Stacy F. Roth

"Past into Present"

"Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation"

First-person interpretation, the portrayal of historical characters through interactive dramatization or roleplaying, is an effective, albeit controversial, method used to bring history to life at museums, historic sites, and other public venues. The essay focuses on first-person interpretation's most challenging form: the unscripted, spontaneous, conversational approach employed in "living history" environments such as Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, Conner Prairie in Indiana, and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Stacy Roth examines the techniques of first-person interpretation to identify those that have been most effective with audiences while allowing interpreters to maintain historical fidelity. While acknowledging that a wide range of methods can touch audiences effectively, Stacy Roth identifies a core set of practices that combine positive communication techniques, classic interpretative philosophy, and time-tested learning theories to promote audience enjoyment, provoke thought and inquiry, convey important messages and themes, and relate to individual visitor interests.

Stacy Roth offers numerous examples of conversation and demonstration strategies, visitor behavior profiles, and suggestions for depicting conflict and controversy, and she provides useful character development guidelines, interpretive training advice, and recommendations for adapting first-person interpretation for diverse audiences.


Book details

Title: "Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation"

Author: Stacey Flora Roth

Language: English

Binding: Paperback

Page Count: 272

Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press

Publication Date: May 1998


Book Reviews


"Identifies a core set of practices that will not only promote audience enjoyment, but provoke thought and convey important messages."

Colonial Chronicle


"Her book is an instant classic in the field and should be a valued source for years to come."

Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums Bulletin


"There's something in Past into Present for all interpreters, docents, and volunteers who strive to bring history to life for our students and visitors."

History News


"This is a very useful book, both for living history practitioners and for the larger audience of readers [interested in history]."

John C. Kemp, Director of Colonial Interpretation, Plimoth Plantation


"Past into Present is both a spirited defense of a controversial interpretive technique and a handbook for its successful use."

John D. Krugler, Marquette University


"Roth is a practitioner of first-person historical interpretation, a "simulation of life in another time for the purpose of research, interpretation, and/or play (9)." She divides her book into four sections. In the first, she gives a good overview of the history and development of first-person interpretation, explaining the goals of the technique and the debates surrounding its use. The second part of the book is devoted to the foundations of historical role playing -- preparation and character development -- and its relationship to theater. In the third section, Roth provides a practical guide to the challenges of first-person interpretation -- how to connect with audiences, the importance of tone and body language, and the art of conversation. The final section offers suggestions for dealing with different types of audiences, such as children, foreigners, and those with special needs.

Roth also discusses how to present controversial material, such as slavery and religious dissent. Two of Roth's appendixes provide practical information -- a list of selected sites that offer first-person interpretation and a topic list for researching historical characters. This book is an outgrowth of Roth's earlier work with staffs at Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, and Mystic Seaport Museum. This time she visited and interviewed staff at Colonial Williamsburg; observed interpreters at Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana, and Freetown Village in Indianapolis, Indiana; and sent questionnaires to interpreters at Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, Ontario, as well as to independent interpreters. She also spoke with interpreters at Fort Snelling, Minnesota; Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, New Jersey; Morristown National Historical Park; and Colonial Connection in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Readers of this book can learn how to become, or train, a first-person historical interpreter. Roth proposes a thorough, five-sphere framework of knowledge -- personal, local, occupational/domestic, stational, and worldly -- for character development. An interpreter must not just recite facts, but actually portray a character performing everyday activities. According to Roth, museums and sites should have a training program for staff interpreters so that they can present interesting and accurate characters and relate well to their public."

Hannah Jopling, City University of New York

From: Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Volume 30, Number 4, Spring 2000 
pp. 641-642

about the Author

Stacy F. Roth is a freelance Living History presenter and author, interpreter, museum educator, historian, and information specialist who has performed and presented for museums, libraries, schools, civic organizations, and festivals throughout the Delaware Valley. She loves to create intimate programs that combine storytelling, music, and period artifacts. Stacy is a popular speaker with the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and holds a BA in History from Kean College of NJ, an MA in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MLS from Rutgers.


Stacy has charmed audiences at hundreds of libraries, historical societies, and women’s clubs with her multi-faceted anecdotal lecture-demonstration “Totally Tea: An 18th Century Tea Experience”. In “Over Here Molly Pitcher: Stories of a Woman of the Army in the American Revolution”, she relates tales of a camp follower on the march, enduring encampments, and in the heat of battle. “The Distaff Muse” blends readings, songs, and anecdotes relating to Colonial women. Ms. Roth’s newest program, “Soldiers Without Guns: Women Defense Workers of WWII,” combines first-person storytelling, homefront objects, and a family story-sharing session with the audience.

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