The Theatrical Aspects of Re-enacting.

By Mark Tully

The previous editor's swansong cover story proclaimed that "War is Theater" (see November/December 1995 issue). I personally tend to lean towards General Sherman's famous quote that "war is hell", but re-enacting most certainly is theater.

Try this: approach any theater professional and tell them that you want to stage a "battle" using between fifty and two hundred amateur actors. Tell them that these actors will be using real weapons. Tell them that these actors would be responsible for their own training and would be loading their own blank charges. Tell them that there will be artillery involved and at some point the actors would more than likely run across the field with real bayonets fixed. Tell them there would be no script, very little direction, and little or no rehearsal (you might also mention that most of the "actors" would not have any sort of liability insurance).

They will tell you that you are nuts! Yet that is exactly what we do twice a day, about twelve weekends out of every year. What can we do to make our battles scenarios better, safer, more historically accurate, and at the same time entertaining for both the audience and ourselves?

First and foremost, we need to remember that we are playing to the audience. They are the reason we do what we do, and without them we cease to be educators or entertainers and become just another quasi-military organization. As with any theatrical performance, if our audience enjoys the show they go home and tell their friends. Hopefully the friends come out to see us and we start to see larger crowds. Larger crowds make for a happy sponsor, and a happy sponsor means we will be able to continue engaging in our hobby.

Without a doubt the activity that draws the biggest crowd (and therefore has the greatest potential to "wow" our audience) is the battle demonstration. The battle demonstration is largely unscripted, and therefore is a form of improvisational theatre. Live theatre in itself is not terribly tough to pull off, but live IMPROVISATIONAL theatre is very difficult to perform successfully -- especially for amateurs. It requires a great deal of skill, teamwork and communication between the various players.

Here are a few ideas and insights that might help us offer a better performance.

* The field commanders are our directors. They are given charge of the "artistic" content of the battle demonstration, and are ultimately responsible for its success or failure. At the very least, the field commanders should get together and discuss a specific scenario well in advance. At best, they should have hashed out all of the various details with the wing commanders and ncos prior to their units taking the field.

* The commanders should also make themselves familiar with their "stage". Are there natural features that might obscure the action from the audience? Does the field lend itself to the scenario that has been planned? Can the field be used to advantage for hiding "reinforcements" or other things from the audience's view? Simply walking over the field and finding answers to these few questions will add immensely to the staging of a successful battle demonstration.

* If the field commanders are the directors, that makes most of the rest of us the bit-players and extras. As such, when we take to the field, we need to set aside our personal ideas and preferences and concentrate on putting on a good show for our audience. Like it or not, the various field and wing commanders are in charge. We may not always agree with the orders they give us, but our role as soldiers is to do what we're told. Remember -- we're doing it for the audience. While it's important that we have fun too, our primary concern should be to satisfy our audience by putting on a fast-paced, smooth-running and safe show.

* Bear in mind that the NWTA battle demonstrations are NOT really "tactical" exercises. In a true tactical there are no predetermined "winners" and "losers" -- the outcome depends on the strategic skills of the commanding officers and ability of the men under them to follow orders and execute maneuvers. Our battle demonstration is meant to teach the audience about the military tactics of the day. It is a give and take situation, and as such we have to suppress our competitive tendencies and work together to make the scenario believable. Sometimes we have to deliberately put ourselves at a tactical disadvantage to "set-up" the desired outcome of the scenario -- if it contributes to the overall success of the battle demonstration we are ALL winners.

* One particular habit we need to break is that of attempting to "surprise" the enemy. This tactic only causes confusion, disarray, and resentment among the opposing forces. An otherwise good battle scenario has often been ruined by the sudden or unexpected appearance of a "flanking" force that blocks the planned route of retreat, draws off the attention of an essential part of the line, or disrupts the intended scenario in some other way. It's tough enough for a field commander to concentrate on running a safe and effective battle without some renegade unit throwing him a curve. There is definitely a place for this type of flanking maneuver -- as long as it is a planned part of the overall scenario and performed within sight of the audience (remember, if you can't see them they can't see you)!

* Practice, practice, practice. Every unit needs to find some time each event weekend to practice -- even if it's just marching to and from the battle staging area. At the very least we should all know how to deploy from a line to a column and back again. To avoid confusion, unit commanders should know and use the proper commands.

Each one of us has a lot of time and money invested in our hobby and the NWTA puts on a pretty good show. With a little additional care and cooperation on everyone's part, we can make it even better. If we all take a little time to plan, rehearse, and think about what we are doing, we will all become better performers and enjoy the benefits associated with it.