10 Tips for the Newbie Reenactor

This post was written by one of our members, Emma Wilson. Emma is a squad leader in HQ Co., a full-time student, Army wife, and runs a personal blog at http://www.beingemmanuelle.com. We love this list she compiled, and think there are some good points for those of us who aren’t so new!

Honestly, I still get that simultaneously overwhelming and infatuating feeling. The feeling of entering another time or a place with all the ‘costumes’ and the weird food. I vividly remember walking around the ‘military trucks’ for the first time. (Thinking back to those days, I laugh having driven and rode in some of those “military trucks.”) I remember barely being tall enough to see old farming technique demonstrations. In awe, I remember watching the people ‘dressed up’; and Wow, Mom I want to do that someday! Who knew there was a special brand of people that felt the same way I did?

Reenacting, or living history, has opened some amazing opportunities. It’s a wide spectrum of interests, technique, and presentation. Every year I have been a part of this community, I am thrilled to meet new people, better my own impression, and teach others. As a newbie, with under five years of experience, there is a lot still to learn (Hopefully, there is room for everyone in their respective hobby to learn). But perhaps sharing a few practical tips and tricks I have developed (or borrowed from others) will help others avoid some of the beginner fumbles I made myself.

  1. You do not have to always be right. In the field of living history, there are lots and lots of opinions. Choose to listen and, when appropriate, give your side of the matter at hand. Being right at the expense of another is never right. Be courteous. I have often picked up an interesting point of view or learned of an additional resource by explaining what I had read/learned/been taught. Depending on the subject, occasionally both parties are right. Other times, the right answer isn’t really known by anyone.
  2. Carry a notecard. Write it down. Ask clarifying questions. For my first year of events, I carried a 3×5 index card in the pocket of my uniform. I was absolutely terrified someone was going to ask me something I knew (i.e a date, person, what something was, etc) that I would forget. Truth be known, I only ever had to reference that card twice, but having it helped me feel more confident. There is nothing wrong with asking questions. Do so, multiple times if necessary. Many times people are just as willing to teach or help as you are to learn and understand. Don’t belittle yourself as an amateur, but try not to become such an expert that you isolate yourself as a resource to others.
  3. Stand on your own two feet (assuming you have both limbs). This tip comes to you in three parts.
    1. Firstly, I suggest identifying why you personally want to reenact. There is a wonderful chart that humorously illustrates where you might begin to discover where your ‘why’ fits into the grand spectrum of reenactment. Standing on your own feet requires you to, well, know where you stand. It might be helpful to ask of yourself what hills you’re willing to die on and what hills you are happy to share.
    2. Secondly, even if you are a member of a group, do your own research. Depending on your era, your ‘why’ (and a multitude of additional variables), research will look different for everyone. There are numerous learning habits and styles, but you have to be the one to do it. Learn for yourself however works best, but be able to do it for yourself. Libraries, local historical societies and museums are good places to get started.
    3. Thirdly, at some point you have to get your own gear/props/fabric or whatever. Borrowing and lending is a great way to get into the hobby, but eventually your loaner will want their stuff back (Or make you pay for it). So as you patch together an impression, be looking towards the ultimate goal of owning those items that you borrow.
  4. Integrate, but don’t assimilate. Integration, as defined by Merriam-Webster.com, is the act of integrating; which is “to form, coordinate, or blend into a functioning or unified whole : UNITE”. Like it or not, you are now in a community. Community is the whole that you are a part of. Get along, or at least, do your due diligence to unify as a functioning whole. It’s easier to write that of course than it is to actually do it. For some, this means shaping yourself into a piece that fits into the role the community calls you to. For everyone, this means sacrifice of time, preferences, habits, and such. Assimilation is different. To assimilate is “to absorb into the system” or “to be taken in” (Merriam-Webster.com; used as a transitive and intransitive verb). You will meet people you do not want to be like as well as people you want to be exactly like; both ideas in extreme are unhealthy and can be ultimately destructive to the communal goal of unity. Be yourself. Unite with others. It is a message I preach to myself. And it is a hard one, but so rewarding.
  5. Sleep well. Eat well. Drink a lot (of water). Grumpy reenactors make for grumpy audiences and grumpy days. My first ever event I was running on less than 6 hours of sleep. Bad idea. Lesson learned. Taking care of yourself physically and mentally are the best ways to prepare for anything, including reenactments. Keep time period appropriate snacks handy, or have a plan for lunch well before lunchtime. Especially for those mid-July events, drink water. Hydrated reenactors are happy campers.
  6. Do not buy all the things. You will want to, but unless you have a recently deceased wealthy great uncle I cannot recommend you do so. Set a number for yourself and try to stay within that budget. I understand the value of finally owning that one particular thing you’ve been looking for forever, but is it worth it? For some, it is. For others (i.e. those of us who pay rent or have a questionable car), it’s not. Don’t know how much to spend on that one exceptional and “very good condition” item? Ask around. Find the people who own one such item and get a realistic price. Cost is one of the biggest reasons people can’t continue or do not start reenacting. My personal advice, especially as a student, is to let family members/friends know what you’re looking for and request those items as gifts. It’s a process.
  7. Show up. Be where you say you’d be, try to be on time, and be fully there. If you can’t commit to something that specific weekend, be honest and say you can’t go. On the other hand, if you can go, then you should actually go. Things happen, yes. But those circumstances should be the exception, not the expectation. Be a dependable person (if you’re not, that’s one of those things to improve in order to integrate well into reenacting). Additionally, if you’ve shown up to an event, be there. Meet the people you’re interacting with. Have fun. Make a memory. In short, try to stay off the phone or keep from disappearing every hour.
  8. You cannot please everyone. As I’ve said before you do not have to always be right, but you may be right…and be disliked for it. Or be wrong and disliked for it. Or just be disliked. That’s okay. Everyone on the planet will not be your friend; this does not mean you get to be their enemy. Set yourself up before an event to be prepared for criticism as well as praise. Both at one time or another will be given. For me, this involves avoiding vain arguments on topics, or with people, I already know to be an issue. Create a space for civil conversation and be polite, regardless of the opposition. If that’s not possible, remove yourself from the conversation. You are either part of the problem or part of the solution; make it your ambition to be part of the solution.
  9. Understand the nature of what it is you do. For audience and reenactors alike (if not more so), history has its delicate moments. Depending upon your subject/period, certain topics can be very raw and even emotional. Be aware, if not considerate, of such topics/events. In militaria, it is paramount you understand the weight surrounding the story you tell. Nobody is perfect in this regard, but a heartful understanding of human history will shine through in what you do. There is a time and place for light-hearted speech or jokes, but some reenactment events are simply not the time nor the place. Keep in mind that the tool you wield can be one of great hope or of great hurt. I suggest, when in doubt, use it to bring great hope.
  10. Passion is not everything, but it is something. My mom likes to say she could listen to someone talk about anything all day, as long as they had a passion for it. I tend to agree. By no means do you have to love everything you do. For reenactments, however, it certainly does help (I venture to ask why’d you do it if you don’t have a passion for it). Enjoy what you do here. Learn to enjoy the aspects of reenacting that you dislike, or when possible, only do the parts you enjoy. Every event will not be your favorite. Bad days happen, but try to make the best of them. It’ll be better for everyone if you like what you do. There is value in enthusiasm.

The last couple weeks have shown that reenacting teaches a lot about everyday life too. My everyday life looks a little different than most, but I think the general things are still true: “Life is what you make it”. In the Army, they tell the service members (and the spouses) to remember their ‘why’. On the days when it’s tough, think back to why you started and why you want to keep going. Same is true with reenacting, or college, or sports, or whatever your thing is. The idea is if the Army is nothing more than a job, that’s all you are ever going to get out of it. To make the most of being a reenactor, get out of it what you’re putting into it. If you put in poor research, only one weekend a year or no finances, the result is going to be a poorly researched, thrown-together and incomplete impression. It’s a big commitment in many ways, but it can be so rewarding.

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