Monday, November 27, 2006

Fade to Black

Today was the last time I will have to get up at 6 in the morning and drive myself the hour and a half out from here in southern Rhode Island to Plymouth, Massachusetts in order to complete an eight hour work day as an employee of Plimoth Plantation.

That is not just a statement--that is a resolution.

The "season" just ended--running from March to the last Sunday after Thanksgiving. This year, there was a lot going on that put the Plantation in the public's eye in ways we hadn't experienced in a long time. Nathaniel Philbric, for better or worse, published his book, Mayflower, to a very willing and enthusiastic audience. Our participation in "Desperate Crossing," using even members of our own staff as characters in the film, ensured that visiting the Plantation was a suitable "follow-up" to seeing the documentary on the History Channel. In short, "recognition," whether the Plantation directly participated in producing it or not, had finally started to filter in the direction of our museum.

However, as much as things may seem to be looking up in this case, so very much remains the same. The "all-hands-end-of-the-year" meeting today informed us of very few specifics when it comes to the Plantation's finances and our part in them. The staff is at an all-time low, featuring as few as 9 or 10 "pilgrims" on the Village site on some days of the week, and at the Mayflower, we are holding at the minimum of 5 staff members on most days. There are people who have not received raises in over five years. In my time alone, the "face" of the interpretive staff has changed from fairly diverse in age and gender to mostly out-of-college kids and retired people, heavy on the female side of the line.

I have been given the "things aren't going to change" lecture several times from longer-term staff there. I am certainly not tossing the dice on arguing that point with anyone. However, regardless what the museum does or whether it has done it for a day or twenty years, it doesn't make the situation right. The upper level management shouldn't be able to say that they "haven't been down in the Village all year." When the budget goes bad, they shouldn't slash three interpretive positions when the sacrifice of but one of the all-too-top-heavy administrative level would more than satisfy the deficit. If larger projects or programs come up, they shouldn't be relegated to the already-too-busy staff to do all the work and only to receive none of the credit. And if someone dedicated does things a little differently for whatever reason, and that difference benefits the organization, that person shouldn't be put in an uncomfortable situation and made to feel like an outsider for "not following the unspoken rules."

My issue, however, is more personal. I am not going to trick myself into thinking that my Plantation-pay, which may not outdo the wages earned by a local gas station attendant, is a liveable income. I am also not going to trick myself into thinking that the job is somehow more than it is. For seven and a half of my eight hours a day, I am answering the same questions over and over again, and trying to be as enthusiastic about those answers the eighth and ninth times as I was on the first. In this kind of position, you live for those moments when a visitor starts to put two and two together and ask you things that are a little more in depth and require some problem solving skill or when a visitor actually, gasp, has some background information to go on. However, you can go days without that materializing, and no matter how much you read or what you have a background in, the visitors' lack of interest puts a damper on your ability to share anything other than the basic facts. That's when you become a recording on continuous playback rather than a living, breathing person "from that time."

So, to Plimoth Plantation, I thank you for being my first "real" job out of college. I thank you for allowing me to return right after I finished my Master's degree so that I would have something to do with my time that included human interaction. I thank you for helping me acquire some real in depth knowledge and interest in this time and place. I thank you for giving me access to some fantastic people, a good number of whom I would like to keep in touch with, and subsequently, some very valuable life experience.

However, it is time for me to go, so I take my leave of you in gratitude for the advantages you have imparted on me in the hopes that perhaps someday, your "things will never change" reputation, at least on the part of your treatment of your dedicated staff, will be proven wrong.

Friday, November 17, 2006

And the winner is...

Congrats, Mr. Anonymous, you win. In this so-well-put 17th century scene of touching love and affection in the midst of hardship, there is a stainless steel gangway in the background extending from the "nonexistent" pier to the half deck.

Thanks to you all for playing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I want someone to tell me what's wrong with this picture:

Desperate Crossing II

You'll win my undying respect.

Visual "Desperation"

Last year, right before I left the Plantation to go to England, acting-mania hit the staff, and hit it hard, with the introduction of the Lone Wolf documentary company into the late-season insanity. In order to "make ends meet" (and certainly not to make some extra money with which to pay the staff something approaching a "living" wage), the Plantation got itself involved in a few "side" projects that would allow us some more extensive exposure as a museum. The first of these projects was Colonial House, a PBS series following in the extremely successful footsteps of Frontier House and 1900 House (English Victorian theme) whereby a group of volunteers are whisked away from modern life and into the "times" and "environments" associated with the show's theme. Colonial House, obviously, had a New England, 17th century colony setting. Our staff built their houses, made and gave them their "props," and supplied them with appropriate food stores. In fact, the spring/summer of 2003 was so wet that our wardrobe department was called upon to throw together appropriate coats for the participants. The show aired to moderate success. Instead of being the bastion of representative history that the previous series had been, it instead acquired the reputation of being "Survivor" in the 17th century given the structured conflicts that emerged between the carefully selected "liberally minded" and "conservatively minded" volunteers. After the show appeared on TV, we hosted a number of functions associated with it, inviting cast members to visit for "meet and greets" with the visitors and devoting an entire exhibit to their show. The result was lukewarm at best, but the staff was less than pleased because it pillaged our resources for the sake of the project. We had half as many objects in the Village with which to work, including tools, and the ones that were returned to us weren't in good condition at best and severely damaged at worst. Our artisans, who should have been actively on site repairing the Village, were all called up regularly to assist Colonial House's colonists instead. In the end, those of us most disadvantaged by the whole project were the last ones to be acknowledged for working through it.

The latest Plantation side project, due to air this Sunday, is the new History Channel Documentary, "Desperate Crossing". It's a combination of drama and historical commentary centered on how the "Pilgrims" went from living in England to living in Holland to travelling to America and stops around the time of the first "Thanksgiving." It is certainly up to History Channel standards, although I'll only question the inclusion of some of the varying "experts" on the panel (it seemed as if some of the professors consulted were simply asked because they taught American history at some point in their lives and not because they are 17th century experts). You'll notice some overacting, certainly, but thankfully that sticks out rather than establishes a rule followed by the sum total of the actors, including the interpreters from our staff who got a chance to participate. Among their number are the characters of Captain Miles Standish, Elizabeth Winslow, Stephen Hopkins, Master Christopher Jones, The Billington Family, Elizabeth Hopkins, William White and his wife, a few of the sailors, and a number of the Native Americans, including "Squanto." They all did very well and seemed to have enjoyed the experience very much. Of course, in some cases, the epidemic we call "starstruck" is still raging, which doesn't come as a surprise. Overall, it is worth a view, although I will warn the masses that it is about three TV hours long and will air in its entirety rather than being broken up into "episodes" to air several days running.

At least this production did not ultimately pillage Plantation resources in the way Colonial House did, and the film makers asked our staff to talk about the history they were intending to present, too.

One and a half weeks left...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Quiet Evening of TV and...

When I went over to England for the first time over a year ago, my parents and I stayed in a Mariott on the opposite side of York from the University. I remember turning on the TV the night after arrival before literally passing out due to the inevitable jet lag resulting from such a long trip. One channel covered the selection of a new leader for the "oppostion" party, the Tories, by vote; the later result being David Cameron. On another, I saw for the first time bits and pieces of a recently completed series, Elizabeth, about the latter stage of the Tudor queen's life starring Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. At first, I compartmentalized it as "wow, these English folks really ARE obsessed with her reign." However, a few months later, I got to see the whole series for the first time from beginning to end when it re-aired. Apart from being well-acted and well-written, and, God forbid, well-researched, at least a portion of the focus struck me.

The first part centers on Elizabeth's relationship with Robert Dudley, and although there isn't much discussion on the matter between characters in such a way as to actively explain it, the acting between Mirren and Irons adds a third dimension that truly allows the viewer a new insight into that relationship in such a way as I have never seen in any other drama. The definition of this partnership ironically is colored by Elizabeth's decision to pursue a marriage with the Duke of Anjou. For perhaps the first time in her reign, she seriously considered the idea of marriage, and therefore, by extension, for the first time, Robert Dudley had to consider the idea of being without her primary affections and attentions. What she could not, because of circumstance, have with Robert Dudley, she realized she could have with the Duke and perhaps it was the first time she actually considered having it rather than continuing on without it entirely, or with it in a different form that wasn't entirely fulfilling for her with Dudley. If the English people had not objected to her marriage to the Duke, I wonder what decision she would have ultimately made for herself.

Gave me some food for thought, although I will leave my personal take on that subject to myself.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Off-Site Interactions, or How NOT to Address a "Pilgrim" Who Is NOT on the Clock

Half of my first day at Plimoth Plantation was spent in the company of the "Billington" family, which was comprised of Goodwife Billington, played by Cindy Brewster, and Goodman Billington, played by Rick Currier. Cindy moved away within months of my arrival, and I only wished I could have gotten to know her better. Rick, on the other hand, left only months before I did. He always had a lot of practical wisdom--I remember his one liners very well about how to cope with the job. For example, New England summers can be awfully hot and humid, and once one finally dons the burlap-lined pilgrim suit, it only then comes to light that those clothes will also be worn when it is ninety degrees out as well as at a comfortable fifty. The first thing he ever said to me was "Don't psyche yourself out," and to this day, whenever I am sitting out in the blazing sun covered in five layers of wool while visitors mill around in bathing suit tops, I can hear that line run through my mind.

He also suggested that "getting dressed twice" in the morning was rather impractical. Most of the interpreters come to work, change into costume and then change again before heading home at the end of the day. I was among them for a long time when I thought about what Rick said and considered the practicality of coming to work already in costume, eliminating the need to show up fifteen minutes early just to put it on, then walk all the way on site. It became even more useful for me to make this choice when I started elongating my drive in the morning. When I was living in downtown Plymouth, literally a walk from work, time wasn't much of a problem. However, since I am driving in from home and competing with who-knows-how-many idiot motorists who think tailgating you will make you drive faster no matter how many cars are lined up in front of you, dressing before work seems to be the best option.

This, of course, leads to other inconveniences. When you walk around in the costume, you end up falling into the same category in the minds of onlookers as homeless or handicapped people. The inevitable "what do you do now?" question runs through their heads as you pass by, and you can almost see the text of the inquiry as it makes its way from one ear to the other.

Some look away and "pretend" there is nothing odd about you.

Some smile, then move on in a quickened pace so not to wreck their moment of politeness for the day.

Then, there are the parents with small children who see you pass by, give that overemphasized "gasp" to get the attention of whatever tot they are leading by the hand, and then, bend down to their level, pointing in my direction with a peer-acted, "fascinated" tone of voice, saying "Look at the pilgrim" the same way they said "Look at Mickey Mouse" the last time they visited Disney World.

Some people stop you to ask you to take a picture with their friend or their kid. This is a very normal occurence while we are on-site, but after work or if we are on break, it just serves as a reminder that to the vacationing public, you are still working no matter what the break schedule is on the wall. My reply has always been to say that the Plantation does not allow us to pose for pictures off-site and when we are not fully in costume (and pieces do come off at break time), which is a complete lie, but in a way, it is more polite than to acquiese to their demands and then stand there, on-edge and obviously annoyed while someone snaps the picture.

Some start up a conversation with you. Now, this is a very nice gesture and it is always great to meet new people, especially those who have done or do similar work. However, when the day is over, most of us just want to get into our cars and leave because all we do is talk all day. Some of the conversation starters know this and talk to us for a few minutes before letting us get on our way and they on theirs. However, others expect a run down of all of the "behind the scenes" footage you can give them once they catch you after five o'clock, especially if you had spoken to them in character at some point at the museum before it closed that day.

Then, there are particularly odd moments. On my way out the other day from work, while walking to the car, I called home to inform everyone that I was going to attend a rehearsal instead of drive back right away. About half way to the car, a vehicle passing on the other side of the road actually came to a dead stop over a crosswalk, the passenger-side window came down, and traffic in downtown Plymouth was momentarily brought to a hault because a woman felt the need to yell "Hey! Pilgrims didn't have cell phones" and then laugh at this soundbite of witty hilarity.

On another occasion, I stopped by a local convenience store to pick up a few things before starting the drive home, and as I was standing in line having my items checked out, I felt someone behind me pressing onto the upper pleats of my petticoat. I turned around hastily to find a woman standing there, actually poking away at my skirt, and given my sudden attention to her, having to say "There is NO WAY those can be your hips." I was rather baffled--costume or no, the action was more than a little rude. I replied "Well, yes, you're right, but normally people don't poke me to find that out." She recoiled back, implying that perhaps I had actually been the rude one there when if I had suddenly thought to do that to her, I probably would have been court martialed for physical harrassment.

The best off-site-yet-costumed interaction I ever had involved a police officer who pulled me over for speeding on Route 6 coming off of Cape Cod. I was late for work on a Sunday with literally no other drivers on the road, and I was certainly pushing the envelope a little bit. Before I could pass Exit 5, I saw a cop sitting over a hill, well positioned enough that by the time I saw him, it was too late for me. He pulled out after I passed, and I stopped in the breakdown lane. He came up behind me, stopped his car, got out, and approached my driver's side window. In the minute or so that passed, I thought about what he might say upon finding a pilgrim in the car that was inevitably going to get fined. When he came to the window, he asked for my lisence, told me how fast I had been driving, processed the information, presented me with the ticket, and then, got right back into his car and moved on. I may have earned myself a three hundred dollar speeding fine, but he didn't say a single word about where I worked or what I was wearing.

If only everyone would treat us just like everyone else...