As long as people have walked the earth, stories have been told; from stories around the campfire told by older people to entertain and educate the young, to 15th century knights dressing up as Romans during themed tournaments. Telling a story is putting on a little show; a show is a great way to tell a story.
This article is about possible shows to put on at a historical theme-park, in a historical setting or at a museum. I will try to answer the question of why do we put on shows. I’ll give some handholds and tips on how to build up a show from scratch and the way you can make these work. As a closure I will write about some of the shows I put on at Stichting Foeks and Archeon.
This article was presented during OpenArch Conference at Archeon, April 2013.
Why would we put on shows in a theme-park or museum?
1. It is a nice way to entertain and inform your audience and can be considered so called ‘info entertainment’ or ‘infotainment’.
2. In a short period of time you can show the audience a wide spectacle of elements and give the viewer a total experience by stimulating all their senses through, for instance, the sound of canon fire and the smell of burning gun-powder, the thrill of a fight or just by watching a very handsome gladiator.
3. Shows and plays are an opportunity to entertain your visitors in a laid back manner. If your visitors have been walking around all day, they will certainly appreciate a moment of distraction.
4. Maybe just as important is that a show is also a break in the day for your staff. They will be inspired and challenged by creating and working in a show. Basically, it is a lot of fun for both your audience and your staff.
Creating a world or experience: “Is that real/authentic?”
If you want to create shows or plays, it is important to create a ‘believable’ experience for the audience. This enables you to take them to another place and/or time. How believable this world you create is, depends a lot on all the work you put into research, story, clothing, props, cast, et cetera. Next to my own belief and experience, I measure the importance of things being believable, authentic or ‘real’ through the one question everyone gets from the audience: Is that real?
Our audience asks this question in different ways: Is that hammer real? Did they really do/have that? Are you real?
A member of the audience will often ask a question like this to make an opening for a conversation, but your audience has a very good sense of what is real and what is fake. The question referring to the authenticity of actions, persons or objects makes it clear to us how important it is to be very precise in our job depicting the past. I would even take it one step further: it is our responsibility to be as precise as we can, because our audience looks to us as an authority in this field. The authenticity factor is something real and should be imprinted in your mind like an instinct. The authenticity factor may refer to setting, persons, actions and equipment.
Are the props, building or surroundings you are working with or in made of materials common to the time period you are trying to display?
Does the actor fit the character he is playing? A skinny person has to work very hard to be a convincing fighter.
If you are doing a craft, fight or other action, does it look like you can really pull it off? It is really difficult to act as a convincing master carpenter if you can obviously not work with your tools. You will not be taken serious by your audience.
Do the different parts of you costume and attributes match? Is the costume in your size and made of the right materials? Does the character you are depicting match the other players? A very rich person in clogs would be a very odd sight and I advise you to avoid the use of ‘modern’ glasses.
How to make a show: From concept to play
To give you an idea of how a show of your own production can be organised, I will give you a summary of the different steps we normally follow.
Step 1. Defining targets
What is the target group, how long should it take, what subject/time period should it be about? I would like to make a distinction between shows based on three different origins:
- Shows based on original plays, or shows like tournaments, gladiators and theatre;
- Shows that are written on the basis of historical and/or archaeological facts and finds or myths and sagas;
- Moderns plays and shows, like fairy-tales and fantasy shows.
Even if you can almost literally take an original play to make a show, such as with some Roman and Medieval plays, these normally have to be adjusted to a modern audience/target group.
The number of people who really enjoy watching a non-adapted play are scarce. Our ancestors had a different kind of humour and perspective on things than our modern audience; we are more used to more advancing and faster-paced plays. Writing some jokes that apply more to our modern references, such as politics and recent news can work very well. Our ‘modern’ standard on how we look at violence differs a lot from an average Roman, and a joke that was perceived as rather obscene by a medieval citizen might be considered dull be modern audiences.
A lot of plays and shows were intended for an adult audience, whereas we will normally play for children. In Archeon, on request of the audience, one of the gladiators ‘really’ dies. We use a small trick for this that involves film-blood, but after the fight you can find the deceased gladiator outside the arena showing himself to the audience, so as to prevent nightmares.
In Archeon the biggest target group we have is children between eight and thirteen. So as a result of this, the shows are normally made for this target group. However, is easy to change the tone of the show to make it suitable for other target groups, such as very young kids or a group consisting of just adults.
Step 2. Forming the team
Now that the goal is clear, how are we going to cast it? Which of your staff members are suitable, do you need other people? External experts, actors, et cetera.
Step 3. Pre-discussion with team leaders
Step 4. Brainstorm with all possible co-workers (actors, technical staff, musicians, et cetera )
Step 5. Writing—re-writing—discussions—writing
Step 6. Making and gathering costumes, attributes, props and techniques
Step 7. Rehearsal
Step 8. Presenting the play
Step 9. Evaluate
In my opinion, music lifts a show to become a great show. It complements the act and completes the show. I think it is very important that the music is played live. This gives a better reality factor and the live musicians can react quickly so that they can really play to the moment. This is especially important with fight-shows.
The music we use is normally a combination of several rhythm instruments, such as drums, combined with melodic instruments like flutes to give accents to the more quiet parts of the show. Once you have done a show with live music, you will never want to go back to shows without. They will feel empty.
I like to work with a Storyteller/presenter kind of presentation, which you often find in historical plays and shows.
This storyteller can have an external role in the play; he is only telling the story and not really being involved in the play, or he can have a prominent place in the show, like the orator in our gladiator show. By working with a storyteller you can make a story unfold itself slowly, by adding players that act out the narrative. The storyteller makes it possible to give less text to your actors so they can concentrate on their acting. As well as this, a storyteller can give additional information which is hard to do for other players. This kind of show allows you to really take the audience in to the story and let them identify with and feel for the characters.
Actors and/or fighters
No explanation needed here I think.
I have mentioned earlier in this article.
Practical matters of importance
By giving shows you create a situation where a lot of people are in the same place at the same time. The aspect of safety in these kinds of situations is of great importance. The safety of the audience is our responsibility as organisers.
You have to have a good safety plan that includes an evacuation plan; what to do in case of sudden weather changes, accidents with members of the audience or crew and other matters. An experienced team will almost automatically solve these kinds of challenges. The location/event in Archeon for which we made a good plan is the arena with its daily gladiator show. Standard for this show is the presence of an arena manager. This manager has no role in the show; his main job is ensuring the safety of the visitors, guaranteeing a good public flow in and out the arena and acting on unsuspected events. On busy days the arena manager is assisted by several helpers.
In case of an accident with one of the gladiators during their fight, we made three scenarios.
These scenarios will be put in place according to the degree of the incident. I have to say that in the last fourteen years, we have never had an incident in which we had to use scenario two or three.
With all bigger shows it is advisable to have a first-aid person and/or trained member of the staff at hand to assist in case of an incident.
Electrical sound amplification
using a microphone or not? Normally I would advise not to use any modern electrical sound amplification. For the following reasons:
- In the old days there was no such thing as electrical sound amplification. By using it you make a strong conflict with historical experience. It also influences the atmosphere of a show.
- Outdoors the wind has a big influence on the sound. It blows away your voice from the microphone and it blows away and alters the sound from the speakers.
- Speaking through a poor sound system makes a lot of presenters stop acting. Making a presentation is more than just summing up a story.
- A poor sound system gives you nothing, a good system is costly.
- If actors do a lot of action the microphone is likely to be in the way or fall off.
But often you will need to use amplification, for instance if you are playing in a big field, or if you have a storyteller or actors with a weak voice. For permanent shows it is advisable to make a good plan, so you can keep as much of the authentic atmosphere you want to have, whilst being audible for the audience.
Training your staff in the right use of the system will help in making it work.
In the arena at Archeon it is simple, but where do you place your audience during a show on a different location to make sure there are no problems with safety and everyone has a good spot to see and hear the show?
Al lot of actors find it difficult to play with an audience that is all around them, something that happens a lot on outdoor locations. An ideal set-up for a show is where the audience is placed on three sides of a field. The side where there is no audience sitting can be used to place your musicians, bigger props and provides a safety zone for throwing weapons.
What kind of shows do we give in Archeon?
In Archeon we put on different types of shows:
Like the Roman gladiator show we produce, (I will tell you more about this show later on) and the 15th century knights joust, where we use freelance knights together with a park crew.
In addition to these big shows, we have a daily ceremony at the Roman temple of Nehalenia.
Processions by our Medieval friars, Roman mask plays, a Roman tax collector, a Medieval funeral or a marriage, medical acts, a hunter’s ritual at the Mesolithic area or a slave auction.
On busy days we often hire so called single performances acts such as jesters, fools, acrobats, magicians and storytellers.
Even bigger shows with a lot of participants
In Archeon these are mostly part of a weekend with re-enactors; the organisation and main roles lie with our crew.
The gladiator show
Archeon has chosen a show that is loosely based on historical facts, but is mostly written as entertainment, with little pretense to informing the audience about the historical gladiator shows. The show runs daily with an average of ten crew members. To make a show like this work and run, you need a solid team for the main roles. For Archeon these are four to five presenters and six to seven gladiators. Training begins in the pre-season period and continues during the main season. An average gladiator takes about two and a half month to train and only gets good in his second season. This takes quite an investment to insure a safe and good fight/show.
Shows during a re-enactment event
Some of the nicest shows I was allowed to organize are the ones with external re-enactment groups. These fight shows are nice because of the big numbers of actors involved. It is quite impressive to have a lot of people on the field.
If as organizer you place the organization of a show in the hands of (amateur) re-enactors, the outcome can differ quit a lot. To enhance the level of quality, I like to work with a crew of experienced co-workers consisting of a story teller, musicians and a number of experienced fighters/actors.
Our knowledge about how to put on a show and the different suitable locations is, in most cases, greater than the knowledge of visiting groups. This also means that we know which safety and presentation aspects are important. A good relationship with the living history groups is imperative and gives you the opportunity to select key figures for your show from their midst in advance.
As preparation for the show, it is advisable to thoroughly inform your participants about the progress of the show and their role in it. We do this via e-mail, a meeting with all participants on the morning of the event and a meeting just an hour before show time at the location.
With a fight show, such as a show with Vikings, it is a nice idea to let the fighters make their own fight script for the show they are going to deliver. This results in nice, safe and open show fighting, enhances your crew’s level of engagement and results in better performances and a great show. The shows we put on in this manner in the past always resulted in great enjoyment for the participants, audience and organisers alike.
The latest example of working together with re-enactors is the co-operation between Archeon staff and the re-enactors of Legio Secunda Augusta (a group of Roman re-enactors from England). Our combined forces made the epic play, Spartacus, possible. An article from the writer of this play can be found below (“Spartacus from Script to Play”).
When Augusta, in the persons of Erik Collinson and Alisa Vanlint, first came with their idea for Spartacus, they already had a script and many ideas ready. My colleagues at Archeon and I were, as you can imagine, very enthusiastic, but we also had many questions to answer:
- How big was this thing going to be?
- What location should it take place in?
- What to do in case of bad weather?
- How many cast and crew would we need?
- What kind of music would we use?
- As the play would start at sunset and play on into the dark, we had to think about lighting.
- Who would translate and adjust the English script to Dutch and to a Dutch audience?
Because of the size of the arena in Archeon (1000+ seats, 800 m2 floor), we decided it would to be possible to do all the things we wanted it to do.
After some discussion we agreed on making it as Roman as possible. In fact, we had the idea to do it as a re-enactment of a play as second century Romans would have done it. So no re-enactment of the actual story of Spartacus’ rebellion, but a play from the Romans’ contemporary perspective of it. We chose the 2nd century because this is the major time-period both Archeon and Legio Secunda Augusta work in.
We estimated we would need around 90 cast and crew members to make the play work. First, the key roles were selected and cast promptly, the other parts were filled in with whoever wanted to join. Enthusiasm at Archeon was considerable, as no less than 45 Archeon staff members volunteered in Spartacus. The rest of the crew and cast consisted of both English and Dutch Augusta members. It was a real co-production.
To adapt and translate the play, we asked the three narrators to do this together. Later Erik Collinson, the writer, told us with a smile on his face, that no one ever had changed one of his scripts so much as we did. Narrators at Roman plays would often be depicting a god. For our play we decided to go with very recognizable gods: Jupiter, Juno and Mercury. As the arena is a big place, we amplified their voices a bit. For this we used one hidden speaker and stick-on microphones.
For lighting, we decided to look at what kind of naked flames could be used and how many would be needed to light the arena. Since we made the play on no budget and only volunteers, we did not go as far as to make our own torches, but bought modern cloth/wax torches. We used 60 of those as front lights. For the back lights we used two big fire scales, which were lit with wood and candle wax. For safety reasons, and to ensure we would always have enough basic light, we added a single dimmed modern lamp behind the audience.
For music we had four great musicians from Archeon. They played Roman inspired music combined with drumbeats, to compliment the various scenes. One of the girls wrote songs inspired by Roman and Dacian songs, which fit very well with the opening scene and other quieter scenes.
Since the main group of Augusta would only arrive a week before show time, we would only have five evenings to rehearse the one hour play. This would mean we needed a lot of discipline, a tight schedule, and a good director to get all things done. Borius van der Meulen, an Archeon colleague who is also a play director, was asked to direct. In Archeon he works at the Roman village as a soldier. He has directed several plays for Archeon in the past and is also a presenter in the gladiator show. The Augusta-Archeon crew grew in the five days to become a well-oiled efficient machine, practising smaller scenes and massive battles.
In the end the play was an absolute success, with over 600 people in the audience, who gave a standing ovation at the end. In fact, it was so successful that Archeon and Augusta decided do it again the following year! After another great success, plans have been made to do yet another big show next summer. Keep an eye on Archeon’s web-site for more information.
Tips and tricks
Involving the audience
Especially when you are making a show for children, it is nice to write some elements into the show in which you can really involve the audience. Children are the key to their parent’s satisfaction.
You can do this by asking for a volunteer or volunteers from the audience to play a small part in the show. With Viking shows they can, for instance, test the strength of a shield wall.
Another way of involving the audience, is to make them aware of their role in the contribution to the atmosphere during a show. You can do this by training/showing them what to do. At the gladiator show, the audience is trained in when to applaud and when to be silent; that you will find out for yourselves when you see the show.
It can be nice to not just put on a show, but make the show a theme for the entire day. For gladiator shows this can be done through big posters announcing today’s shows and the gladiators who are going to fight that day; (authentic) gossip on the street, asking the audience which gladiator will be their favourite, putting on a gladiator display in the early afternoon as a teaser for the big afternoon show, et cetera, et cetera. This will build the tension up all day to a climax and making the show more alive during the day.
External directors and other trainers/ specialists
I do not presume that everyone in your team has a degree in acting. Most of us are enthusiastic amateurs. To improve your team’s abilities and performances, it is a good idea to invite external specialists. You can think of acting lessons, fight and stunt lessons and voice training. To improve an exciting or new play, it can be nice to ask an experienced director to direct it.
An external director has a different bond with your crew, which makes it possible to work in a constructive manner. This can be difficult if the play is directed by your own staff, because they all know each other and might have fixed positions. Apart from this, training can be very motivating and work inspiring for your team.
How to ensure or improve the quality of long running shows
- Fight choreography: Look at each other’s fights and giving feedback on them. Film fights and watch them with the team. It is advisable to change or alter the choreography after it has run for a certain time.
- Try out new jokes and apply them to the show if they are a success.
- Constantly try to improve the scenario and performance of your crew through feedback.
- Involve new people in your team (fresh blood).
- Practice on a regular basis with the entire team without audience and/or with and without an external director.
Jaap Hogendoorn, owner “Spring Levend Verleden” (Sprightly Past) Historical theatre, demonstrations, workshops and building projects. Theatre maker at Stichting Foeks and former head of historical building reconstructions, art director of historical theatre in Archeon.
Spartacus in Archeon
An Experiment: ‘Living History Through the Medium of Dramatic Presentation’
| Erik Collinson
Given that the 20th anniversary of Archeon was upon us, we decided a ‘gift’ for the park would be the presentation of a play performed in classical Roman style. After all, we have the theatre, the costumes and, most importantly, a bunch of like-minded people who were desperate to do something to make this year special. A play about Spartacus, performed in the Roman style in the arena was unanimously agreed upon. The groups involved were Legio Secunda Augusta UK and NL, and the staff of Archeon.
After a couple of preliminary visits to the park, duties were shared out and the plan was to all meet up the week before the performance and weld the whole thing together. This article concerns the challenges involved in performing a classical play for a modern audience and how they were overcome.
I have always wanted to write a play about antiquity. Having spent many years as an actor and author, I have performed in both Greek and Roman styles as well as Modern theatre but, with one notable (and wonderful) exception, it has always been in a proscenium theatre and therefore a compromise.
My ambition was to perform in a Greek Comedy at the Theatre of Dionysus or Seneca’s Oedipus at Cartagena; because staging the right play in the right setting is, to me, the only way get at the truth of what the writer was trying to say.
In later years I became a member of a Living History group, The Second Augustan Legion and one of the venues we visit is the Archeon Park, just outside of Alphen. If you have never been, I strongly advise a visit. It is an archaeological theme park stretching from 5,000 BC to the middle ages and it contains an entire Roman town and army garrison but, most important to me, is the 900 seat Roman arena with the classic three entrances and tunnel. A perfect venue for a contemporary Roman play. The normal use of this wonderful space is as a gladiatorial arena, where visitors can come and see various exciting (and accurate) ‘duels to the death’ between brave and accomplished gladiators. The fact that such a spectacle gets a full house time after time meant to me that the modern-day public was quite willing to suspend enough disbelief to thoroughly enjoy this exhibition, whilst knowing full well nobody really gets hurt or killed.
If they take pleasure in the thrill of life-and-death action in such a theatrical space as a genuine Roman arena, then would they enjoy a fully-fledged Roman play in the same space? I debated the point with friends over some months and, sadly, the consensus was no.
If we were to form a company to perform, say, Plautus’ The Persianin the exact manner in which we believe it would have been performed, then it is entirely possible that we would alienate a modern audience… why?
In the first place, there is the style in which the play would be performed. Being of Roman origin, there would be no chorus, as in a Greek play, to help the audience with narration or interpretation. In the contemporary Roman style, there would be one or two narrators who would assume the role of a diminished chorus and perform the actors’ voices, whilst the actors themselves would silently mime out the play with movement and expression.
The consensus was that this would be a lot to ask of a modern audience. If the performance were to be more intimate, let us say a private showing for a few informed guests who were familiar with the classics, then it would probably work; but to fill a 900 seat theatre at a popular venue with spectators who don’t really know what to expect, then that may prove a risk. So the next logical step was to modify the play in such a manner as to appear to be faithful to its origins, but actually adapted in a very subtle way to make it entertaining for a modern audience.
As the Romans borrowed drama from the Greeks, they adapted it to suit their own nature, whilst keeping true to the spirit of Greek theatre. So we in turn must adapt our play from the Roman style, but make it accessible to the modern viewer.
Being a Roman theme park, we already had costumes, weapons and the acting space, and with 2013 being the twentieth anniversary of Archeon, we also had a special occasion. Everything was falling into place for something extraordinary to happen…but now we need a subject.
The consensus was again for popularity. Where Amphitryon and Mostelleriamight bring tears of laughter to my eyes, it is unlikely that they would attract audiences from far and wide. After a few false starts we decided upon Spartacus.
Who has not heard of the slave gladiator who challenged the might of Rome! There have been books about him, films and television programmes; both fictional and non-fictional. His story contains ambition, romance, humour and grief. There is opportunity for violence, drama, slapstick and pathos; certainly enough ingredients to keep an audience entertained for an evening.
It is my habit to write as if I were scripting a big budget Hollywood movie; that way all the scope and vision is fulfilled - at least on paper. More importantly, it provides the cast with the challenge of rising to the scene.
If you write, “The entire legion stepped forth as one man and ground their way down the hill like a remorseless killing machine,” as opposed to “The ten soldiers representing the Legions marched across the stage looking aggressive,” there is more of a test for the actors to try to achieve the ‘Hollywood’ description than simply obeying the written instruction. There were many such instances where the script posed a challenge for the cast that was overcome by the most inventive and ingenious ways imaginable.
In the scene where the Sicilian pirates deceived Spartacus’ army, the sea was simply a bolt of blue cloth unrolled and held down on the sand by two actors - a Brechtian device. It was blindingly simple - and completely impassable! This was the way in which the cast elevated the whole play up to a level of range and scale I would never have imagined; they did not let me down once.
The casting itself was pretty easy. We had experienced legionaries and we had experienced gladiators, so the legionaries played the legionaries and the gladiators played the gladiators! Any bits in between were played by whoever was brave enough to volunteer. We ended up with a team of 90, and I do not think anyone sat down from start to finish. The scale of the legions was not difficult to portray but required the actors to scurry around much more than usual. All legionaries look pretty much alike, so when they were killed and dragged off it was about running at top speed to the next entrance and marching on again as another company. I think we were all fitter at the end!
The gladiators, however, were individuals and highly recognizable as such. Their challenge was to represent the thousands of disaffected slaves who had no idea if they and their fugitive families would survive this awful time.
Another example of how the cast elevated the script was the performance of the narrators. In a Roman play cast members do not speak. Their words are spoken by narrators standing at a lectern. The two narrators I had written became three (one female) and transformed themselves into highly recognisable Roman Gods! Instead of my background readers, we had Hermes, Juno and mighty Jupiter himself not only narrating the play but, as Gods, controlling it—as well as joking and bickering amongst themselves—and still remaining faithful to the Roman contemporary style.
How did Spartacus beat the Romans? The whole point of the victories over the Empire was, quite simply, that the Romans were predictable and the gladiators were not. We were unable to use the same tactics as the real Spartacus, but once again, the cast came to my rescue with some ingenious strategies of their own, such as sneaking up behind a testudo and infiltrating the ranks so quickly the Romans had no time to react and were slaughtered from within whilst still in formation. The dramatic effect of this, and the extra inference that it was managed by Gods, rightly earned its own applause.
The performance was to begin at dusk and end in the dark of night; the scene to be lit by naked flame. This was to use the torch-lit murk as an atmospheric backdrop for a story we knew would end badly for the gladiators. (Crassus, the general who finally defeated Spartacus, had nearly 6,000 captives crucified along the Appian Way.)
Of course we couldn’t do that, but what the audience had not realised was that during the final ten minutes of the play, the cast was slowly disappearing from the stage, until only the three divine narrators were left. They came forward to deliver the final speech and lift the mood a little so that the audience would leave the arena in a lighter frame of mind. (Meanwhile everybody spare was quickly erecting two rows of crosses along the road to the Mansio and filling them with blood-soaked, crucified victims lit only with fire-torches.) Not strictly Roman theatre but effective enough to elicit real gasps of horror from an unsuspecting audience (this is what Alfred Hitchcock call a “maguffin”!).
To conclude, (a very Roman tradition!) the entire cast and crew took a few sheets of paper and turned them into something absolutely magical. They created a ‘new’ Roman play performed in such a style that an ancient Roman citizen would instantly recognise it; but also slanted very much for the entertainment of a modern audience.
It was received so favourably that the performance was played to a full house and the Company has been requested to perform the show again during next year’s Roman Festival. The three groups involved; Legio Secunda Augusta U.K., Legio Secunda Augusta N.L. and the employees of Archeon Park, welded together to form a single unit whose enthusiasm and dedication for this project was so great it took my breath away.
We worked in the park all day in costume and in armour, and at the end of the working day there was only a short break before we rehearsed the play, still in costume and armour, until around 10:00pm. But we all absolutely believed it was worth the effort. The people who work at Archeon are wonderful, talented and very special. And on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Archeon, they were able to show what they were really capable of… giving the park the special gift of living, vibrant Roman Theatre.
Erik Collinson - D.D.A. is a graduate of The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now The Scottish Conservatoire, where he studied the history of theatre and dramatic presentation. He writes plays for theatre and radio and his novel, ‘The Bootlace Boys’ was published in 2011. He is currently involved in research into the Great War.
BROADHEAD, H.D. 2009. The Persae of Aeschylus. Cambridge.
BIEBER, M. 1961. History of Greek and Roman Theatre, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
BRECHT, B. 1960. Kleines Organon für das Theater, Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag
EURIPIDES 1997. Euripides: Troades. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press
FAST, H. 1961. Spartacus, Rheda: Bertelsmann Lesering.
PLAUTUS, Melo, W. de, 2011. Plautus: Amphitryon. The Comedy of Asses. The Pot of Gold. The Two Bacchises. The Captives, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press.
PLAUTUS, Melo, W. de, 2011. Plautus: The Merchant. The Braggart Soldier. The Ghost. The Persian, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press.