May 8, 2011

10 Ways to Interest Spectators at Reenactments

Ignoring spectators has been a big problem in the reenacting/ living history community. Lately many reenactors have been trying to think of ways to interact with the public. It is increasingly important that we keep the public interested with new budget cuts and park closings.

One of the biggest barriers to interacting the public is finding a way to call them over. Frequently, visitors will walk on pathways through the camps but won't come up to you directly or they will approach only to take a photo and then scurry off.

Here is a list of ways to interest or engage spectators:

1. If you have some bored men in camp, you can establish a picket to stop all trespassers and invite them to talk for a bit.

2. Ask them for help. We ask for help when doing dishes, baking bread, ect. Make sure it is a safe activity; we are insured, they are not.

3. "You might not want to go that way, I hear there are some Yankees/Rebels nearby and you know how they treat young ladies/men/women ect." Tell them all of the nasty things that Yankees/Rebels are known for.

4. If they are taking a picture you can ask what they are doing. Make sure to tell them that they surely can't be done yet and that the picture will just be a blur and that you wished they hadn't of taken a picture of you in this ugly dress and that you had such pretty dresses before the war. :D Just give them something to work with. If you have a tintype or CDV of yourself, you could show it to them.

5. If you have two ladies you can comment to each other that the people in this city are "practically naked" or as naked the people of India of which you saw a stereograph of at your neighbor's house. If you are teenage girls, you can giggle and act embarrassed.

6. Ask the spectator if they have any news from where they came.  Tell them that you heard cannon in the morning and fear that there might be a skirmish sometime this week.

7. Have interesting items in view of the spectators. I've seen a group bring out a period still. Would it have really been possible in the Army? No, but it does give spectators an insight into an aspect of Civil War Era life that they otherwise would not have been able to see and helped interest spectators. Try to keep these things period and plausible.

8. Some reenactors create scenes and have a set script that they follow to interest spectators. We don't do this but I think it is a good tool as it involves numerous reenactors and all can participate and not have to worry about improvisational speaking.

9. Simply greet them and invite them to join you in whatever you are doing. If I do get a chance to take a peak at a battle, I will catch up to some spectators on the way. They usually ask what side you are on, where you are from and how long you've been reenacting. It's a good chance to tell spectators if there is anything going on after the battle as many spectators leave thinking that there is nothing after that.

10. This is my personal favorite, so don't steal it. :D If I see a woman with a man or a mom with her boy I'll ask the lady if she's trying to get rid of her man. I'll then inform her that it was the best $11 I've ever made and that the Confederate army even takes the little ones as musicians.    

The more I thought about this the more I realized that it is much easier for men to call over spectators. Women tend to have the added but justified fear of "creepers." Some men are so lonely that if a pretty girl smiles at him, he thinks that she is partial to him, even if she is just doing her job. I believe this is a big reason that women tend to ignore spectators.

I had a man stalk me for a while. He was a Civil War spectator but a WWII reenactor. He found out my IM, showed up at both of my jobs and even sent me a photo of himself with an  underage reenactor (who I think I know in the blogging community.) This is a very real danger. I do not recommend inviting spectators to talk when you are all alone. Remember to be careful.

Library of Congress
 If you are a reenactor, please add some ideas in the comments. If you are a spectator, please tell us what you would like to see.


  1. My dad and I always stop and talk to the enactors. I think they love us, lol.

  2. Your readers might enjoy what I wrote which coincides nicely with what you wrote:

  3. Nice ! Thanks! We are trying to improve this.

  4. These are fun ideas! The spectators at our events are pretty interactive with us. They are always taking our pictures and asking about the era:).



  5. We do a reenactment on an old train pulled by a steam locomotive. While at the depot, I carry a photo of a Civil War soldier and ask spectators if they have seen my son (or husband, or brother). I have used the one about people in their underwear quite often when wearing shorts, tank tops,etc. and telling people to be careful because I heard their may be some gunfire in the area. I also ask if they heard that Abraham Lincoln in coming to town (if he is). I really enjoy interacting with spectators.

  6. It irks me when I am at a big CW event and I see tight groups of reenactors sitting around the fire and gossiping, overtly ignoring spectators when the public is walking around their camps and peeking in their tents. We must never forget that we are here *for* the public, not in spite of them. If all you want to do is sit there, drink and talk and ignore everybody else, maybe you should plan a cookout with your friends on your own time. I notice it at every event. I think engaging the public is not as hard as it looks, and it makes the experience more memorable for them; makes them want to come back next time and tell their friends about it.

    1. I can't tell people what to do when thy are doing their hobby but I can encourage them to at least interact with the public a little bit.

    2. I agree with Stephanie on this. Reenacting is our hobby and inmost cases, no one is paying us to be there; quite the opposite! Not every reenactor is comfortable talking with the public or, frankly, particularly good at it, and those reenactors have a right to be there and to be largely left to hang out with their pards or to be left alone -if that's what they want. But many of us *do* enjoy talking with the public and see that sort of public outreach as a good extension of our own exploration of history. In my 20 years as an active CW reenactor I've met a great many spectators who wanted to talk with a reenactor to make a little stronger connection with the battle they've just witnessed, or who want a little more information about the history of the event or of some of the people involved. My old unit - the 79th New York of East Tennessee - has even gotten a couple of recruits out of engaging the spectators. Good recruits, too. So it's worth doing for it's own sake, if you have the interest in being an ambassador for the reenacting hobby at events. And if you don't, that's fine too.

      Talking with the spectators can be pretty entertaining too. Among the questions I've been asked by spectators over the years include:

      Were you in the *real* Civil War?

      Who won the Civil War; England or America?

      How much does the government pay you to do this?

      How do you go to the bathroom in that uniform?

      My Great Grandfather was in the Civil War. Did you know him?

      What do you do if all those horses suddenly stampede?

      But then a lot of spectators at reenactments are real students of the war and I've had some excellent conversations with people who knew a lot more than I did and who shared some fascinating information with me or who recommended some excellent books. So for me, it's worthwhile. Sometime, though - like when it's Gettysberg and it's 105 in the shade and I've just come off the field soaked through with sweat, I might not feel much like being an ambassador for the hobby till I've cooled off a little and had a giant economy sized jug of Gatoraide or two, so there are limits. But on the whole, talking with the public is a legitimate part of why I'm there. Kids these days learn next to nothing about the Civil War in school these days as it is. If I can help one kid get interested enough in history to want to go and learn more on his own, I figure that's worth it right there.

      Curt Phillips
      79th NYSM (Ret.)

    3. Hi Curt! I agree. Honestly I think it's more something that event hosts should think of. Perhaps reenactors willing to talk should wear a special ribbon that would indicate that?

      There are definitely some days I just want to sit and not be bothered.


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