Focus Groups: I started out by identifying a small group of friends and asking them what they thought about the idea. Would they be interested? How much lead time would they feel was needed to prepare? What would they need from me, the organizer? What kind of event would they be most interested in? Everyone I spoke with was at least supportive; most were excited about the idea. A few thought it was a good idea but did not want to participate personally, for their own reasons. There was enough positive feedback to convince me I wasn't completely off-base in thinking this would be a useful and fun exercise.
Setting the Scene: Next, I did some up-front prep work to figure out what kind of event to put on. Early on, I decided to put on a luncheon; no reason except that lunch is in the middle of the day and this meant folks could stick around for a few hours and get the most out of it. I contact a local historic house, the LeDuc House (which you may remember from previous adventures), chosen because they have the facilities we would need, are one of the few houses in the area dating to the 1860s, and they are gracious enough to let us take over their house. The site manager was excited as well and we booked a date. This allowed us to set the stage with a scenario - a luncheon to which all of the ladies had been invited, at my home. With use of the house came use of china and glassware, and a modern catering kitchen.
I will say that I'm really luck to have a go-to historical house for most things. But that's a rarity - most historic house museums have very specific rules about how they can be used. Some do not have modern facilities like a catering kitchen (which the LeDuc House does). But if you are creative, there are ways around it - you can do a period nature walk, a picnic, or an afternoon of outdoor games; if you have a REALLY good imagination, you don't even necessarily need period surroundings. The only limit is your imagination and creativity, and if you think outside the box, I bet you'll come up with a good location.
Planning the Food: I did some logistical planning, which mostly involved talking out my ideas with a few friends to make sure they worked. One of those things was food - should we have someone cook a lunch for us, and pay them? Or were there other options? I could cook the meal, but then I would be in the kitchen and wouldn't be able to play hostess, which was doable, but it's not very polite to invite people to lunch and then disappear! My usual go-to cook was not available, either. In the end, we decided to make it something of a potluck - all the attendees would bring a dish to share; we would, while eating, suspend our disbelief and pretend that my cook had prepared all the food. Doing this meant that no one had to do too much work, but we all got to eat a fabulous meal. This also allowed the participants to either show off their favorite period dishes (we had some attendees who brought their tried-and-true recipes, including family heirloom recipes) or try something completely new and different to challenge themselves.
We discussed how best to organize the food items that guests brought; in the end, I drew names from a hat and assigned guests to either bring a main dish, a side dish, or a dessert, with one person who asked to bring soup and another who brought biscuits. It would work equally well for guests to sign up for which items to bring - or for a real challenge, guests could be assigned a specific dish to make.
Laying Out Rules: Finally - and this, I think, was crucial - I came up with some documentation for all the attendees. It was a basic Word document that listed a few important pieces of information:
- I laid out some information about first person immersion, so that we all were on the same page regarding what first person is and what we would be doing.
- We set up deadlines. The first deadline was for sharing our characters or personae. I required all attendees to share the biographies of the people they would be portraying with everyone in the group. This way, they could come prepared with information about one another and establish ahead of time whether or not they know one another, and how, and how they relate to one another. This also kept all of us honest - we all had to put in the effort up-front. The second deadline was for assigning potluck items, as described above.
- I set out the logistics for attendees - what time guests would arrive, where they could change on-site if needed, where to drop off their food, and so forth. I think in a previous life I was a wedding planner - these kind of logistical things come naturally to me. The best tip I can give is to imagine that you are an attendee - what sort of questions do you have, what sort of needs do you bring, and where are you going to go? Anticipating the needs of attendees, even the most miniscule, mean less questions to answer later, and fewer surprises, which means that your attendees will feel more confident and can come to the event without worrying about trifling little things.
- We set ground rules for how to interact with one another. The first order of business was to set a "pass phrase" - a cue that someone needed to abandon first-person interpretation to handle modern issues. If, for example, I needed to tell an attendee that their car headlights were left on, I would use the pass phrase, and we would both leave the setting to handle it. This means that there's no confusion about when one is in first-person mode. Another key to this is having a "modern zone" where attendees can address their modern needs - ours was the back hallway by the catering kitchen. This way, those who need a break from the experience, or need to handle modern conversations or concerns (because as much as we'd like to enjoy the experience of being completely immersed in the period, we're modern people first and foremost and sometimes modern things need to be dealt with). They have a place to do that where they won't be intruding upon another attendee's "time travel moment". We also set some accuracy standards regarding clothing, appearance and food - after all, we're trying for immersion.
Because many of the attendees were brand-spanking-new at immersion, I made the following concessions:
- It was fairly loose with the scenario. I said it was simply a luncheon, autumn of 1863, and left it at that. I could have been more specific about who would be there, what kind of people we would portray, and so on, but I wanted to give participants as much free reign to build a persona with which they were comfortable. Thus we had some folks who were portraying wives of carpenters or doctors, and some who were portraying upper middle class or upper class ladies, and people from all walks of life, political persuasions, belief systems, and family backgrounds. It required us to suspend our disbelief, but I think it worked out alright in the end.
- I allowed attendees to choose how they built their personae. I provided worksheets for writing biographies, but did not require attendees to use any particular format. I also let attendees create a composite persona, or to portray an actual person from 1863, and we had several of each type.
- I asked attendees to concern themselves more with researching and creating their persona than on making sure their material impression (clothing, hair, etc) was perfect. Again, I wanted to keep things in perspective for everyone and focus on who they were, rather than what they were wearing. So often we get so concerned about the outer accoutrements of our interpretation, and we neglect to perfect the inner workings of our persona - we turned that on its head. (I should also note that I know all of the ladies to have perfectly good period ensembles, so it really wasn't a matter of showing up in jeans and a teeshirt.)
The main thing is this: make your attendees aware of all your goals, rules, and guidelines before they even start. Come up with your plan, and stick with it. It's likely you'll need to make some adjustments as time goes on, and that's natural and normal; no one can ever plan for every eventuality. But, as the parable says, you want to build your foundation on good, sturdy rock, rather than on sand - an unsteady foundation distracts attendees from what they are there to do, which is to create an atmosphere of time travel.
Up next - the after-action report of how everything came off!