Experiences as a Costumed Interpreter

The past remains significant to the modern world; our collective histories define our social orders, beliefs, ideologies, societal norms, and taboos. In turn, it’s important for individuals to develop an understanding of their societal past  to help them connect to the present, and guide them in defining the future. But drawing these connections with the past is nowhere near effortless. Multitudes of cultures, peoples, and beliefs, are inherent within our societies, which makes the intangible world of the past difficult to navigate while preserving relevancy to our modern lives. This is where costumed interpreters step in.

As a costumed interpreter for Fort Edmonton Park in Alberta, it’s my job to connect generations to Edmonton’s dynamic history through fun, unique, and immersive experiences. In short, I make history come to life in a way which will resonate with people from all walks of life. Whether it’s interpreting the intricacies of post-confederation Canadian immigration policy, or the risqué history of ye olde pornography, I take pride in connecting people to Edmonton’s past.

I’ve had the pleasure of working in two different time periods, the 1920s and 1905. During my stay as a 1920s interpreter, I was positioned in the most entertaining and noisy place, the Johnny J. Jones Midway, a historically accurate amusement park. Here, I played the role of a carnie with dreams of being a successful fashion designer who, ironically, wore belly button high knickers and a hideous argyle sweater. In this role, I dealt mainly with young children who flocked to the different rides and games that our small, but charming, midway had to offer.

The challenge in my job on the Midway was having to explain societal norms and beliefs that appeared in the 1920s in a way that was humorous and engaging, keeping the attention of our young clientele. In turn, a lot of the interpretive activities on the Midway were done in first person interactive performances, which had zany, over the top characters, designed to be both educational and compelling.

My favourite of these programs was the phrenology show, a performance designed to highlight some of the racist and sexist beliefs held at the time. Since this program dealt with heavy subject matter but was still geared towards a young audience, the performance required a certain level of tact in order to appropriately convey its morality. The show had two actors, a Dr. Canard, the mad quack of the Midway, and his loyal, yet slow, assistant Rogi (Igor spelt backwards).

The beginning of the performance had Dr. Canard explaining to the crowd that, by looking at the shape of one’s head, he could predict their personality, future behaviour, skills, and capabilities. Rogi would then call upon participants from the audience, after which Dr. Canard would examine and diagnose them with unrealistic attributes and behaviours. The rest of the show is filled with jokes and slapstick style humour. But at that point, the message is completely obvious to the audience: Both Dr. Canard and his assistant are untrustworthy and inept.

After the show, our two actors would break character and open up a discussion with the audience, explaining simply how phrenology was used to try and justify differences between people, often races. Kids, who had acted as participants were then asked if the personality and attributes assigned to them were accurate representations of themselves, and if it was fair to be labeled in such a way.

By creating an experience that is unique, entertaining, and interactive, the program is incredibly effective at tying the historical attitude of the past to the present in a way which kids are able to understand. I can guarantee that if the contents of this program were taught through a lecture, or a classroom environment, the lesson would have been significantly less memorable. These performance experiences on the Midway focused on the flashier, more dramatic side of being a costumed interpreter. However, after being moved onto 1905 street, I was faced with the challenge of adopting a new interpretation style.

1905 street, the second era that I had the privilege to work in, was a direct contrast to the noisy, energetic atmosphere of the midway. In this era, I took up the character of an impoverished bachelor forced to work in the most socially ostracized place in Edmonton, the Penny Arcade. Within the Penny Arcade, the dramatic performances of the Midway were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the interpretation style here consists of small-scale group conversations. In turn, my historical knowledge of my building, character, and era, was stressed as different visitors came in with a diverse set of expectations and questions. As a result, it was imperative that as an interpreter I drew connections between their interests and the historical relevancy of the Penny Arcade.

Additionally, because of the Penny Arcade’s controversial history in Edmonton, as it was considered by locals to be connected with crime, prostitution, drugs, racism, and poverty, conversations around these various subjects often got highly emotional responses from individuals. For instance, during one such conversation with a family, I ended up opening with a quick comment on the financial situation of the common rabble that came to the Penny Arcade. In this situation, I was in first person and had described my character’s disdain for the poverty-stricken clientele of the Penny Arcade. Awkwardly, the father of the group explained to me that they matched the description of the Penny Arcade patrons, as he had been laid off from work and forced to live off of welfare, resulting in the family losing their home. This remains as one of my biggest embarrassments and failures as an interpreter, as I not only created an extremely uncomfortable situation for all parties, but had also done more to alienate this family from Edmonton’s past rather then connect them to it. Needless to say, I became a lot more careful about my language when talking about these sorts of issues within the Penny Arcade, and tried to create open dialogue with visitors before diving head first into controversial subjects.

One of the most difficult topics to discuss in the Penny Arcade was the treatment of sexuality in the early 1900s, and its connection with prostitution and human trafficking. In facilitating this type of conversation, I needed to be careful that I didn’t create a situation like  my encounter with the aforementioned family, and that I had a way to gauge the response of an individual. To accomplish this, I had two fantastic kinetoscopes, coin operated viewing machines, which had picture collections of semi-nude ladies from the early 1900s. I found that in successfully guiding a conversation onto the topic of sexuality, I needed to coax the visitors to watch a short peep show through one of the kinetoscopes. To do this, I would treat visitors in the Penny Arcade as new clientele, who were obviously there for one thing and one thing only, the kinetoscopes. I made sure in this instance  not to explicitly state that the kinetoscopes contained pictures of semi-nude ladies, and instead played off of the visitor’s curiosity, allowing them to watch the peep show on their own terms.

Since our peep shows focused more on showing off a lady’s ankles or bare shoulders, and not their completely naked bodies, the most common response to be had from visitors was a fit of laughter and bright red cheeks. This provided me with the ice breaker that I needed to begin my conversation on sexuality, as I could start with comments on what the visitors had seen in the peep show and expand to include other more serious topics. For instance, one time after showing an older lady the peep show and talking about some of the general feelings that existed towards sexuality in the early 1900s, she directed our conversation into talking about the history of prostitution, and abortion. Through engaging the visitors first with a visual stimulus, and then giving them a brief explanation of the perspective of sexuality at the time, they became active members in an open discussion in which they were able to give me clues in terms of what they were uncomfortable with and what they were interested in. Through this process, I was successful in being able to link Edmonton’s darker past with social problems that still exist today, such as the treatment of prostitution, through unique experiences, like viewing a peepshow in a kinetoscope.

Working at Fort Edmonton Park has had a profound impact on me, by directly engaging with my local history, I have become an active member of my immediate community and city. It was through my first encounters with the park that I became interested in volunteering for municipal projects and with the cities youth council. This is why I take such great pride and put in large amounts of effort into my work. I fervently believe that through understanding the past, we become connected with the present, and I want our visitors that come to Fort Edmonton Park to leave with a similar experience.

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