During a wartime event at Pickering (UK) in 2002, in the train from Pickering to Goathland, someone asked me where I came from (presuming I wasn’t British because of my accent), I said to him: “I just came from my Commando training at Scotland and I am on my way to my unit to go and fight the Germans”. He looked at me with a puzzled face. “No, is not what I mean, where are you from?”, he than said. Well completely in my role I said to him: “Well to be honest I am from Holland and came trough occupied France and Spain to England. Joined the Princes Irene Brigade and from there on I went to the Commando Training in Scotland. And now I am on my way to my own unit.” He was confused by this answer. Others had to laugh about this. Then I said to him: “Well let me introduce myself. I’m Jaap Beekman, born in In Holland on the 4th of August 1910. I was a printer, making illegal papers for the Dutch resistance. Somehow the Germans find out about it and I got tipped by someone within the resistance that the Gestapo would pay me a visit. So I had to hide or run away and finaly choose to leave the country to join the fighting forces in England. I took some of the fake paperwork I had made, filled them in the same night, packed the stuff I needed for the journey and the next morning, a few hours before the Gestapo came, I rode away on my bicycle towards France. That was 5 months ago. And now I am sitting here with you in this train”. What I was doing is called a first-person impression, sometimes shortened as fipers.
What is a First-Person Impression?
Doing a first-person impression means that you are acting and speaking as if you were a real person living in the same periode you portray. For example, if someone came up to ask about your display and impression, you would answer similar as the example I had given above, instead of saying, “I am protraying so and so, which was…” etc. A first person impression doesn’t just require you to be knowledgeable about your impression, but also about your time period (in terms of cultural references and expressions). You will also need some acting skills to remain “In character” during public hours.
In 2005 I had written a story for the Pickering Wartime weekend, under the name “Unternehmen Seeadler“, about German Spies on the line. In the night before the event two German spies landed at Whitby and had to contact a young family at Goathland. Everybody was in character and was great fun to do. It’s those kinds of scenarios which makes events a lot of fun.
Why do a First Person Impression?
Aside from helping you get a better idea of daily life in the time period you do, a first-person impression can also be an excellent tool to get visitors interested in your display and teaching them about history. Most people could walk into a museum about World War II and see the uniforms and equipment there just as well. Living history gives them a chance to touch, try on, and “try out” history in a way that is more than just looking or just reading. After all, how many museums make it possible for you to interact with the displays!
There are many ways to do living history, and the ability to “stay in persona” has a lot to do with how effective your display will be. Some people like to have a guide who leads people through the camp and explains what the re-enactors are doing, while the rest of them stay in character as if they were in 1943. Personally, I find this to be the most effective way, especially since visitors may not know about first-person and might get pretty confused when you ask them whether they have heard Churchill’s of Goebbels’ speech on the radio that morning. In addition, the other group members could also keep from getting bored sitting around the display by engaging in some historic activities, such as singing, playing games, or cooking an authentic meal over their campfire.
When you do a first-person impression, however, you should be careful of how the public perceives some things that would have been fairly common during the Third Reich – for example, the Hitler salute. Yes, of course people did it – but if you really, truly must do it in a public setting, do it in a way that is tasteful and explain to the publich what it is you are doing and why. I don’t believe we should censor history for the sake of political correctness, but the last thing our hobby needs is more bad press on how we are all closet Neo-Nazis who take every opportunity to parade about with swastika flags.
Putting your impression together
Setting up a first-person impression can be a lot of fun – if you take your time to put together your pieces, and if the rest of your group play along and know you by your persona’s name. After all, what’s the point of going through all the trouble to put your persona together, if nobody calls you by that name or plays along. It would be like playing Brutus on stage, and the other actors are calling you by your real name. “Hey you, Kees?”
The easiest way to set up your persona well is to incorporate as much of your real life persona into it as you can – this also helps you to remember all your details while you are at an event! For example, if you have a sister named Nicole in real life, your persona might have a sister named Nicole as well. That way, you could chat about your sister while you’re in character. The first two things you should jot down, however, are your persona’s name and date of birth.
Picking your Birthday
A new year of birth is the easiest part to chose. You simply decide for which year you would mainly want to set up your impression – for example, mine is set up for 1943 at most events. Then you subtract your actual age from the year and voila, you have your new year of birth. Me, I was born in 1910 – 1943 for the year minus 33 for my age (back in 2002 as the example above, now it would be 1899, as I am 44 now). And if you have spare time on your hands, you might want to see whether your new birthday falls onto a holiday of an important date in history – it could make for a fun (or funny) story to tell around the campfire while you are in character.
Picking a Name
For some picking a name is quite easy, because their names were quite common in the period they portray. But what if it’s not? Well look around the internet and you could find names you could use. For example Dieter Steiner if your impression is German, Claude Vissac if your impression would be French. Or even Karel van der Laar if you portay a Dutch person. I think that a simple name that is easy to remember and easy to pronounce is always a good choice in living history.
Hopefully the first person worksheet is going to help you in putting together a persona. It just covers some of the basics that you should consider and set up. I found it helpful to have a notebook at hand to write down all the information I wanted include for my persona when I did this for my first impression. It also helped me remember a lot of those things!
Of course these are just some ideas to get you started. You can expand this list to include as much information about yourself and your family as you would like. Or you can keep it simple and just do the basics – it all depends on how much you want to put into it and what you want to gain from it.
If you are like me and enjoy doing research, you could try to see whether your “chosen” hometown has a historical society and ask them for a map or some photos of the town as it was in the 1930s to get a good visual image of what it really was like.
Or if you are the crafty type you can make a little photo album with pictures of your relatives (whether they are photos of your real grandparents during the time of period or pictures of “instant relatives” you have found at an antiques shop or the internet) and photos of you in period clothing at events.
Filling in your paperwork
The best advice I can give you when filling out your paperwork is to develop first-person with a timeline for your impression first. Make a “story” you would like to tell and stick to that!. Decide what kind of history you would like your living history “character” to take and develop his/hers life story around that (see above). Date of birth, hometown, when you went on leave, these are all things that help to enrich your impression. Have your paperwork support that story! Have the leave to London or Berlin supported by your paybook or Soldbuch, plus the leave pass you saved! The theater tickets that you and your mate saw while you were there… All help to add depth to your first-person impression. Improvement of your first-person impression should be an on-going process.