“If you have not seen the films ‘His Girl Friday’ or ‘Auntie Mame,’ you need to watch Rosalind Russell because what she said of acting is exactly the same as the work that you need to do as a historical role player,” Richard Pickering, deputy executive director at Plimoth Plantation, told about two dozen would-be Pilgrim interpreters recently. “Rosalind Russell said great acting is standing up naked and turning around real slow. Because you need to utterly reveal yourself to the guests and be unafraid of that vulnerability.”
With that, Pickering urged the room of historians and actors attending a mandatory religion forum in February to shelve their 21st-century beliefs for the sake of the real historical figures they would be portraying this year, even if those beliefs clashed with their own.
The forum was just one of the many training sessions a total of 30 role players must go through before they can bring the year 1627 to life at Plimoth Plantation from March through November.
Role-playing at the museum takes a tremendous amount of historical studying, dialect and Colonial lifestyle training, and a healthy dose of improvisational skill to answer accurately the smorgasbord of questions from thousands of tourists from all over the world. Improvisation is also the backbone of performances at King Richard’s Faire , which depicts a live 16th-century Renaissance village, complete with jousters, wenches, and royalty in Carver, or rather “Carvershire,” from Aug. 30 to Oct. 19.
‘I’ve always been into medieval and Renaissance history and medieval-based fantasy, so it always seemed like the sort of job that I would love.’
As home to both Plimoth Plantation and King Richard’s Faire, just 11 miles from each other, the Plymouth-Carver area serves as a unique epicenter for actors and performers looking to challenge themselves beyond the confines of conventional theatrical work. Performers at both attractions are expected to stay in character all day while interacting with patrons and one another in unscripted scenarios — a daunting task for many actors.
“They’re very important in our region,” said Paula Fisher, director of marketing at Plymouth County Convention and Visitors Bureau . “They’re probably the area’s biggest draw, other than Plymouth Rock.”
Because both attractions take place during the summer season, when many large and medium-sized performing houses in Boston go dark, they draw a variety of performers, from those looking to gain improvisational experience, to those simply looking for a paying gig or academic credit until the next theater season, said Emma Putnam, operations coordinator at StageSource , a Boston nonprofit organization resource for theater artists and theater lovers.
“King Richard’s Faire is very popular; the non-Equity actors with full-time jobs may be able to do shows on the weekends,” Putnam said.
In Plimoth Plantation’s case, openings are hard to come by. This year, only three new interpreters came on board, with the rest returning for another season, said spokeswoman Sarah Macdonald. Many of them are not actors by trade, but historians or museum workers.
Preparations for the performers are exhaustive, from having to memorize large dossiers on the life of the early settlers, to learning how to use 17th-century tools (men) or cooking over an open hearth (women).
But for many history lovers, like Hilary Goodnow of Whitman, now in her second season, being part of a living museum was irresistible. This year she is playing Mary Warren, the 17-year-old daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Warren , a prominent family who owned extensive land in Plymouth.
“The casting came out in the end of January and it’s always fun because the e-mails go out and you see social media start to light up of, ‘Hey, you’re my sister,’ ‘Hey, we’re married!’ . . . and so you see the world of the village start to emerge,” said Goodnow, 26, who also does educational programming for the museum. “So it’s really fun to see those relationships become more nuanced and multilayered as it comes out. . . . Institutionally, I think we’re well respected just because what we have created here is so singular and unique.”
For Erica Morris, 25, of Sandwich, who still has a picture of her 8-year-old self in Pilgrim garb on a school field trip to the plantation, being an interpreter has boosted her growing acting resume. Last year she played Elizabeth Winslow aboard the replica Mayflower II, but this year she is playing Lucretia Brewster, daughter-in-law to Separatist leader William Brewster .
“There are so many people who know of Plimoth Plantation, and I really love when people ask me what do I do for a living,” Morris said. “But at the same time it’s fairly different from acting in that it’s not scripted. . . . We have so many primary sources — books, binders full of training materials — that we read and have to keep in our minds, but it’s not scripted, so there’s not always a set answer to what people are going to ask you. It always keeps you on your toes.”
At King Richard’s Faire, a land of fairies and wizards, more than 200 performers are far from restricted by history when it comes to developing their roles, but they, too, are required never to break character.
The eight-week run on weekends and Monday holidays can be a significant sacrifice for performers, but that didn’t stop Rachel Barnas and several other performers who attended auditions held over two days last month in Boston and Providence.
Barnas, 22, who recently moved to Boston after graduating from Yale, performed a scene from “Much Ado About Nothing,” sang “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” from the movie “Grease,” and managed to impress the panel with her live action role-playing background and her considerable live-acting combat disciplines, including hand-to-hand, daggers, and saber. She was offered an apprentice villager position on the spot.
“I’ve always been into medieval and Renaissance history and medieval-based fantasy, so it always seemed like the sort of job that I would love,” she said.
Also offered an apprenticeship was 27-year-old fire breather Kyle Hamilton of Natick, who performs as “Jerome LeBone.”
Hamilton, who has attended the King Richard’s Faire since he was a boy, majored in theater directing, but decided his calling was unscripted performing. While attending the fair a couple of years ago, he realized he could do what the performers were doing on the outdoor stage.
“The kind of performing I decided I like to do is different from the stage theater, in which I feel so stuffy,” Hamilton said. “I like the appeal of a Renaissance fair. It’s basically kind of like being a nerd carny, and it’s a really nice group, everyone there is so friendly. It’s one of those kinds of situations where everyone is accepting of everybody because everybody is weird. It’s beautiful like that.”
Villager director Adam Morris, who made up a third of the audition panel and who has played Carvershire Mayor Maurice Blanche Rabbett at the fair for the last four years, said both Plimoth Plantation and King Richard’s are great stops for performers who are just starting out, or looking to hone their art.
“It is something that you have to be sure that you (a) have the time to do, and (b) want to do for that amount of time, because there is no calling out, there is no understudies, there is no, ‘Somebody else can do it today.’ There is only us,” said Morris, who has been with the fair for six years.
“I think the [historical] time period attracts [performers] to both places because you are passionate about the time period,” he added. “I’ve loved it since I was a little boy. . . . When you grew up believing in that, believing in knights and the wonderful stories of King Arthur, as you grew up and learn about these things, you go, ‘Wow, that must’ve been such a great time,’ and then you get to be that. That’s what attracts the actor to the work.”