Creating Non-Boring Historical Performances for Children

"Could You Be a World War II Kid?" (Photo by Annette Laing)

Watching historical dramas can sometimes seem like drudgery. Dr. Annette Laing, a public historian and performer, describes how she combines honesty, accuracy and fun to create “non-boring history for kids.” Along with appearing in my film, “Becoming Colonel Cullmann,” Laing is a published scholar and author of a YA fiction series about time travel. This installment is part two of a series about historical re-enactors. 

"Could You Be a World War II Kid?" (Photo by Annette Laing)
“Could You Be a World War II Kid?” A child poses with Annette Laing with a gas mask from the era. (Photo by Annette Laing)

Public historian, author and performer Dr. Annette Laing was 12 years old when the BBC first broadcast Alex Haley’s “Roots.” It stunned her.

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“It was an absolutely life-defining moment. From that, I went and bought Alex Haley’s book, a work of what he called ‘faction.’ Sort of fiction and sort of not, based on what little he knew.”

Reaching back into the past can change the present. “Now, not everybody who watches a TV show is going to end up as an historian. And thank heaven for that. But that said, people who watch things like Mad Men or Downton Abbey or Roots are never going to be the same again.”

Watching historical dramas and re-enactments can widen and deeper your frame of reference. Every day locations and objects can become more meaningful. It is like learning another language. “It’s that everything around you is less mysterious. You decode it,” she says.

Historian Annette Laing, PhD. performs in front of schoolchildren.
Historian Annette Laing, PhD., performs in front of schoolchildren.

As a writer-actor, British-born Laing brings the Victorian, Colonial and World War II eras to life for American audiences of all ages. In her “Non-Boring History for Kids” programs, she performs songs, dances and improvisations in schools and libraries throughout the southeastern United States.

Bringing history to life was initially a self-indulgent activity, she explains. Laing watched PBS and saw The 1900 House and The 1940s House. She thought it would be fun to do something similar in front of a live audience.

“I started working with kids, not sure I wanted to work with them at all. And then discovering that it was the most important work I’d done as an historian,” she says.

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Using techniques from children’s entertainment, Laing creates interactive performances. In her program, “Could You Be a World War II Kid?” a volunteer from the audience will become an air warden. She dresses the child with authentic equipment from the era, including a lantern and whistle, as well as a wartime helmet that survived the London Blitz.

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“What I’ll do is do some role play with the kid,” Laing explains. “And say, let’s pretend this is a street that has just been bombed. The air raid is over. And I’ll ask the other children now to pretend they are the crackling of flames or the sound of ambulances or the sound of the all-clear siren. Just to give them a little tiny idea of how noisy it would’ve been. And then we sort of talk about what would you do? How would you rescue someone from a building? Are you just going to go in by yourself? Do you need helpers? If so, how do you call your helpers?”

Laing then describes the bombings, evacuation of school children and food rationing. The character she portrays in this program is an exaggerated version of her own personality. “I come dressed as a volunteer from the women’s voluntary service in the Second World War. But that’s the lovely thing about working with children… They totally accept it.”

For another program, “Could You Be a Colonial Kid?” she addresses her audience as if she were a wealthy woman from 1750. She speaks in French, but the children usually don’t understand her. “As the conversation goes on, it gets more and more disastrous. The kids, ultimately…. Just absolutely love this. They think it is hilarious, once they realize what’s happening. That they can’t have a conversation in the 18th century because they’re not from the 18th century.”

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Most of her shows involve improvisations. “Everything I do is extemporaneous because you never know with an interactive performance how the children are going to react…. This is where being an historian is the most important part of what I do… If I decide to talk about something else depending on the children’s interest, if they ask questions, I can answer them,” Laing says.

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Adults also enjoy her performances. “I don’t know if they expect to, because sometimes people walk in not having a clue on who I am or what I do. And they think I’m a children’s entertainer. They get out their iPads and they start playing with them. Which drives me crazy,” she laughs. “But when I get adults involved, and that’s most of the time… They actually learn something too.”

What I’m doing is just trying to get people to think about the past.

The road to mixing history and theater had lots of turns. Laing had visions of becoming a journalist, but became dissatisfied with how history was being taught in schools. So she double majored in history and journalism to serve the public more effectively. After graduating from California State University, she continued her education. In 2005, Laing received a Ph.D. in Early American and British History from the University of California at Riverside.

Then she became frustrated with how historians write and research solely for their own profession. Rather than arguing about obscure facts for a limited audience, Laing wanted to reach the broadest audience possible.

“… It’s very chic among historians to talk about, ‘We’re going to write for the public’ but what they tend to mean… I think they are envisioning somebody highly educated sitting in a study in Massachusetts with a vast library. When I talk about translating to the public, I’m talking about eight-year olds in a Title One school in Georgia. I’m talking about taking this scholarship and making it utterly accessible.”

Along with her performances, Laing has written a series of time traveler books called The Snipesville Chronicles, which combines teen literature, mystery and historical fiction. The historian-performer says writing the series is one of the most rewarding things she has ever done.

The historian-performer attributes the current popularity of historical dramas and re-enactments to fear and alienation. “We live in incredibly strange times… I think people feel disconnected from each other. I think we’re afraid of the future… And there isn’t the optimism that we might’ve seen in the first industrial revolution. Hard as that was, there was optimism. And so the past is a very appealing place to be,” she says.

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Laing also believes the popularity of genealogy is due to the disconnect people feel with their own roots. “We’re infinitely more mobile than we used to be. Very few places live in the places they grew up. And those who do find themselves surrounded by people not from the place. So all of us are trying to find some basis for connecting with each other. And we’re doing that a lot of the time through the past.”

When tackling historical dramas or reenactments, Laing believes performers should place honesty above all else. “And it’s about not putting words in the mouths of people that they would never, ever have said themselves. It’s about not appropriating historical characters to express our own viewpoints about our world today. But inevitably some of that is going to slip in despite anybody’s best efforts because a reenactor character is an amalgam of the historical person, our understanding of the period, and the person doing the portrayal. That’s always going to be about as good as it gets.”

“There is a myth that there is accuracy and inaccuracy; there is fiction and nonfiction in history. And I’m about to blow historians’ cover because the reality is… And we tell people this but they just don’t listen… That we cannot recreate the past. That is absolutely impossible because what we’re trying to do is reconstruct it based on the information we have. And it’s a little bit like when paleontologists recreate a dinosaur from one toenail. Sometimes that’s what we end up doing, is we have these very few documents. We just give it our very best effort.”

She stresses, “We are honest with the documents. We are ruthless in finding all the evidence we can and building context. And that’s what the very best reenactors have to do… They find out as much as they can. But they also acknowledge at some point, we’re making it up. It just comes with the territory.”