It has been quite a while since I was last involved in scripting living history for an event. It has also been a while since I attended one, but I spent this weekend at the ECWS living history site at Newport Pagnell. The ECWS living history has come on a long way over the last few years. There is an excellent small town feel to it with a load of talented people showing a wide range of skills and aspects of 17th century life. This is how it should be.
The next stage in the evolution is scripting living history cameos so that there is a hook for the public to learn more. About a decade ago the Fairfax Battalia, now sadly gone, saw this and ran a series of living history events. I was lucky enough to be able to script some of our parish court events. There’s a YouTube video of one of these
Scripting living history
The thing about scripting living history is that you have to make sure there’s a realistic historical perspective. You also tend not to have much, if any, rehearsal time. The cast are usually volunteer members of a reenactment society. My regiment only meets up at events and you can’t be sure exactly who will be there.
There’s also a need to make it flow, and capable of dealing with unexpected interjections. Often you want a bit if audience participation, the aim is to engage people with appropriate history. The best way around this is to keep the script light and make the players improvise around a theme.
There are three key elements when scripting living history
- Background briefing (a general outline of the time & theme – see below)
- Recent events timeline (so people know what is general knowledge of recent events)
- Character briefings (individual to each player, and not shared knowledge)
Step 1 – pick a topic
The key purpose of scripting living history is to engage people with history and give them insights into life in the past. Most of the reenactors do living history so that they can better understand the period they depict. Having kit, reading books and putting on a display goes so far. Scripting living history takes it a step further.
The key question is – What do you want to learn about?
Sometimes your event sponsor will bring this with them. Sometimes the group will come up with it for you. Things I’ve been involved in at events have included:
- Death and funerals
- Parish courts, covering fornications, poor relief, theft, neighbour disputes, itinerant vagrants etc
- Military courts martial
- Ale houses and drunkenness
Step 2 – Research actual historical examples
It sounds obvious, but if you are going to set up living history scenarios then you need to read and understand the actual history. Don’t work off what you imagine might have happened. Find some real first person accounts of the thing you are interested in.
When I was researching the parish courts I got some books about the subject, including some period manuals for parish officers and justices of the peace. I also read a load of parish records summarising cases dealt with in West Yorkshire (because they’d been transcribed online). This gave me a rich vein to work with.
It also helps when explaining to the public, if you can say ‘this actually happened’ and give them a location and date. You go from entertainment to education with that one step.
Step 3 – Write Background Briefing
Once you know the history it is time to actually write your script. For these events it is helpful to have some general background for the reenactors to share before the event. However don’t publish the whole script, or even any details.
The background brief should completely fit on one piece of A4 paper in 12 point text with one inch margins. If it is longer than that no-one will read it properly. More to the point they won’t remember it.
Put the following in the brief
- The date and location of the scenario (i.e. we are in the Parish of Birstall in the Autumn of 1638)
- Some key facts about the theme,
- what it is,
- myths about it,
- period attitudes etc
- An outline of what the group will be doing to explore the theme and what roles there will be for people to play
The purpose of the brief is twofold. One is to ensure that all members of your group understand what is likely to happen. The other is to seek volunteers for the roles that you need. You should try and circulate this several weeks ahead of the event, and follow up a week ahead.
At this point no-one has any details of the script nor of the scenarios. This is important.
Step 4 – Produce a Recent Events timeline
This helps people form their character’s memories with historical context. In 1638 a 45 year old might just remember the old Queen dying and the Scottish King coming south. They’ll certainly remember the coronation of King Charles I. A 15 year old wouldn’t remember either, other than from the stories they’d been told.
We usually do events set in the midst of the British civil wars, so it is useful for people to have an understanding of recent events that the people at the time would have known about. It makes it much easier for knowledgeable reenactors to stay in first person roles.
A useful step for people is to write their age at the time of the event next to the timeline. E.g. I am 44, at a 1638 event I would have been 31 for King Charles I’s coronation, and old enough to remember his father’s coronation too. If the event was 1648 then I would only have been 21 and wouldn’t even have been born when James I was crowned.
Step 5 – Do detailed role backgrounds
Each role needs a personalised briefing. The level of detail depends on how key the role is. For the primary roles you want a bit of back story as well as grounding in the lead up to the start of the scenario. You should also set them an objective to seek from the scenario.
This is the hardest part of scripting living history, so more on this in the next part.