Performance archaeology

More than just Historical Re-enactment.

Umberto Eco - [criticism of the Museum of New York] "...the designers want the visitor to feel an atmosphere and to plunge into the past without becoming a philologist or archaeologist..."
~ from Travels in Hyper-Reality

Re-enactment involves portraying individuals of a specific period. A snap shot of life in the past. Though this makes for good photography, its realistic appearance hides the degree of invention going on, when it moves from generic period activity to specific personalities. It has to choose which view of the past to portray. All re-enactment involves some assumptions and inventions to fill the gaps (we don't know what they sounded like), but these inner workings are hidden from the public. This approach can also have a problem with modern anachronisms. So naturalistic dialogue has to contain explanation and context for the audience, but it must also "appear" real. The vehicle of a character can restrict the width of the information to be communicated. The re-enactment can be so centre stage, with its colour and drama, that it replaces the experience of the site. The artifice is in danger of supplanting what it seeks to portray.

Audiences are also uncomfortable, not knowing how to behave in this unusual inter-personal context; being with actors in character. For example, on "Murder Mystery Weekends" actors have observed that up to a third of their audience never engages with them. They only giggle from a distance, which is a sure sign of their discomfort with the situation, even after being with the performers for an entire weekend.

Performance Archaeology by Longshanks & Talesman

"Performance" - it is obviously modern people wearing hats, using props & explaining things.
"Archaeology" - it is based on objects and places, that make a probable picture of the people of the past.

Moments of re-enactment serve the exposition of the site, rather than being the boundary within which exposition takes place. The performers never become the character. They are obviously performing, offering a variety of versions of the past for consideration. Longshanks; the more practical and contextual approach, and The Travelling Talesman; the more emotional and romantic. They creatively complement or contradict, making a dynamic structure. They are clearly distinguished by one being in period costume, while the other is in modern dress with a clipboard. From this clipboard "quotes & facts" are obviously read, thus clearly distinguishing them as such. Longshanks & Talesman provide an interface of imagination and interpretation, with the site, opening up possibilities, not dictating a single perspective. But always immediate ("this is where it happened").

The performance is site specific rather than character specific. This is a genuine experience and hence more exciting than "meeting people from the past" because it engages directly with the audience. This style of performance can zoom in on significant details (objects), and step back to give background context. Footnotes, such as explaining terms, can be easily dropped in. All flows from one to another as easily as natural conversation. It is "theatricised" conversation. And like conversation it is not specifically scripted throughout, and so remains fresh and spontaneous (last minute alterations are also possible).


Performance Archaeology is more flexible than re-enactment for delivering the facts of the site, as whichever medium is most suitable to each point can be used:-

  • Poetry
  • Storytelling
  • Dramatic sketches
  • Document readings
  • Music
  • Puppets
  • Historical background
  • Diagrams
  • Involvement in question & answer
  • Object handling (reconstructions / originals)
  • Involvement in physical reconstruction
  • Using the Location
  • Referencing to other activities / materials on the site

This flexible style also allows easy insertion of "plugs" for ideas, events, or products that require promotion.

This way of working thrives on complex multi-period sites. Ambiguity and uncertainty are an advantage as the audience can fill the gaps or make up their own minds. It can also get them to think, make connections with what they know, and references can be made to popular culture (popular misconceptions can be corrected on the way).


The performers are one step away from the material. So they are sharing it with the audience, not performing at them. They bond with the audience, putting them at their ease by making eye contact, (only some of their time is spent in eye to eye dialogue with each other) and using a conversational style. The audience are gently invited to take part in the physical reconstructions (entire audience becomes walls of lost building), to help hold large props, or offer interpretations. Within a short time the shared theatrical-informality is established and, as in a conversation, people chip-in with their own knowledge and experience.

The audience is periodically moved about the site, promenade style, which does three things. Firstly, it avoids the distracting physical discomfort of standing still for a long period. Secondly, it puts the location centre stage, it is not merely a backdrop. The performers continually direct attention away from themselves, and towards the site and its objects. Thirdly, as with the traditional storyteller's "mind-theatre", the spatial differentiation of ideas will fix them in the minds of the audience. They will leave with more than pictures.

Bertolt Brecht - "He behaves naturally as a demonstrator, and he lets the subject of the demonstration behave naturally too. He never forgets, nor does he allow to be forgotten, that he is not the subject but the demonstrator. That is to say, what the audience sees is not a fusion between demonstrator and subject,....such as the orthodox theatre puts before us in its productions [Stanislavsky]. The feelings and opinions of demonstrator and demonstrated are not merged into one."
"The object of this "effect" is to allow the spectator to criticise constructively...."
~ from The Street Scene. A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre

Y Aburrow & NP Hanks, 1999