of the performance, the texts and the events to which it refers, the dramaturgical choices, the biographies of the characters” (Barba 100), you stand a good chance of leaving the place at least a little more “directorial” than when you arrived.
A Live History audience member with directorial aspirations has had some of their textual analysis already done for them, perhaps in ways which inhibit their ability to participate in a fully directorial sense. Every site Live History performs at sits in the nexus of a corpus of narratives drawn from public archives, academic and popular histories, historical fiction and what is often called “local lore.” A Live History show draws as much as possible from the more formal and verifiable of these sources, but in no way can it draw from all of them at once. There is great potential for conflict between the composite narratives of Live History’s historical subtexts and the equally valid historical subtexts of informed audience members.
And that’s saying nothing about the narratives that the site itself promotes, perpetuates, and puts on display. When Bennett speaks of the sort of place where Live History plies its trade as “an instrument for the self-display of democratic and pluralist societies” (102), he identifies a major obstacle to the latitude of interpretation and even artistic license that allows a directorial vision of History in Performance to open up possibly uncomfortable discussions about History in Fact. How can you reinterpret a story that is backed by the weight of official sanction and being told on the very walls behind you? I have spent more time than I care to admit stealing glances at those walls as I perform for Live History in one museum or another, making sure not to be caught contradicting a museum’s version of Historical Fact by an audience member who caught a glimpse of an exhibit or a caption before I did.
Spectator 4: “The one who sees through the performance” (sideways)
There is a vital distinction to be made between someone who sees the museum and its exhibits as a stage and text for theatre and someone who sees the museum itself as theatre. Like Barba’s fourth spectator, this person “sees the ‘well-done’ work even when it is secret” (100).
There’s a catch to this when the work involves staging history, however. If someone does “see through” what I am (probably not so) secretly doing, what are they using to look with? There are a lot of frames for analysis that can be placed around a portrayal of a historical figure: my performances as Mackenzie King have left a few hints about where audience members could put the frame, if they wanted to “see through” to something. As Mackenzie King, I have mentioned Thorstein Veblen, carried a copy of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and mentioned that Veblen lectured in economics and sociology at the University of Chicago at the time King was doing postgraduate studies there in both those disciplines. I am trying to remind them not only that two documented historical figures may have an undocumented link, but, more importantly, that King’s own well-documented politics during his youth and undergraduate days at the University of Toronto earned him a reputation as a proto-Veblenite campus agitator. Still, I have gotten nary a glimmer of recognition from anyone to indicate an understanding of King as much more than a famous eccentric with a crystal ball fetish. One inference I have drawn from of this absence of feedback is that no-one “sees through” anything, they just glance over what they had already decided they were going to see, in the same way that the glazed looks of Bennett’s imagined museum visitors express “active popular support for the values and objectives enshrined in the state” (“Complex” 99).
Is “That Guy” a Fifth Spectator? A few concluding thoughts…
The four types Barba speaks of do not comprise the entire audience, but rather are “certain specific spectators whom we feel are close to us and to whom we personally refer” (97). They are all well-disposed toward the performance, willing to take it at face value or assign it a value which is essentially positive. “That Guy” is another animal entirely. Barba’s typology of the audience—in common, I suspect, with most typologies of audiences—does not take the existence of spoilsports into account. This, more than Barba’s four types, is the spectator that Live History has to plan for. If not, the performance may have to be cancelled. It almost was on one occasion when the “sport” for a couple of “That Guys” consisted of persistently catcalling Jasmine Bowen in a museum full of other visitors who were not attending the show.
This incident is emblematic of the biggest obstacle Live History faces. Too many of “That Guy”’s transgressions are encouraged by the very environment that should be discouraging them—the museum itself. As the typical twenty-first-century museum turns more and more into what Huyssen terms a “performance site and mise-en-scène for an ever larger public” (20), it does so at the risk of pandering to a segment of this public that just wants any old diversion, regardless of its content. This, in turn, risks making a mockery of the very stories that museums are trying to tell when they hire Live History to tell them . . . a mockery that does not need “That Guy” to help it along.
So, who’s going to be “That Guy” today? To some extent, it is always the museum, for not being clear enough in its expectations for audiences when it hires Live History or uses any form of in-person historical interpretation. A decade and a half after Magelssen warned of the dangers of persisting in such practices, museums and historic sites are still willing to passively offer themselves as “‘stage sets’ that [satisfy] a craving for ‘educational entertainment’” (65).
Even if there were only four types of spectators for this kind of theatre, and all of them as willing to play along with the game of let’s-pretend as Barba’s Famous Four, the laissez-faire approach of museums towards its house brand of theatre hands its audiences the tools to turn into “That Guy” the moment that Mackenzie King—or any other enacted figure from the past—appears around the corner.
Barba, Eugenio. “Four Spectators.” The Drama Review, translated by Richard Fowler, vol. 34, no. 1, 1990, pp. 96-100.
Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. Routledge, 1995.
—. “The Exhibitionary Complex.” New Formations, no. 4, Spring 1988, pp. 73–102.
Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Enlarged Edition, Harvard UP, 1979.
Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. Routledge, 1980.
“FAQ.” Live History Shows. Live History, www.livehistoryshows.com/. Accessed 30 June 2019.
Huyssen, Andres. Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. Routledge, 1995.
Kirnishni, Tanya, and Andrea Buchholz. “Parliament Hill and historical play-acting in the nation’s capital: Highlights from the last day of Canada’s Coolest School Trip.” Canadian Geographic, 11 June 2018, www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/parliament-hill-and-historical-play-acting-nations-capital. Accessed 18 July 2019.
*Rick Cousins has been portraying William Lyon Mackenzie King and other historical figures for Live History since 2015. He has also written and performed comedy for radio and at fringe festivals. His publications include articles for Semiotic Inquiry, Scene and L’Annuaire théâtral, as well as the award-winning book Spike Milligan’s Accordion: The Distortion of Time and Space in The Goon Show. Currently a doctorate candidate in Cultural Studies at Trent University, Rick is working on a dissertation about the many forms of anthropomorphism—from talking animals to talking planets—in the world of theatrical-release cartoon shorts.
Copyright © 2020 Rick Cousins
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411
This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.