Isabella Pitcher at Prior Attire wrote an interesting post on her blog recently, entitled 'Are we free? The struggles of a professional interpreter...'. Whilst I often don't entirely agree with her opinions, on this account she has an excellent point. The issue of artists, musicians, writers and craftspeople being chronically undervalued and frequently requested to work for free or (groan) for 'exposure' is well documented. Heck, there are whole twitter feeds dedicated to it, a Huffington Post article about how to avoid doing it and, of course, lots of comics lambasting it.
This isn't even an issue just with 'professional interpreters'. I participate in a re-enactment group that has a high level of authenticity and research. As a group, we charge for the majority of events to hire us. Yep, even though we are hobbyists. Our group still has costs that need to be covered (petrol and insurance, to name but a few!) and we are still, for the most part, highly skilled and knowledgeable individuals with high-quality costumes and equipment, not just Jo(sephine) Bloggs off the street plonked into a synthetic pretty princess gown from Ebay.
That said, one thing I think Isabella has missed in her (quite justified) rant against being asked to work for free is that there are sometimes reasonable reasons why you might choose to do this. (Note: choose. People assuming you will work for free, particularly when emailing you at your business email, are just obnoxious.)
So here, a handy dandy guide to how not to be an arse when attempting to book historical interpreters (professional or otherwise).
If you've managed to contact someone, either via their website/email or by meeting them at an event, feel free to assume that they're getting all the exposure they need. After all, you managed to find them!
2) Be up-front about your budget in your first email or correspondence, particularly if you cannot pay or will only cover expenses.
This way you'll avoid wasting the interpreters' time (if they refuse any price reduction / working for free) and also your own time (avoiding you getting stuck last-minute with the stress of finding alternatives and/or the stress of having to stretch the budget to accommodate paying for interpreters).
3) Recognise that you get what you pay for.
This may seem kind of obvious, but you'd be surprised how often people forget this. With regards to historical interpretation, by paying for interpreters (be they 'professional' or a re-enactment or living history group) you're getting two things:
a) a higher quality product - people who who can talk extensively about their period and/or are skilled craftspeople or fighters and/or who have a higher level of authenticity, AND
b) a guarantee of presence and approximate numbers.
Personally, there are a number of situations where I would be willing to consider turning up as a historical interpreter (or, indeed, do that) for free or for reduced fees ... and some others when I'd be down-right insulted if people expected I'd do it for free.
"You like dressing up! Can you come just for free?"
Why yes, I do like dressing up and sometimes I go about in public dressed up just for fun. Notably, I've attended the annual 'Dress Up Day' at my local national history museum for the past two years just for my own enjoyment. However, there are some important points about my attendance.
- Firstly, I like attending that museum anyway (irrespective of how many times I've been before) - it's a lovely day out that is enjoyable for me. If I don't enjoy being at your venue or it's a hassle to get to or it doesn't accommodate my or my companions' needs (e.g. isn't disabled-access), I won't come - in costume or otherwise.
- Secondly, if it rains or it's overly cold or hot or I feel ill or tired or if I just don't feel like it on the day ... I don't have to turn up. I'm Joe Public who just happens to be in costume. I'm a visitor and my attendance is thus not guaranteed (and nor do I have to tell you if I change my mind about turning up). Likewise, if I get ill, bored, tired, overly hot or overly cold I will go home when I want, be that an hour after opening or at the end of the day. Again, without informing you.
- Thirdly, I'm having a day out, not working. That means I won't do demonstrations, I won't guarantee to bring anything or turn up at a specific time or to a specific place, I won't talk to the public - I pretty much won't do anything except wander round, go where I want when I want and have fun. Yes, you will probably see me drinking from polystyrene cups and eating (inauthentic!) chocolate, lunching in the cafe and generally just doing my own thing. (Personally, I will accept if people politely ask for a photo with me and I won't be an arse if someone politely asks me a question. Others may not. It's totally up to them as they are visitors not hired staff.)
"I was hoping you could volunteer your time. It's such a good cause!"
Ok, so which charities do you donate to? Do you volunteer for a charity? How did you choose them? Or, to be a little more blunt - do you enjoy walking up the high street getting accosted by charity workers with jingling buckets when you're really just trying to get to work on time? Charitable giving is a highly personal thing, both in terms of whether you give, how much, when and to whom. Unless your event or cause is highly aligned with the interpreter you're contacting (e.g. a local history event contacting a local re-enactment group), you're basically being a chugger. And even you know how annoying those are.
"I'm looking for a craftsperson to demonstrate X on the second Saturday of the month between Y and Z."
This is a job request. You want:
- A skilled person (not just Joe Bloggs in a costume, but someone who has spent years to learn their craft).
- A guarantee to turn up on particular days (and presumably within certain times) to a specified location.
- Demonstration to public - this has a number of assumptions associated with it, namely:
- The person is skilled enough to demonstrate, and
- Has the background knowledge to talk comprehensively about their demonstration, and
- Thus has put in the time to research and get this knowledge (since it's not usually something you can get from school or reading one book), and
- Has the people skills/experience to demonstrate well, and
- Is willing to spend their entire day, or specified parts of their day, demonstrating.
In either case, it's important to note that the difference between turning up to your event to demonstrate a craft and staying at home to work on that craft is not at all just the cost of petrol money. Particularly for those who are professional craftspeople, turning up to demonstrate at your event will result in a considerable drop in productivity for that day. It's only right that you pay them for their time as well as their expenses - and not just minimum wage either! Remember, these are skilled craftspeople, irrespective of whether they're 'professionals' or not.
"I'm looking for a re-enactment group to attend my event on X."
Now this one is a little negotiable. Technically, it too is a job request. However, most re-enactment groups are voluntary and many will do at least some shows for free. Others will only or predominantly do paid shows. It basically comes down to the above: you get what you pay for. If you want a guaranteed number of people or tents, specified craftspeople, specified demonstrations or talks ... well, you're probably going to need to pay someone. Unpaid groups (for better or worse) are more likely to treat hires like free ticket into an event rather than something that they are working at. So, you run into all the issues I listed up - no guarantee of attendance, numbers or that they'll stay the whole event; no guarantee of what you'll get (fighters, civilians, craftspeople, etc.); no guarantee that they'll actually interact with the public or have an appropriate level of professionalism; no guarantee that they won't be seen around your event drinking from plastic cups, eating inauthentic food, spending most of the day in the cafe, beer tent or shopping; etc. And, quite frankly, this is perfectly understandable. They're not being paid (either as a group or as an individual) and nor have they decided to charitably volunteer for you. So, why should they focus all their time and effort on ... working?
That all said, re-enactment groups are predominantly hobby groups. Often, they will attend and 'work' at events without monetary pay if they feel that the non-monetary pay is sufficiently high - i.e. if your event is enjoyable enough. Non-monetary things you can do to entice them include:
- Getting all the basics right, first time. That means easy access to drinking water, easy access to (re-enactor only! not public!) well-maintained toilets, not having any inauthentic ('plastic') camping too far from the battlefield and/or living history area, etc. It also means providing information (especially site and arrival information) well in advance and in sufficient detail.
- Getting your opening times right. Most re-enactment groups are hobby groups. That means their members often work 9-5, hop in their car, drive to your event and then set up camp. Make sure you have access in the evening, particularly on the night before the event opens. If you can offer camping for a day or two before and after your event, that'll be even better.
- Offer additional things that appeal to re-enactors to sweeten the deal. Some things that I and my friends consider make an event worth going to include:
- Camping. This is a big one. By having a multi-day event with camping, you allow your event to be a proper 'holiday' in the evenings, making it much more enjoyable to attend. It also makes it much easier for you to ask for an early(ish) start as most people are already on-site.
- A battle. Another big one. Lots of people (excepting myself!) adore re-enactment battles and will travel up to and including internationally at their own expense for a good one. Note, a good one. You need to be up-front about expected numbers (and have these be reasonably high), have good marshals and suitably balanced sides and have good safety that is suitably inforced (including a sensible approach to whether you will run things in the event of adverse weather or ground conditions). Oh, and follow your own authenticity rules. Many groups don't care so much exactly what the rules are but nothing peeves people like being told only 15th C medieval groups are allowed then turning up to find Vikings and Normans on the field...
- A beer tent or similar. For events with multiple groups, this is highly popular and in the daytime can be marketed to your punters. In the evening, it's a valued social aspect to your event that will make people want to attend.
- A nice site. For the most part we're history geeks and we like visiting pretty castles in pretty locations, especially when we get to stay there for a full weekend.
- Free firewood. This seems to be done much less often in the UK than it used to, but is a real boon as it not only cuts down on re-enactment groups' costs, it also cuts down on the amount of things they have to tetris into the boot of what is inevitably an overly small , overly crammed car. Just two things - make sure you have enough and make sure you tell groups well in advance that you are providing it.
- Other evening activities, e.g. an archery competition. Reach out to your re-enactment groups as some may be willing to run these if you organise them, particularly if you provide a small prize for the winner(s). You can then advertise them to the other re-enactment groups in order to entice them to attend.
- Local information. I've never seen this done, but it would be super-cool if an event provided a little leaflet to attendees (either paper or emailed out with site info) with local information. Things like, which are the best takeaways locally and are they open on a Sunday? Where is the nearest supermarket? Etc. Not so important if your groups are local, but if you know you've got some that are travelling a fair distance, this would be great.
Now, I'll admit that much of this may be very UK-centric. However, I think if people followed at least a few of these suggestions, there'd be an awful lot less unhappy re-enactors and unhappy event organisers around.