by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We’ve had versions and variations of living history programs at the Homestead for most of the museum’s thirty-six year history. Invariably, they’ve involved characters based on real people or ones created for the program giving monologues or working in groups acting in little vignettes.
On occasion, though, we’ve tried to incorporate the visitors into the performances with interactive and participatory roles. One of these was today’s “Christmas Calamities” program, consisting of six tours with living history performances. My colleagues Gennie Truelock and Jennifer Scerra worked on developing the concept and writing the script for the performance, which called for them to play rival small-town (1928 Puente) theatrical wanna-bes who were competing to present a holiday pageant for a performance in town.
Gennie’s Elizabeth Townsend, a fictional character, and Jennifer’s Sophie Rowland, based loosely on a member of the well-known local family, tried to outdo each other with their pageant ideas and recruited visitors on the six tours we gave today to play roles in their respective performances.
Meanwhile, I played a secondary character, Frank Romero, who was the ranch foreman and driver for the Temples in the late 1920s, who was so determined to play a role in the pageant that he continually intruded into the proceedings and made himself look utterly ridiculous (hardly a stretch for this ac-tor.)
Basically, as visitors approached La Casa Nueva with a docent and stopped at the courtyard entrance to the house, which was an everyday entrance because the garages were at the back (south end) of the property, Frank came bursting out of the basement carrying a box of electric light bulbs (actually bulbs with broken dishes and other material to make an appropriately noisy and surprising entrance).
Because visitors were told they were community members coming to rehearse in one of the two contending pageant pieces, Frank escorted the groups into the house’s Main Hall, only to find that Elizabeth and Sophie were deep into a heated discussion about the merits and misdemeanors of their various presentations.
Interrupted in their intense parley, the two came out to meet the group and explain how the rehearsal was to be run. Meanwhile, Frank sought to secure a role for himself, but was politely and firmly asked to return to his work checking to make sure that putting multiple strings of outdoor lights together and plugging them into one outlet was a good idea.
As Sophie and Elizabeth returned to their explanations, however, Frank carefully crept upstairs from the courtyard and eavesdropped on the conversation, his excitement building as the others argued about the finale presentation for the pageant. Running downstairs to offer his idea of singing a Christmas carol to close out the show, Frank was, again, rebuffed, though when the two groups went to separate rooms to rehearsal, he tagged along.
Finally, Sophie, tiring of Frank’s antics, hit upon the idea of having him serve as a judge to determine which of the two performances merited selection as the finale and sent him over to Elizabeth to announce his new role. There, again, his persistent attempts to get further involved led Elizabeth to send him back to Sophie to announce that she was done rehearsing and that each group should hear the other’s performance.
After both groups were done showing what they had come up with, Frank was asked to make his decision. After he again insisted that a song was called for to wrap up the show, the lights suddenly began flickering, leading Elizabeth to raise that issue of stringing too many lights together and putting Frank in a panic as he ran out to where the electrical panels were located to see what the problem was.
Meantime, Elizabeth and Sophie concluded their remarks to the visitors who were escorted out of the house by the docent and taken back to the Homestead Museum Gallery. Activities and food prepared by Chef Ernest Miller of Rancho La Merced Provisions, a chef, food historian, and frequent contributor to our programs, were available.
Visitors seemed to be really engaged with the program and to enjoy being involved in the participatory and interactive nature of the living history performances during the tour. Though it is labor, time and cost intensive to do living history, the rewards can be great for our guests and for our performers. Historical concepts can be better retained by a visitor when they hear it from some one in costume, but, more importantly, this happens with greater success when guests are involved and active.
This was our first offering of “Christmas Calamities” and we’ll be getting together as a staff soon to evaluate the program and determine whether to bring it back for another “run” a year from now.