The Art of First Person

How to Talk Yankee!


by: Linda Trent copyrighted by Linda Trent and the Camp Chase Gazette

Who should do first person? Everyone: young and old, army and civilian, male and female.

What is it? The ability to take one's self and one's audience back to a time and place designated by the sponsor.

When? For whatever length of time one continues to wear clothes of the era being portrayed.

Where? In and around all designated grounds.

Why? To educate the public through living history demonstrations in a nineteenth century atmosphere.

How? Self-determination and self-control.

What do I talk about? Anything. Anything dealing with the period being portrayed or earlier. Leave anachronistic discussions for the twentieth century. TV programs, modern sports and music and the like are taboo. Family is appropriate and a real concern , especially if you have teenage sons! Talk about re-cent battles, "Current events," Politics; if all else fails, the weather. Discuss the reasons that you are with the army: are you a soldier, a doctor, a refugee who has fled a war torn home or village?

Discuss your feelings about your home state: is it Confederate or Union? State like West Virginia are excellent especially if you are Unionist and your "Mother state", Virginia, has seceded -- how do you feel? Do you support a new state? How do you feel about the issue of secession, slavery, the war itself? Is it worth your life? You can even begin plans for post war. Where are you going to live, work, etc.?

Can you really teach people in first person? Most definitely. On July 24, 1989, U.S. News and World Report published an article listing the most popular restored villages in America and rated them according to authenticity and educational value. The only two to receive four stars (the highest rating) for authenticity were Conner Prairie and Plimouth Plantation. Conner Prairie also got four stars for educational value. Is it mere coincidence they are the only two where all the inhabitants speak in first person?

How can I learn to teach people while in first person? There are three steps to being a teacher: first, know your character. You should be able to tell who you are, why you are here, and how you got where you are. You should have a rough knowledge concerning daily routine and be familiar with your belongings.

The next step is simple enough -- use first person pronouns, "I, me, we, and us". Instead of saying "the army" say "we". Instead of saying "they would have" say "I do". But there is one final essential ingredient to doing first person, and all the training cannot give it to you. You alone must provide it.... Step three is determination and dedication. If you do not have determination and dedication to do first person then you are wasting your time reading this article.

Won't I offend people? I've tried it before and the public walks away confused. NO. To reenact means to recreate the past. When the public enters the grounds they observe a military camp with men and women wearing period dress. So far so good -- the public has been transported back into the nineteenth century. However, the problem starts when the speech begins. I have conversed with many costumed guides at historical sites as well as with reenactors in the field, and I find they break character. They go from first person to third person constantly. That is enough to confuse anyone. Also, when the public is conversing with you, they are close enough to see watches, eyeglasses, modern cigarettes, Coke cans and the like. If they see you are not serious -- they won't be either!

Who should I portray? It's always easiest to create your own character. Your character can be very much like yourself. We all know which side of the war we would have been on, how we would have felt about secession, slavery, temperance, women's rights, etc. Use your own name or create a new one; do the same with family, hometown, or whatever -- your possibilities are endless. With a real character you might be doing a great disservice. All you know about them is what has been recorded in the annals of history, so it's difficult to know enough of their daily like and beliefs to properly portray them. You could also encounter others in your travels who know something you don't about that person. It is my feeling that it is always easiest to portray yourself in that era. You can use records, diaries, old letters, books and your own imagination to create your person. How old are you? What did you do before the war? What brought you into this conflict? What are your duties? What are your dreams? Find good stories and incorporate them into your own character. Again, here your possibilities are endless -- whereas with a real person you are very confined.

What are my options as far as roles are concerned? Both men and women have several options to choose from, ranging from the military to the non-combatant military related, to the civilian.

Men need not be soldiers! Non-combatant roles are available in such areas as medicine, the ministry, photography and journalism. I would like to salute those reenacting units who encourage their members " who have gotten (their) soldier impression developed well, to work up a correct civilian impression." These can be local townsfolk who want to enlist, farmers with grievances toward livestock raids, refugees from a town, etc. Don't forget that many men paid others to go to war for them. That might be an interesting scenario for a civilian camp.

Every reenactor should have at least two characters: perhaps two military (one Rebel and one Yankee); one military and one civilian; or two civilian ( Yankee and Rebel). Two on the same side is also acceptable. By having two characters on a opposing sides you will always be able to galvanize if the nee should arise.

Women who want to fill a combatant role should not have feminine facial features and should be properly bond and sound like a man. They should also be properly researched according to regiment and company. Non-combatant roles could include nurse, laundress, and seam-stress. "Hooker's Division" is fine as long as it is tasteful and the clothing is properly researched. Abolitionists and temperance advocates are two other strong and emotional roles for women (and men). Women are also encouraged to develop a role unconnected to the army. Refugees from a nearby town is the most common perhaps, but is by no means the only option. Further research will help you to create just the right character for you.

A few other helpful hints:

Don't feel silly doing first person just because no one else is doing it -- maybe they're not doing it for the same reason. At Caesar's creek, Ohio this past December (1991), my husband Hank and I started a conversation about how he needed to by me a new horse. A private sitting across the table from us began telling us about a good horse in the artillery that he'd "get" for us and then paint up so that no one would recognize her. It turned into quite an entertaining conversation (first person, of course) that would not have existed save we initiated it.

Don't assume that by being in first person you can't have fun. My husband and I attended about 20 events this past season (my first year), and it took us only three or four of them until we discovered how easy and fun it really is. Guyandotte, West Virginia, was an excellent example of this. It was a Union recruiting camp; the Rebels raided and took my husband prisoner. All my protesting to the Confederate captain got me an armed guard. (He and I carried on a beautiful little scenario that, I might add, the crowd thoroughly enjoyed.) The next day the Union came in and liberated the town. I went around to each Union officer pleading for him to pursue the Confederates and my husband. They all gave the same distressing answer -- "Sorry Ma'am, they're long gone." What was so beautiful was that weekend Linda Trent did not exist -- the crowd knew me as Mrs. Micky McGuire and that's what first person is all about -- being able to portray an individual of the Civil War, tell people who you are, why you're there, what's going on, etc. You don't exist! You haven't been born yet! You are among people of your great-great grandparent's time.

I often hear arguments that some units have members all across the nation and when they get together they like the time to "catch up on news". That's fine, but they can do it on Friday night or after the event on Sunday. All day Saturday and Sunday should be dedicated to the cause -- living history. Use newsletters, U.S. Mail, or AT&T for "catch up".

There are no "good" reasons not to do first person. It is easy, fun, and entertaining, but most importantly it's authentic! It doesn't take a storehouse of knowledge -- just start out using common sense. As you catch on you can begin adding more to your character by studying in more depth your person's feelings on issues and politics. There's no more excuse -- just get out there and do it!

Further recommended reading:

*Building Believable Characters* by Marc McCutcheon published by Writer's Digest Books, 1996.

*Creating Unforgettable Characters* by Linda Seger published by Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 1990.

*Creating Characters: How to Build Story People* by Dwight V. Swain published by Writer's Digest Books, 1990.

 'click' on the (<=Back) button, or [  X  ] out
Web Design by: S-FX