- Performing History: How to Research, Write, Act, and Coach Historical Performances by Ann E. Birney and Joyce M. Thierer
Authors Ann E. Birney and Joyce M. Thierer are joint collaborators in the first-person living historical interpretation troupe, Ride Into History, which Thierer founded in 1989. With Ride Into History, the two have toured the country performing first-person interpretations of historical figures such as Calamity Jane and Amelia Earhart. For most of their historical performances, Birney and Thierer [End Page 207] adhere to the following presentation schema: they perform their historically researched monologues in character; they then take questions while remaining in character; and finally, they take questions out of character, wearing the mantle of historian/performer. Birney and Thierer have also coached others to develop their own first-person historical performances by leading workshops and directing week-long historical performance camps. Based on these dual experiences of performing and coaching, Performing History offers would-be historical performers and would-be directors of historical performance workshops or camps many useful tips and motivating anecdotes.
One of this book's strengths is in how the authors empower their audience of would-be (or current) historical performers to hold themselves to high standards and to consider themselves serious performers and historians. For example, chapter 2 coaches readers on best practices for historical research, including how to ask meaningful questions, where to seek out the answers for said questions, and why they should seek out the assistance of librarians and archivists. The seasoned historical researcher will not find much that is new to them in this chapter, but it will be of great value to those who have been out of the game for awhile (i.e., may not know what JSTOR is), or to those who have anxiety about adopting the mantle of "historian" for themselves. Chapters 3 and 4 deal more with integrating that research into the performances themselves, both in terms of designing performances that engage audiences with interesting stories (chapter 3), and how to work through the fears and anxieties most anyone would have before performing a public monologue. In these chapters, the advice draws on their own experiences (i.e., a useful chart shows a full range of entrance styles and accompanying rationales for Ride Into History's menagerie of historical figures), to what comes across as standard motivational speaker fare, for example, "Try writing your fears on tiny pieces of paper, then burning them or placing them in the trash" (92).
In terms of finding its intended audience, the cover art to the book is a bit misleading, as are many of photographs used in the book, which feature (by and large) children in the driver's seat with regard to conducting historical research and presenting first-person interpretations. In fact, of the book's seven chapters, just one (chapter 5) is aimed exclusively at those who are setting out to coach children to develop historical performances at workshops and camps. In this fifth chapter, the authors write expressly for those seeking to develop a model of Ride Into History's historical performance camps where children engage in local history research and become historical performers in their own right. A strength of this chapter is in the nuts and bolts details. It really is a practical road map on how to put these camps together, including ideas about the appropriateness of gender crossing for children's historical performances, as well as prescriptions for how to run registration, marketing, snacks, and even Birney and Thierer's recommended name tag materials: "plastic sleeves with string" (142). Of note, the appendices are exclusively devoted to templates and lesson plans for these camps. [End Page 208]
Performing History makes frequent reference to Thierer's 2010 book, Telling History: A Manual for Performers and Presenters of First-Person Narratives. This reviewer, incidentally, had not read Telling History, and so the many references to this earlier...