Re-enactment. Boon or bust?

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ March 3rd, 2013. Filed under: Performance.

There have been several times in my life when I decided that re-enacting the original context of a music composition’s performance was an exciting and viable option. I once called it Theatre of Music (as opposed to Music Theatre).

When you hear or read the word “re-enactment”, you might recall vacations or school day-trips when you visited a historic site such as an old-fashioned farm, stately mansion, or stone fort. As you walked into the grounds of the sprawling network of buildings or the hushed drawing room of a fussy Victorian house, you were probably greeted by people dressed in the same time period as the historical location. Those individuals manning the printing press or the kitchen or the stockade are called re-enactors and their job is to bring life to the walk-around exhibit by re-enacting the roles and occupations associated with the historical site. And, when they weren’t busy with their occupations, they engaged with the visitors to explain what they were up to, answering questions, joking about their life in 1890, or 1790, or even 990 in L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The re-enactors in the American site of Plymouth are unique in that they speak in first-person, as if they really are living in the age of their historical re-construction. Pure, glorious theatre. In other places, the re-enactors have been replaced by interpreters in the uniform of Parks Canada or whatever because of cutbacks. No theatre. Just polite lectures.

Some of my most memorable life moments have been in the company of re-enactors. Just to take one example among many, the young, passionate re-enactors at Old Fort Henry, brought a lump to my throat as I watched them practice their military duties and music instruments fife and drummers in snappy military cadet garb.

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Of course, I knew that at the end of the day, the “soldiers” stuffed their uniforms and flutes in their lockers, strolled out of the fort and returned to their everyday lives as young people on summer break from university, enjoying one of the best summer jobs ever. But when they were in costume, they looked and acted like the real thing of long ago, and we modern visitors, some in Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts, did not feel remotely out of place interacting with these soldiers of 200 years ago. We were time travellers, and they were our willing hosts. The magic of theatre was at work, where the suspension of belief is as natural as breathing.

If you find yourself drawing parallels with music videos, congratulations. You’ve made the leap.


I could turn this little essay into a full-blown book if I added all the other re-enactments I have enjoyed. But I will admit in the next breath that I do have my limits of suspended belief. The motley crowds at LARP (Live Action Role Playing), CosPlay (Costume Play) and SCA (Society for Creative Anachronisms) seem to me to be comprised of individuals, dressed in meticulous costume re-construction, compromise their authenticity with fantasy. Besides, SCA and CosPlay often relegate their re-enactment to themselves while neglecting their environment, which is usually a convention or festival.

Did you notice the word “authentic”, the soft under-belly of re-enactment, in the previous paragraph? Re-enactors of all stripes, from fantasy to history, are accused of being inauthentic (i.e., fake) because it is impossible to really know how events or people were thinking or feeling back then, no matter how meticulous the research. Then there are the nitpickers who rightfully point out that such-and-such a re-enactor or re-enactment couldn’t possibly act or be that way because of the march of history that has brought about modern medicine or machine stitching or whatever.  These critics come from the ranks of the self-righteous post-modernists, constantly looking over their shoulder for signs of a Grand Narrative, the untenable, if not unconscionable, buttress that supports one or another “-ialism” such as post-colonialism.  Finally, there is the sharpest barb of all; re-enactors are pretending, the alleged opposite of real. Recall the exchange of quotes by the chess-masters Spassky and Fischer, who argued, “chess in not like life, it is life”. They dismiss the theatre of re-enactment as a charade of histrionics. And, if the truth be told, I have seen some truly awful histrionics on stage.

Theatre of Recital

Despite the discomfort of these accusations, re-enactment has been embraced by myself and many music groups that I have joined, albeit with some trepidation.

My earliest exposure to re-enactment was during my years with the Towne Waytes, a six-man ensemble that played Renaissance wind instruments. We were fanatical about historical performance practices and authentic reproductions, even going so far as to read original music notation. No bar lines! (Musicians will gasp at the idea.) And yet, knowing our music was esoteric almost to the extreme, we wanted to make a living. Our solution was to perform our music in hundreds of schools in a theatrical manner, with scripted dialogue.

When we arrived at the back door of a gym, we pulled out our music instruments, props and costumes and proceeded to assemble renaissance town squares in each corner of the gym. The students were assembled in the middle, and we toured four countries (i.e., four corners of the gym), playing the music of their long-ago resident waytes. The children were entranced, either gawking in disbelief or hooting and hollering as one of their own got up to try a galliard taught by one of us.

Oddly enough, we never did this performance for adult evening audiences, opting instead for the classic stone-statue gaze of the typical Western audience assembled in a darkened theatre. Many’s the time I looked out at the crowd and saw nodding heads as we laboriously worked our way through Byrd’s fantasy for 6 recorders. Those evening concerts were nerve-racking, unlike the school shows which were out-and-out fun for everybody.

And then there was my program of pub music in London circa 1750, and best of all, my program that featured wandering flutists from both sides of Eurasia, the Komuso of Japan and Will Kemp of England.


“What was the point of these theatrical concerts,” you ask? They addressed the difficult issue of musical meaning. Each program placed unusual music in its context so that its sounds could be humanised. They replaced passive listening and faceless puppets manipulating music instruments with active conceptualisation; information combined with experience. I came to realize that almost every kind of music is greatly enhanced by contextualisation. This style of performance is already common in groups that have decided to offer spoken introductions to their music, usually done badly because of musicians’ notorious lack of public speaking skills. Perhaps they think that their speaking roles are forgiven because they are brilliant musicians. If so, I have a bridge they may be interested in purchasing.  In contrast are groups like Canadian Brass who hired theatrical directors to give them the “look” that could accompany the “sound” they were making. The door to this world is marked “dramaturgy”.

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Re-enactment aligns with fundamental shift in grade school style of education, where facts are being replaced with experiences, rote-learning with creative curiosity, up-load/down-load autocrats to information mediators. A perusal of any modern school board policy statement or faculty of education research goal will quickly reinforce this new move from providers of information, now profusely available on the internet and social media, to the leaders of experiences, the fuel that sparks the imagination which in turn trolls the internet for information.

Music, again

I find that I can listen to music wrenched out of its context and place naked in the recital hall when I am utterly familiar with its context. It’s possible (but not obvious to me) that such an enlightened form of listening is the goal of Musicology. But how general audiences “from the street” can extrapolate context and listen in alleged rapturous silence to the bare bones of the music, is beyond me. Well, not entirely beyond me. It seems to me that the context of the music has been replaced by an obsession with musical form. “Did you hear that, self? The secondary theme came back in the tonic instead of the dominant!” But truly, how many members of a typical WAM concert can listen like that. Long ago, when I taught Music Appreciation classes, my rooms were constantly filled with anxious listeners who blamed themselves for their failure to be transported by classical music. “My mind wanders within the first five minutes! What’s wrong with me!?”

I have already acknowledged that re-enactment has its scathing critics. And I am troubled by the lack of research that could help listeners (and performers) differentiate re-enactments from histrionics. It is entirely uncharted country, although the new social science of Performativity is providing guidelines for discovery. I feel proud of the fact that the students who have taken my two courses, Introductions to the Study of World Music and Popular Music, have walked away from the lectures with at least a glimmer of understanding and hope.


Richard Schechner (2002) Performance Studies: An Introduction

Michael Ann Williams (2006) Staging Tradition: John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott

Richard Handler and Eric Gable (1997) The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg

Stephen Eddy Snow, with a foreward by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimbett (1993) Performing the Pilgrims: A Study in Ethnohistorical Role-playing at Plimoth(sic) Plantation

Stacy F. Roth (1998) Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First Person Historical Interpretation

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