Sunday, December 29, 2013

Home-Grown Immersion: Part 3

And so, we come to the final chapter in my report on our immersion luncheon. I have, unsurprisingly, struggled to put into words my thoughts and feelings on it. I am the type of person who, in looking back on things, usually notes first and foremost the things I wish would have gone differently. That's not so bad in my line of work (teaching and training) but it doesn't make for a fun after-action report! In any case, I'll do what my friend Emily (quoting from Alice in Wonderland) usually says: begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop.

We decided on a start time of 11 am, which meant that by arriving at 10, I (along with my staff of three, plus Sarah who had changed at my house) had an hour to put things in order and give final directions to the staff. We got things all situated, polished the silver that needed polishing, inspected the china and crystal to decide what we wanted (two whole cupboards at my disposal!), gave final directions, and then it was just about time to start.

I tend to anticipate that the moment of switching from modern!Betsy into first person will be jarring or difficult. In reality, it was seamless. I walked out of the dining room and encountered the butler in the hallway. I informed him of who would be coming to dine, instructed him to show them in directly, and where to put their wraps and bonnets. Then we both went on our way.

My friend Miss Chapin (Sarah) was already there and we spent some time in the parlor before the guests arrived. Mrs. Harl, who was new to the area and whom I had met at church, arrived shortly and we spent some time admiring the books in the library. This is one of the things that I think went really well - having someone who is "new" allowed for easy conversation. There are always questions to be asked and things to discuss when there is someone new in the group.

The rest of the guests trickled in - a mix of ladies from all walks of life. Shortly thereafter the butler asked me to inspect the table (the maid being new, I wanted to make sure that everything was in order) and lunch was served.

I'm really happy to say that we never wanted for topics of conversation. There were always things to talk about - we shared news of people we knew, talked about the weather (Minnesota had a really interesting year, weather-wise, in 1863), the national Thanksgiving day that had been declared, and news of the war. The food was absolutely marvelous - everyone really outdid themselves.

It was interesting to portray the lady of the house, even a deputy one. I had done some research beforehand, and decided to portray a lady who was living with her parents and whose mother was out of town at the time. I thought this would make it easier for everyone to relate to me (since they already know me as an unmarried lady). I'm not sure it worked out that way, but it gave people plenty to speculate on regarding my marriage prospects!

After lunch it was still raining quite heavily so I invited the ladies to wait out the storm in the parlor. One of the young ladies recited some poetry for our entertainment. Very shortly thereafter it was time for the day to end.

In all, I think it was a success. Everyone reported having enjoyed themselves, which was important. My main goal was, as I stated before, to give my friends an opportunity to try out first person immersion for themselves in a "safe" environment that allowed them the opportunity to test out the waters, as it were. I think I was successful in that regard - the general consensus was that everyone would like to do it again!

I do hope to plan another event like this one. In the future, I would perhaps keep a tighter rein on impressions; I let everyone pretty much have free will this time, and while it allowed them to research their interests and create interesting personae (which was awesome), it came at the cost of some confusing conversations about how all these people ended up in one room together. I don't regret the choice, but I would try it differently next time to see what difference it might make.

There were, of course, mistakes made. People said the wrong thing, a cell phone went off, etiquette was forgotten. But I think those incidents created the ultimate learning moments - you can ignore those things and get past them, and the event can go on without a hitch. We're all human, and the important thing is to put yourself out there and just try it out.

I hope these reflections help others realize that you can do first person immersion anywhere, if you are creative and have the desire!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

"The Road Winter", Currier and Ives
'Tis the season to be jolly! I want to take a moment and say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you! I love this time of year and Christmas is so quintessentially Victorian that it always puts me in a historic mood. I want to be out enjoying a sleigh ride with a cup of hot mulled wine and a roaring fire afterwards!

Christmas 1863, Harpers Weekly
 I hope this holiday season and Christmastide finds you surrounded with love and comfort. I personally have been very busy - by day, I work on the leadership team of a customer service call center. We have been very busy making sure our customers have a very happy holiday! I am also part of a choral group and we had two concerts this season - the highlight of which was learning "Stille Nacht" and "O Tannenbaum" in German. I felt like I was connecting with my German ancestors, who immigrated to the United States in the 1840s.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Family with Christmas Tree
 It has also been very, very cold here - one of the coldest Decembers in two centuries in Minnesota. If it's cold where you are (or colder than you are used to) or if the season has maybe left you a little cold in other ways, I hope you can find some comfort and good cheer and warmth.

"Comfort" from the collections of the NYPL
I just wanted to take a moment, as the year closes, to thank you for following along with my historic exploits, for sharing in my love of history, and to wish you all a very happy new year.

"Christmas Eve", WC Bauer

PS: Now that the holiday season is drawing to a close, expect more posts. I haven't forgotten about the post I'd promised on our immersion luncheon, and will be posting that soon! Thanks to everyone for your patience!

PPS: What do you think of the new background? Shoutout to Background Fairy for the pretties!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Home-Grown Immersion Part 2

In my last post, I gave some insight into the inspiration for hosting a small, day-long private immersion event. My planning process (besides just jumping around for joy at a clever idea) was as follows.

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.)
I made these decisions based on the goals I had - creating a space with rules and goals so that everyone could practice first person no matter what their experience with it. It worked in this case. Other events might not be able to follow the same equation and have success. It really depends on what you, specifically, want out of the event. That's the great part about home-grown immersion - it can be whatever you want it to be.

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!