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Bringing the Past to Life

Follin to hold workshop at
Lanier on character re-enacting

Ohio historian aids educators
by putting a face on history

By Lela Jane Bradshaw
Contributing Writer

(February 2013) – For historical interpreter Mike Follin, history is not a dry list of dates and battles but the laughter and tears stories of everyday people not so different from those of today.

Mike Follin

Follin

In 1976, he was approached to do a series of staged scenarios at Colonial Williamsburg as part of the Bicentennial Celebrations and was struck by the potential those small plays had to connect with visitors to the historic site. After that experience, he went to England to study and was told, “You have to understand Mike, you have a mere 200 years of history, it would fit in a book! For us it is easier to tell it as a story, we tell it from the heart not so much from the head.”
Combining a background in anthropology, communication and theater, Follin began working with the concept of creating first person characters as a way of bringing history to life. Meticulous research, authentic costuming and a flair for improvisation helps him take on a character from the time and place he is seeking to help his audience learn more about.
Follin believes that in the past, educators and historians have not always been successful in bringing to life the human stories that give museum artifacts their true meaning and importance. “For years and years and years what we avoided was the human aspect,” he reflects. “What first person characters allow is a real down to earth common thread.”
Serving as an Artist-in-Resi-dence for Ohio in the fields of Storytelling and Creative Drama, Follin teaches museum guides and workers at historic sites techniques to give their visitors a memorable and educational experience.
On Thursday, March 7, Follin will take part in the Lanier Mansion’s popular series “Mixed-Up Lectures! Exploring the Unrelated.” Performing in character as Sean O’Shaughnessy, Follin will take visitors back to the time of the Irish Potato Famine and the hardships and triumphs of Irish immigrants to the United States during that era with his talk “Saints Preserve Us!”
The Irish in America.” In the evening’s other lecture, Nick Ellis will present “Community Supported Agriculture.” The entry fee is $3 and the lectures will run from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. with time included for audience questions. For those intrigued by his performance, Follin will offer a two-day workshop teaching participants ways of using first person characters as a way to explain history and add extra interest to historical sites and tours. The Friday, March 8, workshop will cover some communication and interpretation basics and discuss ways of developing effective tours and interpretative talks.
The Saturday workshop will include a discussion of how to research and develop a first person character and ways of using props and visual aids effectively. Registration for the two day event is $75, or $50 for one day.
Follin developed the persona of Sean O’Shaughn-essy as a composite character drawn from research using primary sources such as diaries and letters of Irish immigrants who crossed the Atlantic seeking a new life in America. The character is a personal one for Follin as his own family came from Count Roscommon in Ireland. Follin recommends the performance for all history lovers but suggests that it is best for ages 10 and up due to difficult themes.
“This one will take you on a roller coaster of emotion,”says Follin, explaining that the story is one of both sorrow and hope.
Anne Fairchild, Eastern Region Program Manager for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, said she believes that the talk serves as an excellent introduction for workshop attendees. “We are going to use this performance on Thursday night to give an example of what type of character they can develop for themselves.”
The Interpretative Refresher Workshop will offer lessons that many different historical educators can apply to give people a deeper, more personal connection to history.
Fairchild says, “This is a way for both newcomers and longtime professionals to freshen up on their presentation skills for giving tours (we call that interpreting the site) and developing a first person character (as if you are talking to the person from history).”
Fairchild, who attended one of Follin’s conference presentations on interpretation, says that, “As a seasoned interpreter, I found new tips and techniques that will help me in my job. If you are a weekend re-enactor, it will help you prepare a better character. If you want to support our community and give weekend cemetery tours or be a character on the street during summer festivals, this workshop will offer insights and tips.”
Follin estimates that he currently has five or six characters that he performs as including an innkeeper and an old-fashioned medicine showman. Over the course of his performances, Follin has been asked many varied and occasionally shocking questions. But he says that most commonly audience members ask his characters things that one might ask of any person when meeting for the first time with family, home, and politics being common topics of conversation.
“The who objective of the show is to involve the audience in a dialog,” he explains.
Follin speaks movingly of a woman who came up to him after a performance as Sean O’Shaughnessy and said, “‘I want to thank you for telling my great grandmother’s story.” The lady explained that her relative had made the crossing from Ireland and, like O’Shaughnessy’s wife, lost a child during the voyage who was buried at sea.
Follin hopes that people will take away from his work “One, a sense that history is very much rooted in human nature. Very much about the story of survival. Second of all that it gives people a sense of identity. History, community, is like a jigsaw puzzle. Your part fits into the puzzle.”

• For more information or to register for the workshop, contact Anne Fairchild at (812) 273-4531or e-mail: afairchild@indianamuseum.org.

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